There’s Something about “Mary”

A few years ago when my wife and I were picking out a name (names, really) for our first daughter, a friend lent us a book called, The Baby Name Wizard. One of the really interesting things about this book (a free website version of which is available, here) is that each entry included a bit of history about the name:  what the name means, of course, but also famous people who have had the name over the years, other names that pair well with it, etc. Each entry also included a little chart showing the name’s rise and fall in popularity over the decades.

That’s when I noticed something peculiar about the name Mary.

Mary is a common name in the United States; a very common name. But it used to be much more common. In fact, for generations and generations, it was far and away the most common name given to baby girls in America. While other names trended up and down, Mary reigned supreme, so to speak, often being bestowed on more baby girls in a given year than the next two or three most common names combined. No other name has ever been so dominant.

Gradually, however, the name Mary began to lose popularity. According to the Social Security Agency, Mary was still the most common name given to baby girls in the U.S. as recently as 1961. It spent most of the 1960s as the second most common name for baby girls. (Lisa took the top spot, briefly.) Then, sometime between 1965 and 1970, the popularity of the name began to decline rapidly. By 1970, Mary had slipped to 9th. By 1980, Mary was 25th. By 2011, Mary wasn’t even in the top 100.

Of course, other names have gained and lost popularity over time—how many Berthas have you met recently—but never like this.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Through a friend, I’ve discovered that sociologist Philip Cohen has been fascinated by the decline of Mary for years. He has some interesting thoughts on the matter:

So what does the Mary trend mean? First, it’s the growing cultural value of individuality, which leads to increasing diversity. People value names that are uncommon. When Mary last held the number-one spot, in 1961, there were 47,655 girls given that name. Now, out of about the same number of total births, the number-one name (Sophia) was given only 21,695 times. Conformity to tradition has been replaced by conformity to individuality. Being number one for so long ruined Mary for this era.

That’s an interesting theory, and likely as not, true. At least in part. But it was the next paragraph that caught my attention:

Second, America’s Christian family standard-bearers are not standing up for Mary anymore. It’s not just that there may be fewer devout Christians, it’s that even they don’t want to sacrifice individuality for a (sorry, it’s not my opinion) boring name like Mary. In 2011 there were more than twice as many Nevaehs (“Heaven” spelled backwards) born as there were Marys. (If there is anything more specific going on within Christianity, please fill me in.)

See, for a while now, I’ve had a hunch—and it’s just a hunch—as to why the name Mary has fallen from favor, and it has to do with “something specific going on within Christianity,” and among Catholics in particular (we Catholics being famous for our devotion to the Virgin Mary and no other name being so stereo-typically “Catholic” as Mary).

Photo: Madonna and Child, Orazio Gentileschi

In the mid-1960s, just as the name Mary was about lose the title of most popular name in American history, the arrival of the Pill effectively severed the link between sex and babies. Motherhood became “optional” in a way it never had been before. In his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI warned of the bad consequences of widespread contraception, including “conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of morality.”

But while the Catholic Church opposed severing sex from procreation—and thus maintained its traditional opposition to contraception—most Catholics simply ignored the Church and contracepted anyway. With the most obvious consequence of sex (babies) out of the way, sex soon became decoupled from marriage, just as old Pope Paul had warned.

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Catholic rates of contraception and sex outside-of-marriage are roughly the same (or higher) as everyone else’s.

So how does the sexual revolution and Catholic dissent over Humanae Vitae explain the drop in little girls named Mary? As more and more Americans—including Catholics—undertook to avoid both motherhood and virginity, fewer and fewer people—especially Catholics—wanted to name their daughter after Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

That’s my theory, anyhow. The case I’ve laid out wouldn’t pass muster with social scientists—correlation, causation, etc., etc.—but it seems to me as plausible a guess as any other. What do you think?

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.


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  • Mary bullard

    it is all to do with fashion, Olivia,Isabella,Emma, Audrey are all overused at the moment,they will eventually go out of fashion like Mary,then a new crop of names take over those.Then in a couple of generations time Mary will probably come back in again.

  • Mary Bedard

    A great name, if I may so myself!

  • Grisha357

    Dear Stephen ~ When travelling in Russia, I’m amazed that there are only a limited number of first names. Thus, people are often referred to by first name an patronymic. This Vladimir Ivanovich and Natasha Ivanova. I imagine a lot of parents have the foresight to honor the Virgin without having 15 Mary’s in the first grade class. Fortunatley we have any number of variations of her name. To begin with her family and friends knew her as Miriam. Other darivatives go on for pages including all the forms of Maria, my sister’s name, Maureen, Delores and even Fatima. The list goes on for pages and my guess is if you consider them all, the name is a popular as ever. – Greg

  • Ann Unemori

    My elder daughter was named “Mary Ann” after my mother and me. Do combo names count? Mary Ann, Mary Beth, Mary Sue, Mary Lou, Mary May..

    Also, Marion is a perfectly acceptable boy’s name, even John Wayne was christened Marion Robert Morrison.

    • Cindy Walter

      My Catholic family has a tradition of naming the first born daughter with the name Mary or a variant of Mary. Older generations were Mary Elizabeth, Mary Agnes, Mary Louise, Mary Margaret, Mary Ellen. The newer generations since the 1960’s changed and added variants of Mary as the middle name and they are Christina Maria, Virginia Maria, Donna Marie, Kaitlyn Marissa (a contracted version of Mary Louise).



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