The baby name Molly counts as cousin to enduring classic Mary, but with a little more spark.
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.
I like Molly. I can’t decide if Molly-Maguire, nn Maggie is problematic or strong.
I like Molly. It feels gentle and friendly to me, much like Emily and Anna. Speaking of Anna, can she please be name of the day soon? 🙂
The Mrs. says
I feel like the drug reference is only becoming more popular (probably because the generation who first were affected by it are now parents).
It would be the equivalent of naming a daughter Mary Jane (whose lovely name now adorns pot stores in all the states that have legalized marijuana).
Too bad the name Roxy is getting this fate, too.
Speaking as a Molly, I’d just like to say: it’s cute and spunky, yes. However, I’ve always hated it. I don’t WANT a cute name; I want a beautiful, dignified name with some gravitas. something that’s not childish.
We named our newly-adopted molly cat Mallaidh, a Gaelic spelling of Molly. 😉 She was born at the shelter and they named her Merry. My sister-in-law’s late cat was named Mary Jane and I didn’t want to hurt or confuse my young niece and nephews by calling our girl something so similar, but I didn’t want to change it too much either so we went from Merry to Mary to Molly to Mallaidh. I didn’t find out about the molly/tom cat thing until afterward, so the name seemed even more perfect. She’s a sweet girl and Mallaidh just suits her so well.
A girl I went to school with named her oldest Molly — her baby sister is Add!son — I *think* those names were chosen because she’s a fan of the Chicago Cubs and the band Flogging Molly.
I think of “Sweet Molly Malone” – and of my formidable geography teacher, a Mary Margaret who went by Molly. (Incidentally, I know a Margaret Mary who goes by Mimi – cute!).
Another in the genre is Lolly for Laura – but that one seems to have died out!
Charlotte Vera says
Growing up (admittedly in India) I didn’t realise that Molly was still a name in use. Imagine my surprise when I encountered an adult Molly at age eighteen when traveling in Australia (the girl in question was American). Then I discovered that it’s actually a fairly popular name in some places. I know this sounds silly, but for me it was like suddenly realising that unicorns are exist.
I like the name, but it still has a sort of fairytale essence for me — like I couldn’t use it without feeling slightly foolish.
Virginia Sue is great!!!
Ah, I love Molly. Sweet and a little bit saucy. I’m actually reminded of Molly from the movie Uptown Girl.
I love Molly. The husband and I had somewhat of an epiphany where baby girl names are concerned a couple weeks back, and we finally have a top name and backup that we both love. Virginia Sue is tops, while Molly Ramona is the backup. Both middles are after my grandmother, Ramona Sue, who lost her battle with lung cancer last January. Her daddy liked to call her Sue. Virginia won out for honoring my great-great Aunt Virgie who will be celebrating her 102nd birthday on New Year’s Day, but also because it has more options than Molly. That is Molly’s downfall to me. It’s spunky and sweet, but has no wiggle room.
Now we just need an actual baby to name. 🙂
Molly has been growing on me a lot lately. My grandmother is Mary but has always gone by her middle name Nell. Another Mary associated with my family makes the name too unusable to me, but Molly is a sweet and just uncommon enough alternative. 🙂 It also fits with a lot of the other nickname-y names on my list: Edie, Rand, Wiley & Molly.
I used Molly for my Boxer, and it fit her well. She was so playful and vivacious. I love the name, and any time I hear it now, it reminds of my sweet girl.
“Molly Weasley is mom-to-many red-haired witches in the Harry Potter series”
This is a super picky detail, but the Potter nerd in me can’t resist. Molly Weasley is a mom to many red-haired WIZARDS. Arthur and Molly Weasley have six sons and a daughter. They only have one red-haired witch. 🙂
I adore Molly and used it for one of my characters. I’ve always imagined a Molly as being a very strong and graceful woman – a steel magnolia.
I like molly as a nickname for Marigold.
That is inspired!
Molly is great, but I don’t think it ages well. I know several 20-something Mollys, and it just seems odd. I love it for a kid, but not a grown woman.
We already have a Maria and my niece is nicknamed Mallie… so it’s out for us, but I really like Molly. Like Minnie and Milly, I’d prefer Molly be a used as a nickname for something more “grown-up”, but it’s very charming.
I like Molly a lot. My mother despises the name. She had a shrew of an aunt named Molly. I think she would disown me if I ever used it.
Molly’s a sweet name. The cat association makes it even sweeter to me.