Mercy: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on November 22, 2012

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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