Thanks to Tim for suggesting a name from his family tree as our Baby Name of the Day.
MALAH AND MAHALATH
The Old Testament gives us Mahlah and Mahalath. Close, but not quite the same thing. They’re fairly minor characters, and not necessarily all female.
Mahlah is listed as a daughter of Zelophehad. Her name means forgiven.
Mahalath – or Machalat – means lyre. In the Old Testament, she’s daughter to Ishmael and wife to Esau. A second Mahalath is mentioned, too; the wife of King Rehoboam of Israel.
I’m guessing parents dropped the ‘th’ from the name to arrive at Mahala.
NINETEENTH CENTURY RARITY
Like many a Biblical rarity, the Protestants embraced it during the Reformation era. Plenty of those names remained in use, and many made their way to Colonial America.
By the nineteenth century, a steady stream of women answered to the name, real and fictional. A handful of girls have received the name every year since the US Social Security Administration starting reporting such information.
In fact, Mahala ranked in the US Top 1000 from 1880 into the early twentieth century, appearing as late as 1907.
You might have stumbled across the name in lots of places:
- Anthony Trollope used it a for character in an 1864 short story, Malachi’s Cove. A movie adaptation followed years later, in 1973 – but the movie used her nickname only, Mally.
- New England born Mahala Fisk married Minnesota native John S. Pillsbury, and later served as First Lady of her adopted state following her husband’s election as Governor.
- Mahala Douglas survived the sinking of the Titanic. She and her husband, a wealthy businessman from Minneapolis, sailed in first class. He refused to board a life boat until all the women and children were accounted for, and perished on the ship.
Maybe the one that fascinates me most comes from Tennessee. Mahala Mullins became famous as a bootlegger, producing moonshine on the state border with Virginia. Her family called her Aunt Haley. Contemporary news reports gave her name as Mary and Mehala, and even sometimes Betsy – but that was her sister.
Ready for a twist? Some sites list Mahala as Native American. It seems plausible – after all, Tallulah likely has Creek or Choctaw roots.
But it appears to have evolved in California, as a generic name for any woman of Native American descent. It’s suggested that it started with a mispronunciation of mujer – the Spanish word for woman. It could have been used as a form of Mary among Native peoples. (Remember, Kateri evolved from Catherine.)
Still, there are around 175 indigenous languages spoken in the US today, a sharp decrease since European settlement began. So it’s possible that another language offers an origin that I’ve missed.
But then there’s the great Mahalia Jackson, born Mahala, in New Orleans in 1911. She added the ‘i’ early in her professional career, elaborating her name. Like many others, she answered to the nickname Halie. Maybe that’s because she shared her name with her aunt, who raised her after her mother died young.
Wildly successful, despite discrimination, her gospel recordings became best-sellers. She toured Europe and performed at Carnegie Hall. Jackson sang for John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961.
The Queen of Gospel went on to become a leader in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. She contributed financially, performed at benefits, and often sang at rallies – including 1963’s March on Washington, right before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
That’s a powerful legacy.
If you guessed Mahala had roots beyond the continental US, that’s understandable.
In Hawaiian, mahalo means thank you. And mahal means beloved or dear in Tagalog, widely spoken in the Philippines.
And then there’s the Taj Mahal, final resting place of Mumtaz Mahal, Empress Consort of the Mughal Empire from 1628 to 1631. It’s not her name, but a title bestowed upon her by her husband. It means “exalted one of the palace.”
But none of these are given names. So while the meanings might appeal, they’re not the reason Mahala originally came into general use.
BY THE NUMBERS
In 2018, just 26 girls were given the name, plus another 46 called Mahalia.
Most seem to pronounce it with a long A sound – ma hay lah. That makes it a substitute for fading favorites like Michaela/Makayla/McKayla and, of course, all of the Haileys.
But so far, it remains rare – a name seldom heard, and even less frequently discussed. If you’re after a name that spans history and cultures, a distinctive choice with a story to tell, then Mahala might belong on your list.
Do you prefer Mahala or Mahalia? Would you say it with a long A or more like hall?