The decline of the baby name Mary

Sociology professor Philip Cohen wrote about the decline of the baby name Mary recently in The Atlantic. Here’s how the article begins:

Each year I mark the continued calamitous decline of Mary as a girls’ name in the United States. Not to be over-dramatic, but in the recorded history of names, nothing this catastrophic has ever happened before.


He’s right, though. Usage of Mary — the dominant girl in the nation from the 1880s to the 1950s — plummeted during the 1960s:

Graph of the usage of the baby name Mary
Usage of the baby name Mary

At one time, Mary was regularly given to more than 70,000 baby girls per year. It’s now given to fewer than 3,000. (And the population is much higher today that it was back then, so that difference is even more extreme than it seems.)

We’re well aware that Mary is on its way out, so let’s get right to Cohen’s two-part explanation of what the “Mary trend” means:

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 Conformity to tradition has been replaced by conformity to individuality.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.

The decreasing dominance of the top names is something we’ve discussed before.

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.)

This one is interesting. It might also explain the rise of religious word-names like
Blessing, Cross, Eden, Hallelujah, Trinity, even the ridiculous Nevaehtnes.

He says there’s still hope for a resurgence, similar to the one Emma experienced, “as long as Christianity keeps hanging around.”

What do you think — will Mary make a comeback one day like Emma did?

If so, when? How many years from now: 20, 50, 100, more?

Source: Why Don’t Parents Name Their Daughters Mary Anymore? (via A Mitchell)

7 thoughts on “The decline of the baby name Mary

  1. Ummm… No mention of Vatican II? No longer being required to use a very limited set of names if you want her baptized in the RC Church? Probably the biggest on-time game changer for naming?

  2. I love the name Mary and would have given it to our daughter, had our last name not sounded like “Lou.” Nothing wrong with Mary-Lou, just 1) not my style and 2) confusing: Mary Lou what?

  3. I don’t think that Vatican II is of any relevance here: The USA are predominantely protestant, and the catholics are often of hispanic or irish background, using spellings like Maria(h) oder Maire instead of Mary.

  4. I know the numbers look pretty dire, but Mary is still only just outside the Top 100 in the US. That’s where she is here too, and where she has been for more than 20 years. (She’s not “going out”, just not going anywhere much in particular).

    I think it’s a remarkable achievement for a name that’s basically never been out of fashion in over 1000 years. And the US has kept her in the Top 100 for longer than other countries, so must have a closer attachment to her.

    It’s in the UK that Mary really looks to be sliding away.

  5. To a little Girl Named Mary

    What a precious name you carry.
    Little maid with eyes so blue.
    Just to think dear Mother Mary
    Shares her holy name with you.

    Tis a priceless jewel you carry,
    Little girl with eyes so blue;
    Yet I know dear Mother Mary
    Gladly shares her name with you.
    M H Kennedy
    I love the name Mary. The Blessed Mother Mary was the Mother o Jesus the Savior of the world.

  6. There are five paragraphs to the poem, I see I only printed two. I’m tired of typing. I can send the poem to you.
    John G.

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