She was a sometimes-heard name from the 1930s into the early 1990s, but today she seems headed for obscurity.
Thanks to Sarah for suggesting Marla as our Baby Name of the Day.
Most baby name guides list a meaning for nearly every name, but Marla is a good example of how very slippery that process can be.
Marla is a shortened form of Marlene. Marlene reached the Top 100 in the 1930s and 40s. The reason for that is no surprise – Marlene Dietrich, the Hollywood legend who made a splash in the 1930s. Marlene remains ranked at #883 in 2011. The German form of the name is pronounced more like Marlena, a spelling that has occasionally appeared in the Top 1000, too.
But Marlene was already a short form, a smoosh of two given names: Maria and Magdalene. Marlene Dietrich’s birth name was Maria Magdalene, but she was known as Marlene years before she started her acting career. Maria is, of course, one of the most evergreen girls’ names of all time. Magdalene refers to Magdala, and the whole name refers to Mary Magdalene, from the New Testament.
From Maria Magdelene to Marlene to Marla, the name has been reduced and simplified over the generations until it is hard to hear Marla and guess at her origins.
In fairness, if Marla hadn’t existed, she might have been invented. Martha, Norma, Wanda, Thelma, and Wilma were all popular in the same era. Marlene kept company with Darlene and Arlene. Carla had been on the rise for a few years, too.
You can probably think of a notable Marla or two:
- Former Mrs. Donald Trump, Marla Maples.
- Actress Marla Gibbs made her mark as Florence on sitcom staple The Jeffersons.
- The novel and movie Fight Club featured a character called Marla, played by the talented Helena Bonham Carter.
- There’s also soap opera alum Marla Adams.
- Marla Sokoloff, who graduated from Full House to The Practice, may be the best known Marla of the moment – she welcomed daughter Elliotte Anne – nearly a year ago.
Marla exists in a sort of limbo. She’s not quite vintage. Names like Ruth, Alice, Frances, Josephine or Ruby were quite popular in their day, while Marla was never a hit. This doesn’t mean she can’t make a comeback, but it does mean she’s lurking on fewer family trees and less used in novels and movies. Since the 1930s and 40s were her best era, the hundred-year rule has yet to kick in. Norma doesn’t feel fresh again, and nor do any of the other traditional names with noticeable consonant clusters.
And yet Marla’s relative obscurity could be a bonus for parents considering her today. Marlo, Marlow, and Marlowe are all attracting attention for girls, thanks to a string of high profile birth announcements. Marla splits the difference between Ella and Marlowe. In that light, Marla is the perfect name for a daughter – it’s a little bit different, but easy to say and spell. That’s a great combination many parents seek.