We’ve overlooked the baby name Polly, even as Molly has become a modern staple.
Thanks to Claire for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day, and to Nicky for requesting an update.
Everyone knows a Mary or three.
Long a go-to name for girls, Mary became so popular that nicknames were required. Malle and Molle became short forms in medieval English. Those led to Molly, and Molly? Rhymes with Polly.
Rhyming nicknames might seem like a stretch from a twenty-first century perspective, but Margaret led to Meg and Peg and Peggy. William became Will and Bill.
We don’t do this today – imagine introducing your son Benjamin as Ken, or shortening Lillian to Millie. You could. But it strikes us as odd. But centuries ago? Names worked differently.
This means, of course, that the baby name Polly picks up all of Mary’s possible and debated meanings: beloved, of the sea, bitterness, wished-for child, rebellious.
PARROTS and KETTLES
The baby name Polly feels playful and casual. Maybe that’s because it’s so tied to whimsical uses.
It’s been associated with parrots – and crackers – since at least 1616. And while it’s not a negative association – after all, we’re naming our daughters Birdie and Wren – it’s a widely-known one.
As for the nursery rhyme “Polly Put the Kettle On,” it dates to the late 1700s an published around the turn of the century. Some versions used the name Molly instead.
There’s a folk song called “Polly Wee” which seems to live on as children’s song and another, darker tale of heartbreak and murder called “Pretty Polly.” Both were recorded in early twentieth century America, but are mostly forgotten today.
“Polly Wolly Doodle,” on the other hand, seems to remain familiar. Shirley Temple belted it out on the big screen in 1935, and it’s been sampled and reinvented well into the 2000s.
AUNT and ANNA
Mark Twain gave us Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly. She’s strict, but affectionate.
And then there’s Pollyanna.
In 1913, Eleanor Porter gave the name to main character in her novel. Porter’s orphaned Pollyanna always behaved selflessly and did her best to look on the bright side. Child star Hayley Mills played the role most recently, way back in 1960.
You might hear the term Pollyanna used dismissively. It can suggest misplaced optimism. But the original character used positive thinking to deal with real life difficulties, which was a little different.
CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series includes a character by the name, as does Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers.
All of this cements the baby name Polly as a sweetly innocent name from the past.
In the 1990s, a small English company was taken over by international toy powerhouse Mattel. The English company’s signature toy, Polly Pocket, became a worldwide hit.
Polly Pocket dolls were tiny – less than an inch tall – and all of their accessories and living spaces folded up into various cases and contraptions, like jewelry. Mattel soon made them slightly larger – though still under four inches. An animated web series followed.
While the dolls were discontinued relatively recently, rumors of a re-launch are already circulating.
This means, of course, that many of today’s parents grew up with the baby name Polly firmly associated with a favorite toy.
POLLY WITH AN EDGE
Not every Polly was as sunshiny as the orphan or as sweet as the nursery rhyme.
Real life Pollys include actors Holliday – in the 1970s sitcom Alice, she played sassy waitress Flo; Draper, of thirtysomething fame; and Emmy winner Bergen.
Piper’s best friend, pre-prison, in Orange is the New Black, also answers to the name Polly.
Meg, the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, grows up over several books and has a daughter named Polyhymnia – as in the Greek muse – who prefers Polly as a nickname.
Proof that the name can – and does! – grow up nicely.
But it’s music that lends the baby name Polly an edge.
MUSIC and LYRICS
In 1728, John Gay penned The Beggar’s Opera, a satirical take on the Italian operas popular in London at the time. His Polly is the virtuous daughter of a criminal mastermind. After a whirlwind romance, she plans to marry Mack the Knife – also a crook.
Bertolt Brecht adapted it as The Threepenny Opera in 1928. Threepenny was originally German, but translations quickly followed.
None of this changes the sweet, sepia-toned image of the baby name Polly.
But the name continues to surface in music and lyrics.
It’s the given name of alt rock musician PJ Harvey.
The Kinks also recorded a song by the name.
So did Nirvana. First released on their wildly successful 1991 album Nevermind, it’s based on a real-life tragedy. It’s a mournful song, about as far from a lullaby as you can get. In 1993, not long after the song’s release, the horrific kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas dominated headlines. The song was performed on MTV Unplugged in 1993, and released on the live album version of the show a year later.
The song’s haunting imagery shifted a generation’s perception of the name, just slightly.
BY THE NUMBERS
Even as Molly surged into the US Top 100 during the late 1980s, the baby name Polly faded.
Pop cultures uses haven’t reversed the trend. Jennifer Aniston wore the name in 2004 romcom Along Came Polly. Veteran British actor Helen McCrory played Polly Gray in hit crime drama Peaky Blinders from 2013 until recently.
In fact, the name last appeared in the US Top 1000 way back in 1977. 1980 marked the last year more than 100 girls were given the name. In 2015, we welcomed just 50 newborn Pollys. Polly Cooper is Betty’s troubled big sister on hit teen drama Riverdale.
That’s more than enough to keep the name in the public eye.
And yet, just 54 girls were given the baby name Polly in 2020.
That’s up slightly from just 25 in the year 2000, but still a tiny number. Consider that the name Kadence, the #1000 name in the US for girls born in 2020, was given to 252 girls – five times as many.
And Molly? 1,635 newborn girls were named Molly in 2020 alone.
All of this opens the door to seeing the baby name Polly as a fresh possibility. It could substitute for Top 100 favorites like Ellie and Sadie.
It might even offer a fresh nickname option for popular Penelope or rare Pomeline and Apolline. Honoring a Paul with a Polly seems reasonable, and again, it might be short for Paula or Paulina.
But the baby name Polly could easily stand on its own, a sweetly vintage name with more strength and edge than we might initially guess. Instantly recognizable and surprisingly rare, it offers a combination that many parents seek.
What do you think of the baby name Polly?
This post was originally published on July 1, 2011. It was substantially revised and re-posted on June 30, 2016 and again on July 3, 2021.
My whole life I thought Polly was a nickname for Pauline! I would like to one day honor a Polly with the name Paloma. I think one thing holding Polly back is that it doesn’t go well with every surname.
My name is Polly (not a nickname) and I love it! I’ve only ever met one other Polly who was probably 70 (I’m 20). My middle name is Lenora and I just think my full name is so unique. Both names are from great great grandmas, so they are dated but not common. That’s what makes them so great!
I seriously considered naming my daughter Paloma nn Polly (we went with Margaret nn Maisy).
Polly’s great! I’ve liked this name since I met a young woman called Polly when I was in college. I don’t know if it was her given name or a nickname.
With vintage nickname type names on the rise like Penny, I can definitely see Polly rising in the ranks. I’m surprised by its low usage, and I agree that it’s a great alternative for Molly. I actually prefer Polly as a nickname for Paloma.
I love Polly. Even as a stand-alone. I think it’s very sweet but grows up well.
The Nirvana song IS dark, dark, dark. Some assumed it was about the Polly Klaas tragedy, but apparently it was another sad story of a Polly … so despite her happy, upbeat sound, there is sorrow there, too. Still, I do love Polly, especially as a nickname for Penelope.
I love Polly as a nickname for Pomeline or Penelope. It’s my favorite nickname for either of those, and they’re both high on my list. I definitely think of it as wholesome, but with a lot of sassy spunk! The biggest negative for me is “Polly wanna cracker”, I feel like she would get that all the time and it would get really old. The Nirvana song bothers me, too.
Polly McKenzie says
My name’s Polly and I absolutely love it, I get so many compliments and it suits me I think. It suits me as a teenager, it did as a cute baby and I can see myself as a grandmother Polly. As for “Polly wanna cracker” I think I’ve gotten it twice in my life and it usually result in people giving me free food (offering me a cracker) so I don’t mind! I’m Polly Hannah 🙂
Polly is a recent favorite of mine, so thanks for profiling her, Abby! I prefer her as a standalone name, like Molly. Like some other posters, I always associated her with the perky Pollyanna, but I’ve changed my tune. I’m a writer and the the heroine of my next novel (provided I ever finish my current one) will be called Polly.
I was surprised to hear P.J. Harvey’s real name, because my parent’s almost named me Paulie Jean. 8) Probably because I’m blonde and I’ve imagined Polly/Paulie as my alter ego, I always assume girls with the name as dark, brunettes… so the references to freckles and red hair are intriguing.
It’s not likely that I would use this Polly, mainly because Meg, Margery, Penny, Nellie and Lina are all favorite nicknames that I’d chose first.
Sarah A says
I just can’t get past Pollyanna, which sounds like a blindly optimistic naif to me. I don’t really mind Polly as a nn for longer names like Pomeline, but in which case I prefer Poppy.
I’ve never heard of the name Pomeline. What’s the source of that name? I just checked SSA’s Beyond the Top 1000 names for 2010 and no Pomeline there. Behindthename has two reader submitted listings for the name:
Pronounced: pom-uh-LEEN or POM-uh-leen
Pomeline is of French origin meaning “Apple”.
And …Usage: French
Famous bearer: Charlotte Marie Pomeline Casiraghi, fourth in line to the throne of Monaco
Has anyone ever met a Pomeline???
Answering part of my question, I googled Pomiline and see that Abby profiled the name in October 2008. https://appellationmountain.net/2008/10/03/name-of-the-day-pomeline/ Interesting name, but being so French, I can’t see using it to get to the nn Polly.
Whenever you see a name in bold with a hyperlink, that means that I’ve written about it before – so yup, Pomeline was profiled back in 2008!
C in DC says
Madeleine L’Engle had a great feel for names: Meg, Poly, Charles Wallace, Camilla, Theron. There’s probably a whole post there.
And her middle name was Hannah – very similar to Pollyanna.
When I hear Polly I instantly think of Polly Klaas, that beautiful 12-year-old who was kidnapped – at her own slumber party – and murdered in Petaluma, CA. I was living in the area at the time, and the story was MASSIVE. Although that was many years ago – 1993 – the name still represents a lot of sadness to me, which is a shame since it’s such a happy, sparkly appellation. Polly’s first name was simply Polly – it wasn’t a nickname in her case. Her death is the reason why California has the Three Strikes Law.
I associate Polly with the names of Colonial America. Jefferson had a daughter called Polly, given name Maria, and younger sister to Martha “Patsy”. I love Polly on a little girl, but might want to use a more grown-up sounding given name although I’ve never found a name that would work for me. When we were living in Canada and our oldest daughter was a toddler, I heard the song “Miss Polly had a dolly…” on a children’s TV program. Over the years we’ve sung the Miss Polly song to — and with — all of the little girls in our family, and my husband has turned “Polly” into a generic term for “little girl”, sometimes calling one of our granddaughters “Polly” or “Miss Polly”.
Polly ranks much higher in England/Wales — #311 (147 girls) in 2009 — than it does in the USA, where only 36 baby girls were given that name in 2009 and 35 in 2010. Perhaps Polly’s greater use in England/Wales is a reflection of the popularity there of the similar Poppy, #22 in 2009. Molly placed at #40. Of the three, I far prefer Polly. Recent birth announcements in the UK included two little girls named Polly – Polly Anne and Polly Elizabeth.
Polly was in the SSA Top 1000 from 1880 – 1975, with a brief reappearance in 1977. The name’s highest popularity during that time span was in 1881 when it ranked 225.
Pollyanna is still being used in England/Wales, where 19 girls given the name in 2009, whereas in the US, with a much larger population, less than 5 girls (any?) were named Pollyanna in 2010.
I think just about everyone knows how much I adore Pomeline, nn Polly! Polly isn’t enough for me as a standalone but as a nickname, just adorable! I have a cousin, David, married to a Peggy who goes by Polly far more often. I don’t know know if it’s a favored nn or just something that happened by accident, it just *is* her. She’s a redhead, too!
Polly’s sweet, simple and absolutely darling in both sound & looks, what’s not to love? 😀
Thank you for the Madeleine L’engle shout-out! A Wrinkle in Time is when my love affair with Margaret as a name started 🙂 Not too fond of Polly (or other nick-name names) on its own but as short for something it’d be cute