There's something about Molly and Martha - but nothing about Mary

Wed, Jan 2, 2013, 00:00

There’s something about Mary. There must be – for more than 400 years it has ranked as the most popular girls’ name in the English-speaking world.

It’s easy to see why: it is easier to spell than Hephzibah and less likely to date than Hashtag – the name chosen by one mother who announced the birth of her baby on Facebook this year. It is the name of six women in the Bible, two Irish presidents and 13 British royals. There are songs called Mary, ships called Mary and even a cocktail called Mary.

What there doesn’t seem to be in nearly such abundance any more are small children called Mary.

In my children’s schools, there are Mollys and Maisies and Mias and Marthas. But, other than the ones sporting tea towels on their heads and clutching dolls in the school nativity play, I don’t think I’ve met a single Mary under the age of 30.

Where have all the little Marys gone? The names we choose for our youngest citizens reveals much about our values as a society, and the story of Mary makes for a revealing parable. Of the 36,427 girls born in 2011, only 106 were given the first name Mary. By contrast, there were more than 5½ times as many Emilys, the number one name.

The CSO data on Irish baby names goes back only to 1998, when there were 128 Marys. Roll back 100 years and it was an entirely different story. A search of the 1911 Census turns up 32,107 one-year-old Marys.

Professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Philip Cohen, has been charting the parallel demise of Mary in the United States. In a recent article for The Atlantic magazine, he wrote that “in the recorded history of names, nothing this catastrophic has ever happened before . . . The number of girls given the name Mary at birth has fallen 94 per cent since 1961.”

What happened? Much of the collapse in the popularity of Mary here is, as you might expect, tied into the decline in Catholic values.

But it’s also symptomatic of a wider, worldwide trend, away from tradition and family, and towards a more creative – and increasingly fraught – approach to choosing your child’s name.

I have friends who have fallen out with their partners over prospective names; others who have gone about referring to “The Baby” for weeks before finally settling on one; and still another who changed her son’s name at least four times in his first weeks.

It wasn’t always like this: for inspiration, our parents and grandparents often just looked to the nearest available saint or dead relative. But everything about modern parenthood is more subject to analysis than it used to be, and so it makes sense that what is, after all, your first public act as a parent, should follow suit.

These days, names are still drawn from family or tradition, but they are just as likely to be aspirational (Achilles or Blaize); literary (Beckett or Harper); inspired by popular culture (the BabyCenter.comwebsite cites a boom in Fifty Shades-inspired names, like Ana and Grey, in 2012).

Meanwhile, surveys reveal that the numbers choosing even the most popular names are falling year on year, so the real trend is for individuality. Come January, I always seize on the list of the names popular with parents who announce their child’s birth in The Irish Times, and am constantly surprised by how much variation there is between it and the CSO list.

So it may just be that Mary’s popularity is conspiring against it now, making it simply too obvious. (Sorry Mary – but hey, my own name is deemed so dull it inspired an entire book on the subject, Beyond Jason and Jennifer.)

In all this hankering after individuality, however, we still end up tagging along with the herd. There were a lot of Sharons and Kevins born in the 1970s; Jordans are probably children of the 90s; while Betty and Maisie were most likely born 100 years ago, or last week.

My daughter was born in 2006. I called her a name I’d loved for years, a name I’d never encountered in real life. It ends in “a”. According to BabyCenter.com, in 2012 every single one of top five girls’ names in the United States ends in “a”. So much for individuality.

According the authors of Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, there are socioeconomic factors behind name trends. “It isn’t famous people who drive the name game. It is the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and the newer car . . . Parents are reluctant to poach a name from someone too near, but many parents, whether they realise it or not, like the sound of names that sound “successful’.”

In other words,10 years ago, “a-ending” names were elite, and slightly posh. Once they’re broken in by cool, early-adopting parents, these names become more pervasive, until suddenly they’re everywhere. At which point, what Levitt and Dubner call the “high-end” parents start looking for the next name with the right blend of novelty and tradition.

In Ireland many of the current most popular baby names – Grace, Lily, Jack and Daniel – seem to have migrated over from England. By that measure, if the Mumsnet baby name board is anything to go by, in the next few years we’re set for an explosion of Mabels, Harriets, Ashers and Wolfs. But if you really want to be different, I’ve got just the name for you.

It’s cool and still traditional, with just the right amount of trendy old-lady fustiness. And your daughter definitely won’t be one of five in her class.

It is, of course, Mary.

Unwanted advice

Two studies in recent weeks added to the growing pile of contradictory advice given to pregnant women.

The first, an American study, says doctors should give pregnant women more information about environmental risks such as mercury, pesticides, air pollution and others. The second claims that drinking as little as half a pint of beer a week during pregnancy can cut a baby’s intelligence by several IQ points.

As well-meaning as this is, aren’t pregnant women already bombarded with enough information? Drink in moderation. Don’t drink at all. Avoid tea and coffee. Drink coffee but no more than 17 cups a day. Don’t eat peanuts. Eat peanuts. Don’t eat cured meats, Brie or chocolate. And, my favourite, in the light of all the others, whatever you do, don’t get stressed.

My New Year predictions

It’s the time of year when journalists traditionally make predictions for 2013, only for their forecasting skills to be proven as accurate as a cross between Bertie Ahern and the Mayan Long Count Calendar. I’m nothing if not a traditionalist, so here, in no particular order, are some of mine.

1 The Gathering will happen, but by the end of the year we’ll still be no clearer on what it was all about.

2 Ryanair will start charging passengers to wear shoes on flights. And to sleep. And to sit down other than during take-off or landing. We’ll continue to fly Ryanair in larger numbers than before.

3 Carbonated sugary drinks will begin to be seen as the tobacco products of this generation.

4 We’ll start paying for stuff using our phones. We’ll stop paying for calls from landlines. We’ll stop having landlines.

5 In the new season of Love/Hate, Nidge will run his operation from Spain.

6 In the new season of Homeland, Brody will find himself on an island surrounded by the airplane crash survivors of Lost.

7 The Duchess of Cambridge will not be seen in public until a French magazine publishes photographs of her in labour.

8 Renting DVDs, buying CDs and watching live television will start to take on a cool, almost retro vibe.

9 People will say many, many stupid, ill-informed things about women’s bodies and reproductive rights.

10 A caller to Liveline will suggest we change the date to 20131 and 20132 to avoid courting any more bad luck.

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