She’s a mermaid, a sorceress and a surname, too.
Thanks to Felecia for suggesting Morgan as our Baby Name of the Day.
There are a few possible origins for the name:
- An older Welsh masculine name, Morcant.
- Merrigan and other surnames have been morphed to Morgan.
- Muirgen is an Irish name, a cousin to Muriel and possibly Meredith, too.
The first element in all of the names links to the sea.
Morgan has a long history of use as a surname, and has ranked in the US Top 1000 for boys every year since 1880.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was probably the first to use the name for the sorceress Morgan le Fay in his twelfth century Historia Regum Britanniae. She’s also called Morgen, Morgaine, and Morgana in various accounts.
Monmouth probably borrowed the Irish Muirgen. Legends tells that Muirgen became a lake-dwelling mermaid after her home was swept away in a flood. After 300 years, a group of monks retrieved her from the water, and had her baptized. In exchange for her soul, Muirgen sacrificed her immortality.
Morgens or mari-morgens are siren-like water spirits in Welsh and Breton folklore, known for luring men to their deaths and causing destructive floods.
Now back to the sorceress.
She’s half-sister to King Arthur, occasionally scheming and jealous, and helpful at other times. In some tellings, she’s the mother of Ywain. A few accounts make her guardian of Avalon, while others give her an earthly kingdom of her own. She’s almost always considered a healer, and she is sometimes the one who discovers that Guinevere has been unfaithful.
In 1983, Marion Zimmer Bradley revisited the entire Camelot tale with The Mists of Avalon, re-imagining the events from the women’s perspectives. Her Morgaine is a pagan priestess, fighting to save the power of women in a Christianizing land.
But she’s not the reason the name caught on. For that, we turn to television.
Patsy Ann McClenny started out on local television, but by the 1970s was starring on Search for Tomorrow as Jennifer Pace. By then she’d taken the name Morgan Fairchild.
I’d always assumed Fairchild was inspired by Camelot – the musical was a smash in the 1960s, with Richard Burton as the legendary king. But maybe not – the sorceress was a small role in the original version, and was eventually written out entirely.
Glamorous Fairchild graduated from Search for Tomorrow to Dallas to Falcon Crest to Friends. There was an immediate uptick in Morgan’s use for girls as soon as Fairchild appeared on the soap opera.
The name broke into the US Top 1000 in 1976, buoyed by our affection for tailored surname-names for girls, as well as her similarity to other 1980s favorites like Megan and Lauren.
She’s been in the US Top 100 since 1987, and as of 2013, remaining there – at exactly #100, after peaking at #22 in 1997.
At the same time, Morgan held steady for boys. Credit actor Morgan Freeman, who starred in 1970s episodes of PBS’s The Electric Company before graduating to Oscar-worthy film performances, including a win as Best Supporting Actor for 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. He’s only started slipping in recent years, falling into the 600s in 2013. In France and the UK, he’s still more common for boys.
It’s easy to see why Morgan succeeds – rich with history, with ties to the natural world, and a sound that is very much on trends for both genders. A newborn Morgan in 2014 is almost certainly a girl, but the name remains a possibility for a boy, too.