What popularized the baby name Marilyn in the 1920s?

Broadway actress Marilyn Miller (1898-1936)
Marilyn Miller

In the early 1920s, the baby name Marilyn, which was already on the rise, began to rise much more swiftly:

  • 1925: 3,419 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 83rd]
  • 1924: 2,860 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 101st]
  • 1923: 2,286 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 118th]
  • 1922: 1,698 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 145th]
  • 1921: 696 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 253rd]
  • 1920: 522 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 288th]

By 1925, it was one of the top 100 girl names in the nation.

Graph of the popularity of the baby name Marilyn in the U.S. since 1880.
Usage of the baby name Marilyn

What popularized it?

Broadway star Marilyn Miller, who was at the height of her fame in the 1920s. After performing in several Ziegfeld Follies shows, she went on to star in musical comedies like Sally (1920), Sunny (1925), and Rosalie (1928). She also appeared in several films.

She was born Mary Ellen Reynolds in Indiana in 1898. Her stage name was created by combining her first name with her mother’s middle name (Lynn), and adding her stepfather’s surname (Miller). She initially spelled it “Marilynn.”

Sadly, Marilyn Miller died in 1936 (due to complications following nasal surgery). The same year, the name Marilyn reached the highest ranking it would ever attain:

  • 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: 9,384 baby girls named Marilyn [rank: 17th]

A decade later, in 1946, Twentieth Century Fox executive Ben Lyon — a former actor who had co-stared with Marilyn Miller in her last film — signed a young actress named Norma Jeane Baker. She reminded him of Miller, so he suggested that she change her name to “Marilyn.” Adding her mother’s maiden name, she became “Marilyn Monroe.”

The baby name Marilyn remained in the top 100 until 1959, with Marilyn Monroe giving it a bit of a boost in the mid-1950s. Since then, though, usage has been slowly declining (except for a couple of years in the early 2010s, thanks to the 2011 Marilyn Monroe biopic My Week with Marilyn).

What are your thoughts on the name Marilyn?


P.S. A few decades later, another Mary Ellen in the entertainment business became famous under the name Mala

6 thoughts on “What popularized the baby name Marilyn in the 1920s?

  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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