Mercy: Baby Name of the Day

A fair Puritan

A fair Puritan; image via Wikipedia

Editor’s note: This post originally ran on June 24, 2008.  It was revised and reposted on November 22, 2012.

It’s a name favored by the Puritans in the 16th century, and yet she wears well in the 21st century.

Thanks to Jess for suggesting today’s Baby Name of the Day: Mercy.

Grace and Faith are Top 100 choices for girls, as are more modern meaningfuls, like Serenity, Trinity, and Genesis.  Many popular choices, like Molly and Lucy, have a sweet simplicity.  Mercy picks up on both vibes.

In Late Latin, merces meant reward – specifically, the heavenly reward of those who behaved well in this life. The meaning has evolved slightly since then. In French, we say merci for thank you. But in English, it’s remained closer to the original meaning – compassion.

Unlike Grace, Hope and Faith – and their more obscure cousins Charity, Felicity, Amity, and Verity – Mercy seems heavier.  While we don’t hear Amity in everyday speech, mercy is still with us:

  • There’s Shakespeare – think of Portia’s classic courtroom speech “the quality of mercy is not strain’d …”
  • Colloquialisms like “mercy me!” pick up a certain down-home twang.
  • “Divine mercy” is a Catholic concept, and Divine Mercy Sunday falls one week after Easter.
  • Our Lady of Mercy is another term for Mary, popularized in early Renaissance Italy as Madonna della Misericordia.

We tend to think that Puritans bore wildly devout appellations like Flee-Fornication and Piety, but they were always in the minority. Most women were still Elizabeth, Joan, Jane, Margaret, Anne, Alice, Mary and Katherine. Probably less than 20% of girls answered to virtue names.  Nonetheless, we think of Mercy as a Puritan-era appellation.

Some of that can be chalked up to Mercy Lewis.  She’s a historical figure from the Salem Witch Trials, an orphan who became a servant in a Salem household and eventually a key witness in the trials.  She’s also a character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Perhaps we think of Mercy as more common than she ever was because of the Salem Witch Trials and Arthur Murray’s The Crucible, where the servant Mercy Lewis served as a key witness in trials.  The trials were in 1692, but the play debuted in 1953.

Mercy appeared in the US Top 1000 a few times in the nineteenth century, but she’s been gone since 1889.  A few more recent uses include:

  • She’s an ally of Lex Luthor in theSupermancomics.
  • Mercy Thompson is a shapeshifter in a series of supernatural novels written by Patricia Briggs, though her given name is Mercedes.
  • Duffy scored a smash hit in 2008 with “Mercy.”

Comedian Andy Richter gave the name to his daughter in 2005.  When asked about Mercy, he quipped: “Just in case Puritanism comes back, we’ll be ready with a real Pilgrim name.”  It is also the name of Madonna’s adopted daughter from Malawi.

Overall, she’s a simple, easily spelled and pronounced name that is seldom heard but instantly familiar.  While some might find the meaning a bit burdensome, it’s really no more weighty than Faith, Hope or Nevaeh.

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  1. K says

    Mercy is my daughter’s name. It was the only name we agreed on. My other ideas were Eden or Zoe. If she had been a boy, she would have been Micah. Our inspiration for both Mercy & Micah was the verse Micah 6:8.

  2. Panya says

    My seventh great-grandmother was named Mercy and was born in 1763 in Salem. 😀

    When I mentioned the name to my husband he thought I meant for a boy — he prefers Amity, Verity & Constance for boys too. I personally think most virtue names are unisex, & should be used more for boys [that is to say, I’d like to hear more boys with such names], but I don’t know if I could use Mercy on a boy knowing about my female ancestor.

  3. liz says

    I like Honor as well as Mercy, although like Scarlett and Jezebel but for other reasons 😉 they seem too constricting. Clementine might be just right.

  4. Cecily says

    First time I heard Mercy it was on 7th Heaven, the baby daughter of a woman whose name I can no longer remember, but was played by Chyler Leigh (who’s now Lexie on Grey’s Anatomy). I remember thinking how weird it was that she used this word as a name, because it was a word! The days of youth… I would never use it in a million years, but it’s definitely grown on me since then. Now, word names are gaining such popularity that I no longer blanch at Lyric/Destiny/Miracle/Trinity, and find virtue names like Verity and Felicity simply adorable.

  5. appellationmountain says

    I love Clementine, too, Katharine! I’ve considered using it for my daughter’s middle name, but it doesn’t really fit.

  6. Katharine says

    I beg your pardon then as I had no idea that Clementine was in any way linked to a virtue (being the name of a fruit seems reference enough for any name!) I’m currently going through a bit of a Clementine phase – such a distinctive, yet classy name…

  7. appellationmountain says

    Since you brought it up … Prudence will be NotD on July 16!

    And Clementine was NotD back in May:

    Turns out it’s the feminine form of Clement, which is Latin for merciful; gentle. So if you really had to choose matchy-match name for your twin girls, you could do worse than Clementine and Mercy.

    DH, I agree – it’s not my top choice for a daughter, but I’d love to meet one. And a sibset called Mercy & Lettice? Perfection!

  8. Katharine says

    It’s funny that you say that Dirty Hippy because I vaguely know a couple who have two daughters somewhat refreshingly named Lettice and Mercy! (Lettice was mentioned in the ‘Romilly’ post)…

    On the subject of Mercy though, I have to say that for someone who is a fan of virtue names (Grace, despite her overwhelming popularity remains my joint favourite name for a girl, while Felicity has long been a contender) I find Mercy to be a cumbersome, burdensome, heavy handed moniker. I do have a suggestion for name of the day along these virtue lines though: Prudence! I adore Prudence and the nickname Prue – gorgeous!

  9. !!!DirtyHippy!!! says

    I really like Mercy too but I think I prefer it as a nickname for Mercedes. Mercedes nn Mercy seems a bit more modern and cross-cultural than the Puritanical just plain Mercy which seems a bit harsher and outdated. Either way, though, it’s about a zillion times more refreshing than Grace.

    I’m really being picky here. If I met a little Mercy in real life, regardless of whether or not it was a nickname, I would about pass out with happiness.

  10. Lola says

    Mercy’s a pretty little virtue, isn’t it? I’m not much of a fan of virtue names, generally. I know a few various ones and it seems that a grl witha virtue names sports the opposite attitude. (A clumsy Grace or a hmm ? not chaste Chastity is what I’ve seen firsthand) and that makes me wary.. will a little Mercy be the merciless kid on the block? I worry about odd things like that.

    I do like Mercy (Clementine, Verity & Amity top my own list of virtues) and think it’s a virtue somewhat lacking these days. And in some cases can be hard to live up to. But Mercy seems ewasy to live with. Sweet, simple, easy to be Mercy. I wouldn’t mind hearing this more often at all!


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