The baby name Maya is a relative newcomer to the US, but it feels like a classic.
Thanks to September for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
The baby name Maya crosses cultures effortlessly.
In Sanskrit Maya means illusion. Buddhist tradition tells us this is name of the Buddha’s mother, but the name is also associated with goddess Durga.
Brazil’s Tupi people also use Maya to mean mother. (Though that source, too, points to several other meanings and origins.)
The baby name Maya can also come from Greek myth. More often spelled Maia – meaning mother – she’s the eldest of the Pleiades, seven sisters forming a constellation in the night sky. The daughter of Atlas and the mother of Hermes, Maya’s name fits right in with so many mythological borrowings, a little less classic than Diana, but more wearable than Aphrodite.
The Maya civilization comes to mind, too. Not only do the ruins of temples and cities in Mexico and Central America still stand today, but six million Maya peoples still live across the region today. 21 Mayan languages remain in use. It’s worth noting that Maya is a big tent, encompassing many indigenous peoples.
- In Avestan, an ancient language and cousin to Sanskrit, Maya means gracious. Accordingly, the baby name Maya appears on lists of Persian names.
- Mount Maya stands in Kobe, Japan. The mountain is named for Buddha’s mother, and a temple has long been located there.
- In the Philippines, a group of small birds are commonly referred to as maya. It’s not a species; instead, maya is a catch-all term for several similar birds.
Those roots feel deep and consequential, but there’s another reason Maya seems traditional to an American audience. In some Slavic and Scandi languages, Maja is short for Maria. It doesn’t get much more classic than that.
It’s an east-meets-west, classic-meets-contemporary mix.
But how did the baby name Maya come to be used in the US?
We might need to look to France.
Playwright Simon Gentillon wrote Maya in 1924. It was wildly successful and much-translated. It became a French movie starring Viviane Romance. A mega-star of French cinema – word is that she refused offers to come to Hollywood – Romance was at the peak of her career in 1949, when the adaptation was filmed. In the movie, there’s no question about the title’s significance. It was chosen because it means illusion – a character tells us so.
In fact, there’s no Maya in the 1924 play or the 1949 movie. Instead, Viviane Romance plays Bella.
Still – the numbers hint at a connection. The baby name Maya first begins to appear in the French data in 1948; in the US data, in 1949.
Other midcentury Mayas include avant garde filmmaker Maya Deren. Born Eleonora Derenkowska in Kiev, she adopted the name Maya at the suggestion of her then-husband while working on her first film. He, too, referenced the Sanskrit meaning illusion.
Legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya might have been on some parents’ radar, too. Persecuted because of her family’s Jewish heritage, Plisetskaya nonetheless became a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi. Foreign visitors marveled at her craft – until the Soviet Union agreed to let her tour internationally. She appeared in the US for the first time in 1959, and met the Kennedys at the White House in 1962. Her career spanned several decades more, including stints as artistic director for several major European ballet companies.
But there’s one Maya whose presence transformed the name for an American audience.
Born Marguerite Johnson, the future writer adopted her stage name while performing in night clubs in the 1950s. It’s a combination of her married surname and her childhood nickname from older brother Bailey: my-ah sister.
Her groundbreaking 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is considered a literary masterwork. And it’s only the beginning of her long career. Angelou’s works included the 1978 poem “And Still I Rise,” six more autobiographical works, and too many poems to count. She composed music, directed a movie, was nominated for a Pulitzer and a Tony, and won three Grammys. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But that doesn’t begin to describe her legacy.
Angelou worked tirelessly for Civil Rights. She was an in-demand speaker and lecturer, as well as a professor at Wake Forest University. Her story tells of overcoming tragedy and trauma to build a diverse and boundary-challenging career.
BY THE NUMBERS
In 1968, 68 girls were named Maya.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, and 96 girls received the baby name Maya. By 1970, that number was 142 – pushing it to a debut in the US Top 1000.
It speaks to the impact of Angelou’s first memoir.
But it also built on so much accumulated energy. The baby name Maya reflected a changing world – one where parents sought different kinds of names, ones that were more global and meaningful, but also sounded just slightly different than the earlier generation of Linda, Patricia, and Barbara.
LIN, GALLO, and RUDOLPH
It wasn’t just Angelou – not for long.
Born in 1959, the artist Maya Lin was still an undergraduate at Yale when she earned the 1981 commission to the create the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington DC.
In the late 1990s, the sitcom Just Shoot Me introduced us to the staff at Blush, a fictional high-fashion magazine. The team included Laura San Giacomo at Maya Gallo, the hard-working and high-minded daughter of the editor.
In 1997, the baby name Maya entered the US Top 200. Before Just Shoot Me ended its run in 2003, the name already ranked in the Top 100.
The early 2000s also saw the beginning of comedian and actor Maya Rudolph’s career. Joining the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2000, Maya raised the rising name’s profile. But she also took it back to its roots. Born in 1972 to a Jewish father and African-American mother, Maya’s name was immortalized in song. Her mom, Minnie Riperton, sings “Maya, Maya, Maya” at the end of her 1975 hit “Lovin’ You.”
Another factor? The rise of the name Mia, which soared right past the baby name Maya, reaching the US Top Ten. Most years, Mia has been just slightly ahead of Maya, holding open the door for this similar, but slightly different choice.
The baby name Maya isn’t quite like Elizabeth or Jane.
And yet, it does feel classic. Enduring, versatile, well-established, even if not quite traditional in the English-speaking world.
Maya fits in nearly any where on the planet, for a child or an adult, across barriers of race and religion.
It’s a name that transforms from a Russian prima ballerina to an African-American literary force. It’s impossible to pigeon-hole, a name that suits every woman and any woman equally well.
If you’re after a pan-global name for a daughter that can travel the world and still feel perfectly accessible in the US, the baby name Maya might be for you.
What do you think of the baby name Maya?
First published on November 23, 2011, this post was revised substantially and re-published on May 1, 2021.
A pretty, spunky and smart name I would like to see more often.
I would love to meet a Marguerite with Maya as a nickname. Maya makes Marguerite seem more modern. So pretty!
This one may always be one of my favourites!
Charlotte Vera says
Maya is a pretty name with a greater depth of history more universal appeal than a lot of pretty names, but when I hear it I instantly think of the Sanskrit word. I’ve always found the concept of maya to be quite disheartening (and no, not trying to spark a religious debate!). Another issue I have with the name is the lack of an obvious nickname. So in other words, I wouldn’t personally use it, but have no issue with others doing so!
I just wanted to comment on the lack of nickname. That was my one reason for possibly not picking Maia for my daughters name…what would her nickname be? But as I got closer to giving birth I remembered the cartoon/book Maya the Bee. I started calling the baby Bee because I wasn’t ready to reveal her name until after I gave birth. So now Bee has stuck as her nickname even now that she’s here! It’s a stretch but it’s got a fun link to her name.
Charlotte Vera says
Cute! Seemingly random nicknames are the best. It’s easy to forget that a nickname doesn’t need an obvious tie to the given name in question.
Raquel Somatra says
I love Maya Lin and Maya Rudolph, so I have a warm fondness for this name, and I really enjoyed this post!
I named my 6 month old Maia! Visually I loved the “i” spelling over the “y” but I also liked “Maia”‘s connection to mythology and astronomy. Maia felt like a sweet, girly name that was familiar but not too common (I personally have never met a Maia/Maya). And I really loved that it had so much meaning and history hidden in such a short name. I can not think of a better name for my Maia!
R&B singer Mya probably helped when she became famous in the late 90s, the name caught on fire, including all it’s spellings.
Maya is a bit more complicated than just “illusion” in Eastern philosophy. It’s the concept that we are shielded from reality and experience only a projection of it- that the world as we know it is an illusion. It refers to the relationship of consciousness v. reality, the idea that ultimate reality is not what we experience with our senses.
Similarly, Lila (LEE-la) refers to the concept of joyful gods creating the universe through their play, not just “play,” as it is usually translated to in name books.
I like both names and I think the spiritual connections make them even better!
Lady Gwyn says
Maya is pretty, but it isn’t in my personal taste. I prefer my girls names, in general, to be long, frilly, and old fashioned. The lone exception ot this is Claire. I wouldn’t be upset if my brother and his wife named a future child Maya, nor anyone else in my life. I like it, but it isn’t one that I would personally change.
I grew up with two Russian friends – well, actually, being from Brooklyn, I grew up with a lot more than two Russian friends, but I digress – one was Maya, whose family was Russian, but she was born in Israel, and the other was Maia, who was Russian.
10 years ago, I met a girl who had a two year old Maya. Two years later, a friend gave birth to a Maya. Last year, my cousin’s wife had a Maya. My cousin is American, but they live in Germany; maybe it’s less common over there. Finally, a few months ago, I signed my toddler up for a baby class, and we met an 18 month old Maya.
In my life, this has been a very common name! I think I’ve known as many Mayas as I’ve known Heathers or Stephanies or Jessicas or Jennifers.
Oh yeah: my cousin’s Maya was named for Maya Angelou.
I automatically think of the movie Sideways, which featured Virginia Madsen as the luminous Maya. It’s a striking choice.
I wouldn’t use it myself. I know some people don’t like having their name mispronounced or constantly correcting people who misspell or mispronounce it, so I want to give my children names with one clear spelling and pronunciation. Too bad I like the names Philip and Elliot so much. Sigh.
Oddly enough, I have spent my entire life having my name mispronounced and a lot of the time I don’t even notice until someone points it out to me.
A little Maya may be born into our family very soon (if there aren’t any change of plans and my brother doesn’t go for Catherine instead). I personally like the Maia spelling more, because of its links to Roman mythology, but it’s not my decision to make. It’s a name I hear a lot, but somehow I have yet to meet a Maya/Maia.
I think Maya/Maia/Maja is such a sweet name. If I could only pin down a spelling I like best it would totally be usable.
About ten years ago I knew a set of identical twins named Ava and Maya. I felt like those two names sounded great together.
I love Maya – am a huge fan of Maya Lin, and I love the reference to the Pleiades (my favorite star cluster) — and as a bonus there’s the Maya Angelou connection. Maya is also the name of the charming little girl in AS Byatt’s Posession.
Unfortunately the alliteration with my husband’s last name sounds terrible and my first name is April, so it’s right out. 🙁
It’s pronounced MY-ah, not MAY-ah. I don’t think people would see a link between your name and Maya.
Personally, I see her point. Even if it isn’t pronounced the same way as the month, the spelling brings the month to mind: April and Maya. I have the same problem with Caroline. Even though Katherine and Caroline aren’t pronounced similarly at all, I don’t like how similar they look on paper, so we discarded it as a possibility for a girl.
I am always happy to hear this name. If it were up to me, I’d pick May or Mia over Maya, but I still like it. I’m a sucker for a short but sweet girls name and Maya is very lovely. It strikes me as the perfect name for a daughter of university professors or intellectuals.
Sarah A says
That’s funny Colleen, the only Maya I know is the 13 year old daughter of two university professors! One is from Israel and I think they wanted a global name.
Nook of Names says
I consider Maya and Maia both distinct and worthy names in their own right, though there has obviously been much cross-fertilization, and I know a lot of people treat them as interchangeable.