Thanks to Kristin for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
Before we get to the baby name Molly, we have to look at Mary, that long-time staple name for girls.
Mary, of course, starts out as the Hebrew Miryam in the Old Testament. Meanings and origins are much debated, ranging from “sea of bitterness” to “rebellious” to “wished for child.” But it’s likely that the name ultimately came from an Egyptian root meaning “my love.”
The name evolved into Miriam. It became the Greek Mariam and Latin Maria. The New Testament gave the name to the mother of Jesus, and it became Mary in English.
Nicknames for Mary evolved for two reasons.
First, at peak popularity, nicknames helped distinguish your daughter Mary from your sister’s daughter Mary and your aunt Mary.
But it’s also notable that Mary was considered a solemn, deeply religious name – too significant, in fact, to be used as a given name at certain points. Sometimes a Mary nickname was necessary to make such a venerable choice more accessible.
The path zigs and zags, but Mary became Mare and Mal and Malle, which led to Molly – and eventually Polly, too.
Plenty of names dropped an -r sound for an -l – think of Harold’s Hal or Dorothy’s Dolly.
This means, of course, that the popularity of Molly is tough to gauge. Many a Molly was, at least on paper, a Mary.
BY the NUMBERS
The numbers suggest that the baby name Molly must’ve been in steady use.
After all, Mary was the #1 given name for girls in the US from 1880 right though the 1950s. Molly appeared in the rankings, too, hovering around #400 for most of the same time period. Mollie – spelled with an -ie – was far more popular for much of that time, appearing in the Top 100 during the nineteenth century.
But only as Mary started to fade did Molly really begin to rise.
The name entered the US Top 200 in the 1970s, and reached the Top 100 by the end of the 1980s. It spent over twenty years in the Top 100, outpacing Mary.
That makes Molly a quiet favorite, used steadily over many years.
One of the most famous bearers of the name was born Margaret – and known as Maggie in life.
Socialite Margaret Brown boarded the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912, and later organized life boats as the ship sank. Afterwards, she argued that they should turn back and look for survivors. The nickname came courtesy of a semi-biographical 1960 Broadway musical, first performed well after Mrs. Brown’s 1932 death.
The “unsinkable” title lends the name a certain spirit and gumption.
Another heroine to consider: Mrs. Mary Hays, known as Molly Pitcher. During the American Revolution, she served by her husband’s side in several battles. She started out as a nurse and general camp housekeeper, but when her husband was injured, she took his place at the cannon. Pitcher was immortalized on a US postage stamp in 1928.
There’s a second similar story, with a Margaret “Captain Molly” Corbin. Corbin became the first woman in US history to earn a military pension.
That feisty spirit of rebellion follows the name Molly across the years.
During the nineteenth century, a secret society called the Molly Maguires developed in Ireland. It spread to the US, particularly among Irish-American coal miners in Pennsylvania.
Dangerous working conditions, low wages, and unreasonable demands made mining perilous work. Discontent turned to organizing. Unions, as well as a mutual aid society known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, developed. But so did the Mollies, and they preferred direct action – and sometimes violence.
This lingering association might explain why Molly sometimes feels slightly Irish. (Or maybe that’s down to James Joyce.)
Stories about the origin of the name vary. Some suggest that the group first formed to help a widow by the name, whose plight inspired the organizers. In other tellings, she owns the tavern where the group first met.
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom is the wife of main character Leopold Bloom.
Her full name is Marion.
Set in 1904 Dublin, the story is loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey. That makes Molly the Penelope figure – loyal and clever.
It’s a literary classic, published first as a serial between the years 1918 and 1920, and finally as a novel in 1922.
Even if you’ve never read it, you’ve almost certainly heard of James Joyce’s classic.
By later in the twentieth century, the baby name Molly had a different image.
Children’s author Joyce Lankester Brisley penned a series of books about a little girl named Millicent Margaret Amanda – Milly Molly Mandy, for short.
Published between 1928 and 1967, the stories mark Molly’s status as an everygirl kind of name.
It also cements the fact that Molly was used as a Margaret nickname across many decades, too.
RINGWALD & WEASLEY
Plenty of other famous people – real and fictional – with the name come to mind: journalist Mary “Molly” Ivins; William Gibson’s cyborg-assassin Molly Millions in Neuromancer; an American Girl doll from the World War II era, Molly McIntire. Model-actress Molly Sims was a regular on early 2000s series Las Vegas.
Long-running soap opera General Hospital included a Molly; the BBC’s rebooted series Sherlock introduced a morgue assistant named Molly Hooper.
During the 1980s, American actress Molly Ringwald ranked at the top of the teen idol list, starring in classics like John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. Now she’s typically the mom, appearing in television series like The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Riverdale. (Given her famous red hair, no surprise that Ringwald plays Archie’s mom.)
Speaking of famous moms and red-hair, an entire generation knows Molly Weasley, matriarch of the Weasley family and stand-in mother figure for Harry Potter.
While most of the time we see Mrs. Weasley caring for home, hearth, and her seven children, she also picks up her wand and battles Bellatrix LeStrange herself in the Hogwarts Great Hall. Molly vanquished the ferocious Bellatrix.
If this names makes you think “Good Golly,” credit Little Richard. Legend says that he borrowed the phrase from a DJ named Jimmy Pennick. Either way, the 1958 classic remains an iconic rock and roll song all these years later.
Other songs include the name, too, like a 1995 homage to Ms. Ringwald. There’s also Flogging Molly, a Celtic punk band with a dedicated following. The band took their name from a bar, Molly Malone’s, that helped give them their start.
With all of these positives, why is the name slipping?
Maybe that comes down to another slang use of the name. The drug MDMA is sometimes referred to by the name. If you’re high on the drug, you’re rolling on molly.
It’s just enough of a concern to give parents pause.
But here’s the thing about the baby name Molly. It carries so many strong, positive associations that it is – truly – unsinkable.
A mix of sweetness and rebelliousness, innocence and gutsy can-do spirit, informal friendliness and unstoppable energy.
Molly is a mainstream favorite that hits the sweet spot – traditional enough, but with a casual cool that promises Molly will always be an appealing choice for a daughter.
What do you think of the baby name Molly?
Originally published on November 8, 2012, this post was revised and re-posted on January 31, 2018 and again on February 7, 2023.