Mary: Baby Name of the Day

The Virgin in Prayer

The Virgin in Prayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She was the undisputed #1 name for girls for ages, and a name rich with history and meaning.

In honor of the Christmas holiday, our Baby Name of the Day is Mary.

In the Bible, she was Mariam or Miriam or something closer to the Hebrew, but in Greek form.   Miriam was sister to Moses in the Old Testament, and the name was a common one.  Theories about her meaning abound:

  • Bitter
  • Rebellious
  • Wished for child
  • Beloved

The first two are Hebrew, and the last is Egyptian, from the element mr – love.  I can’t pin down the source for “wished for child,” but it is an oft-repeated possibility.

None of it matters much, though, because Miriam became Maria in Latin, and she’s not just a Biblical name – she’s among the most important figures in the New Testament.  Mary, Mother of God.  Ave Maria.  Our Lady of Too Many Things to List.

She’s picked up other associations over the years.  Due her similarity with the Latin mare – the sea – she’s sometimes called Stella Maris, star of the sea.  At various times, Mary might have been considered too holy a name to give to a child.  Or maybe just so ordinary that she was inevitably paired with something else.  Some of those are the Marian names – Pilar, Guadalupe, Asuncíon, Lourdes, Itziar, Soledad – and others are equally common names of European origin – Anne, Elizabeth, Catherine, LouiseJane.

She’s traveled the world, becoming Marijke, Mariska, Manon, Moira, Maja, Molly, Mimi, and Marietta to name just a few.

In some ways, she’s the quintessential good girl name, but there’s also Mary Magdalene, a saint in her own right.  Sometimes characterized as a prostitute, modern scholars take a different view of Jesus’ friend and disciple.  She’s a loyal follower, but she’s complex, too.  Some legends say that she eventually made her way to Provence, living in a cave and converting all of the region.

European royals have embraced the name, including two queens of England.  Add in Marie and Maria, consider queen consorts and princesses, and the ruling houses of Europe have been quite fond of her for centuries.  Anne Boelyn’s sister was Mary.  The current crown princess of Denmark was born a commoner in Australia, but will someday be yet another Queen Mary.

Besides the rulers and the saints, there’s:

  • The quite contrary gardener of nursery rhyme fame
  • The 1942 musical biography of George M. Cohan – Yankee Doodle Dandy – declared that Mary is “a grand old name
  • Screen legend Mary Pickford, born Gladys
  • “Proud Mary” and “Mary, Mary” and plenty of other lyrics
  • Music also gives us R&B’s Mary J. Blige and folk musics’ Mary Travers, a companion for Peter and Paul.
  • Artists Mary Blair and Mary Cassatt
  • Writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
  • Television legend Mary Tyler Moore
  • Cameron Diaz’s engaging character in “There’s Something About Mary”
The list is endless, and I’ve omitted dozens.
Despite her classic status, Mary has fallen from grace in recent years.  She was the #1 choice from 1880 into the 1950s.  Her slide started in the 1960s.  By 2009, she’d left the Top 100.  As of last year, she ranked #112 – her least popular in ages.  Maria and Mariah are more popular.

One possibility for her revival remains: wildly successful British import Downton Abbey features a raft of delicious names.  There’s Cora and Sybil and Ethel, but there’s also Lady Mary Crawley.  Could the show’s popularity be enough to spark a revival?

Probably not, but it might slow her slide.  Because, unbelievable as it is, if you’d like to name your daughter something that will stand out these days, Mary is a good bet.


  1. Julie says

    Since my step-kids went to Catholic grade school, it seems like several of the girls were Mary Samantha or Mary Mckayla… all but one went by their middle name. I was always disappointed to hear one of these girls complaining about their OMG BOORRRING! first name. While my daughter is totally a Maria, I love the uncomplicated Mary.

  2. Christina Fonseca says

    Thank you Abby for another wonderful write-up and for brightening up name nerds’ days everywhere throughout the year. Mary is quite the fitting name this Christmas Day. I believe I only know one young person with this name – I would say she’s about 10 or 12.

  3. Hugz says

    I quite like Mary, in theory. It looks good on paper, it is a solid classic name. However, I hate hate HATE the way it is said here (in Australia) by the majority of Aussies.
    Maaaiiiiirrrrrrrreeeee. ICK!!!

  4. Bella says

    I am a fan of this name. People see it as common, but it’s rarely used anymore so I think it’s due for a comeback. I also wonder if William and Kate have a daughter and name her Mary (possible but not certain), how will that affect the popularity of the name?

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