What Put “Marilyn” on the Map?

marilyn miller

I’m grateful to Nancy Friedman of Fritinancy for letting me know about this one.

Yesterday’s edition of Fresh Air featured a segment on Marilyn Miller (1898-1936), a very popular Broadway musical star of the 1920s and early 1930s. Here’s what author Lloyd Schwartz had to say about Marilyn’s name:

Reading about Marilyn Miller, I found several surprising items. The name Marilyn, for example — Miller made it up from her own given name, Mary, and her mother’s name, Lynn — had apparently been quite rare until Miller’s stardom made it one of this country’s most popular girl’s names.

Decades later, Ben Lyon — a Twentieth Century Fox executive and former leading man who had co-starred with Miller and W.C. Fields in Miller’s last and best movie, Her Majesty, Love — signed up another pretty blond actress, Norma Jean Baker. She reminded him of Miller, and he urged her to change her name to Marilyn.

Wikipedia’s story is slightly different. It says Miller’s mother’s name was Ada Lynn (i.e. Lynn was her middle name). It also says the initial version of Miller’s stage name was Marilynn, and that the second n was dropped “at the urging of Florenz Ziegfeld.”

But both sources agree that Marilyn Miller had a big impact on baby names. The baby name Marilyn was rarely bestowed during the early years of the 20th century, but by 1925 it was one of the top 100 girl names in the nation.

The year that Marilyn Miller died — prematurely, from complications following surgery — was the first of two consecutive years that the name’s ranking peaked at 13th place:

  • 1939: 9,539 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 19th]
  • 1938: 9,745 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 19th]
  • 1937: 9,738 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 13th]
  • 1936: 11,065 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 13th]
  • 1935: 10,416 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 14th]
  • 1934: 9,383 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 17th]

The name remained in the top 100 until 1959 (with Marilyn Monroe giving it a bit of a boost in the mid-1950s), but usage has been slowly declining ever since.*

What are your thoughts on the name Marilyn?

Source: A Star Named Marilyn (But Not The One You Think)

*Usage of the name actually increased for a couple of years starting in 2012 thanks to the Marilyn Monroe biopic My Week with Marilyn (2011), but it has since slipped back to pre-movie levels.

6 thoughts on “What Put “Marilyn” on the Map?

  1. With the continued popularity of Carolyn, Kathryn, Madeleine, etc., I’m surprised that Marilyn isn’t also making a come back.

  2. I knew one Marilyn in grade school and have met a few online but other than Monroe I never see it that often.

    It’s funny, when I first read your title I was thinking of Arther Miller. Marilyn’s first husband. Which kind of makes her a Marilyn Miller. Kinda sorta.

  3. @Moe – It does make her Marilyn Miller! How funny. Though I’m not sure if she ever legally changed her surname to Miller.

    @C in DC – It is pretty surprising. My guess would be that, for most, the Marilyn Monroe association is just too strong. And parents who want a Marilyn Monroe association are probably just as tempted by the name Monroe as by the name Marilyn nowadays. (Sixty baby girls were named Monroe last year.)

  4. Usage of the name Marilyn rose in both 2012 and 2013 thanks to the 2011 Marilyn Monroe biopic My Week with Marilyn.

    (10/20/20: I’ve added this comment into the post itself as well, so that I could link to the post from the history timeline. Sorry about the redundancy.)

  5. There is another association to consider: The rock musician Marilyn Manson and his band with the same name—maybe the dark side of the name Marilyn.

  6. That’s a tricky one. He certainly could have been an influence, but because he’s male, and because he’s such a dark character, the influence might have been more negative than positive. “Marilyn” hasn’t shown up as a male name in the data since 1997, for instance — perhaps that’s because Manson became famous around that time…?

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