Name of the Day: Marian

by appellationmountain on February 3, 2009

Sometimes a name manages to be both romantic and strong – but there aren’t many!

Thanks to JNE and Emmy Jo for suggesting a Name of the Day that offers this rare combination: Marian.

Marian can be an adjective, as well as a given name. It describes anything related to the Virgin Mary. Despite this deeply religious use, that’s not the most common association. Marian is frequently preceded by Maid – as in Maid Marian, of Robin Hood fame.

The character has been played by everyone from Olivia de Haviland to Uma Thurman. Rumor has it that Sienna Miller is the next actress to take on the part. We have a very definite idea of her as a well-born woman, but she’s evolved from a rather dainty Victorian miss to a more liberated character. Most of the modern versions are at least strong willed; some have even been part-Artemis, skilled with a bow and arrow.

And while Robin and Marian are linked in the popular imagination, it’s interesting to note that she has her own backstory, well before she met up with the Prince of Thieves.

Back in the 1200s, Marion was the preferred appellation for a shepherdess in popular storytelling. She and Robin weren’t connected at all – he evolved separately. By the 1600s, matchmaking storytellers had put the pair together.

Despite the common use of Marian and Marion in legend, she’s hard to find in medieval records as a given name. The construction is French – a diminutive version of Mary, Marie or Maria. Marie is quite common among French medieval names, so it may simply be that Marion was too informal for baptismal records.

Others have used Marian as a contraction of Mary and Ann. Marian’s popularity in the US peaked in the 1920s, when she reached #64. Marion made it all the way into the 40s; Marianne and Marianna also ranked. And, of course, Mary was #1 for decades.

Both Marian and Marion are sometimes used as masculine monikers, especially in Slavic tongues. (And we all know that John Wayne was born Marion, too!) But a host of famous women with the name have cemented this a feminine choice. Notable bearers include:

  • Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman;
  • Writer Marian Keyes;
  • Singer and civil rights activist Marian Anderson;
  • The actress Marion Ross – who played Marion Cunningham on Happy Days.

Marian is strong, no-nonsense and yet linked to that romantic heroine of Robin Hood fame. And while she feels just as classic as Mary or Marie, she’s presently missing from the US Top 1000. Marian last appeared in 2000; Marion in 1988. This means your pint-sized Marian probably won’t have to share her classic name with a classmate.

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