She’s an affectionate form of the enduring Mary, a spunky nickname form that now stands on her own.
Thanks to Kristin for suggesting Molly as our Baby Name of the Day.
Once upon a time, the pool of possible given names was shallow. Sharing a given name was the norm. To distinguish your daughter Mary from your sister’s daughter Mary and your aunt Mary, a wealth of nickname forms evolved.
Mary gave rise to Mare and then Male and Mal and Mally. Mally became Molly, and eventually Polly, too. Plenty of -r names took -l in affectionate forms: Hal for Harold, Dolly for Dorothy.
All of this makes it tough to know exactly how many women have answered to the name Molly over the years, as they’re likely to be recorded in official records as Mary, from the Middle Ages right into the 20th century. Mary was the #1 name for girls in the US from 1880 through the 1950s.
Molly, meanwhile, ranked #400 in 1880, and hovered around that mark into the 1940s.
But as Mary left the top spot, Molly started to rise. She entered the Top 200 in 1973, and the Top 100 in 1987. Instead of going straight up, she’s balanced there, #74 in 1991, #107 in 2002, #78 in 2011. It’s hard to say where she’s headed, but she’s definitely a quiet favorite. Today, she ranks a few places ahead of Mary.
Alternate spellings are possible, chiefly Mollie, currently at #648. Incidentally, just like Sally, the -ie spelling was once far more common. In fact, back in 1880, Mollie ranked #81.
Famous Mollys abound. There’s:
- Mary “Molly” Brandt was born a Mohawk and became a consort of the British superintendent for Indian Affairs. During the American Revolution, she was an important figure in British Canada.
- Titanic survivor Margaret Brown is better known as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, remembered for helping others into lifeboats during the tragedy. Most accounts indicate that she was known as Maggie during her lifetime. A semi-biographical 1960 Broadway musical gave her the other nickname.
- Marion Bloom, better known as Molly, is the Penelope figure in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
- Outspoken columnist Mary Ivins, better known as Molly.
- 1980s teen queen Molly Ringwald.
- One of the early American Girl characters is World War II era Molly McIntire.
- Molly Weasley is mom-to-many red-haired witches in the Harry Potter series
- On a fierce note, Molly Millions is an assassin, a mercenary cyborg, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer series.
There’s an slight Irish note about her, thanks in part to historical use patterns. There are also the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society big in the Pennsylvania coal mining region in the 1870s. Part-fraternal organization, part-early union, stories about the origin of their name vary. In some, Mollie Maguire was a tavern keeper where early organizers met; in other tellings, she’s a widow evicted from her home whose plight inspires the organizers.
Molly has some unsavory associations, too. A gun moll is slang for a gangster’s girlfriend. Farther back, moll or molly was a term for a prostitute.
The negatives are almost completely forgotten circa 2012, and Molly is just a popular name for a girl. She’s energetic and informal, sweet and gutsy.
It is easy to see why parents have embraced the storied, enduring Molly.