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