Magdalena Sorbas
Image via Wikipedia

Looking for a given name as storied as Isabella, as elaborate as Samantha, and yet not nearly as common?

Thanks to Lauren for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day: Magdalena.

Magdalena sounds like a foreign variant of Margaret, but it isn’t so.  Instead, Magdalena comes from Mary Magdalene, a reference to Magdala – the village of her birth.  Magdala is derived from a word meaning tower, in both Hebrew and Aramaic.

All of this makes Magdalena a religiously significant choice.  Even if you skipped that day in Sunday School, you probably know that Mary Magdalene kept company around with Jesus.  He saved her, and she was steadfast and loyal through his death, remaining at his tomb to be the first one to witness his resurrection.  She’s a major New Testament figure, and is considered a saint.

She’s also – at least by some – characterized as a prostitute.  The association is a long one, though there’s no historical basis.  Beginning in the eighteenth century, reformers established Magadelene asylums for fallen women.  Depictions in popular culture reinforce the idea.  But if Delilah can overcome her Biblical bad girl baggage, why not Magdalena?  Like Delilah, Magdalena has been re-examined and even re-invented as feminist figure by some.  The Da Vinci Code made her Jesus’ wife.

As it happens, parents are naming their daughters after her in droves.  The saint was wildly popular in Middle Ages, and in England the name Magdalen became Madlin – or Madeline.

But Magdalena has never been common in English, and she’s truly fading in recent decades.  The name ranked #981 in 2009, and left the rankings in 2010.

Still, there are a bunch of intriguing references:

  • German nobles used the name for their daughters in the sixteenth century;
  • Christian missionaries were active in seventeenth century Japan.  The future Saint Magdalene of Nagasaki met her death during a wave of persecutions in 1634.  I’m not certain that was her birth name, but her parents were also observant Christians, so it is possible;
  • Italian soprano Magda Olivero was born Maria Maddalena;
  • Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich was born Mary Magdalena;
  • Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor have a big sister called Magda;
  • In the 1983 James Bond adventure Octopussy, Magda is a henchman of the provocatively named jewel smuggler;
  • Supergroup A Perfect Circle included a song called “Magdalena” on their first album, Mer de Noms in 2000.  “Magdalena” was not released as a single, but the album was a hit, and at least a few parents have referenced the song as a reason for considering the name;
  • From Frank Zappa to Brandon Flowers, plenty of other musicians have recorded songs by the name;
  • Speaking of music, a short-lived musical titled Magdalena: A Musical Adventure debuted on Broadway in 1948, and is occasionally revived.

There are plenty of place names, too, like the Magdalena River in Colombia.  There’s also Magdalene College and Cambridge and Magdalen College at Oxford, both named after the saint.

With a history of use from Eastern Europe to South America, there’s something globe-trotting about Magdalena.  Her nicknames range from the quirky cool Magda to less dramatic options like Maddie, Maggie, and Lena.

If you’re looking for an elaborate name that will fit in with popular choices while standing out, Magdalena is a great option.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I’ve loved Magda since reading Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2000 or so. One of Bridget’s bffs is named Magda. Because that was the first that I’d heard the name (outside of Mary Magdalene) it’s always had a slightly posh, British vibe for me.

  2. I’ve been on an Agatha Christie name citing kick lately. To continue on trend I might as well state that there’s a Magda West in her novel, A Crooked House, now scheduled to appear in theatres in film form in 2013.

  3. The main character in Faulkner’s “Light in August” is named Magdalena, and goes by Lena. I dont quite get that though because to me, Lena has a hard e and Magdalena has a soft e. Also, my cousin’s name is Magdalena and she goes by Nena.

  4. I love Magdalena and It’s been on my list for years. Pronunciation is the only thing holding me back — I prefer it when the 1st syllable is said like mag and it drives me batty when it’s pronounced to rhyme with frog (Mawg).

    1. I think the evolution from Magdalene to Madeline happened that way, more or less – the “Magd” became “Maud” and then “Mad” … still, in contemporary English, I thought the first syllable would also be Mag as in Maggie. Hmmm …