Where did the baby name Mala come from in 1951?

Actress Mala Powers in the movie "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1950)
Mala Powers in Cyrano de Bergerac

The name Mala first appeared in the SSA’s baby name data in the early 1950s:

  • 1957: 17 baby girls named Mala
  • 1956: 51 baby girls named Mala [peak]
  • 1955: 17 baby girls named Mala
  • 1954: 18 baby girls named Mala
  • 1953: 13 baby girls named Mala
  • 1952: 10 baby girls named Mala
  • 1951: 12 baby girls named Mala [debut]
  • 1950: unlisted
  • 1949: unlisted

Whenever I see the name Mala, I think of the Indian name that’s based on the Sanskrit word mala, meaning “garland” or “necklace.”

But Sanskrit isn’t the source of these mid-century American Malas — these Malas were named with actress Mala Powers in mind. In her case, “Mala” — which is pronounced maa-lah, first syllable rhyming with “pal” and “shall” — was a stage name that came from a childhood nickname:

I was born Mary Ellen Powers, December 20, 1931, in San Francisco, but I never used that name. Even as a small child, whenever someone would call me Mary Ellen, I would say, ‘No, my name is Mala!’

During the second half of 1950, Mala Powers could be seen at the theaters in three different films: Edge of Doom, Outrage, and Cyrano de Bergerac.

Her portrayal of Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac earned her a nomination for the “New Star of the Year” Golden Globe in 1951. (Her co-star José Ferrer* won an Oscar for his performance as Cyrano.)

After this early success, however, Mala Powers’ career was derailed by serious illness.

The story of her illness was brought to TV in early 1956, when Mala was featured on This is Your Life in January. This television appearance may have been what gave the name a boost in 1956 specifically.

Mala’s only child, Toren Michael, was born in mid-1957. The name Toren didn’t appear in the SSA’s data that year, but did show up a couple of years later. (It may have been a delayed celebrity baby name debut, though so far I can’t find any 1959 media coverage of Toren.)

Do you like the name Mala?


*Ferrer was the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award.

2 thoughts on “Where did the baby name Mala come from in 1951?

  1. When I hear/see “Mala” it makes me think there is either a letter missing or is another name just being slightly mangled. I usually like names starting with “Ma” but not this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.