About Names: Dr. Evans on the name “Mary”

Mary Todd Lincoln, former First Lady of the United States of America (Photo: public domain)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his December 3rd column, he discusses the name “Mary”.

Today is my younger sister Mary Elizabeth Evans Elliott’s birthday. I won’t get into trouble telling how old she is, but it’s a milestone ending in “0”.

Mary’s the English form of Latin Maria, derived from Hebrew Miriam, name of Moses’s sister in the Old Testament. No one really knows Miriam’s meaning. Because Mara means “bitter” in Hebrew, “bitter sea” used to be a common guess. Today “longed-for child” (ma-râma) is thought a more likely Hebrew meaning. However, since most experts now think Moses was an Egyptian name, many believe Miriam’s from Egyptian mry, “beloved.”

Mary is revered by Christians as the name of Jesus’s mother. Six other Marys are mentioned in the New Testament, including Mary Magdalene and Mary, sister of the resurrected Lazarus.

Mary was rare in medieval Britain. Most thought it too sacred to give a daughter. The first known example was Mary, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland and his English wife Margaret, born in 1082.

In 1380 Mary ranked 49th in England. It only became common after the Reformation. Though one might think Mary I (r.1553-1558), called “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of Protestants, along with Puritan disdain for what they saw as Roman Catholic “idolatry” of the Virgin Mary, would make the name unpopular, all those New Testament Marys prevailed. Mary, second to Elizabeth after 1600, reached No. 1 during the 1650s, when radical Puritan Oliver Cromwell ruled.

In the 19th century Mary’s popularity was overwhelming. The 1850 United States census found 1,352,362 Marys — 13.5% of all girls and women, nearly one out of seven. In Britain in 1851, it was 16.6%, or one out of six. It’s hard to imagine what life was like when multiple Marys of all ages lived on every street in town.

In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly data starts, 7.24% of newborn girls were named Mary. Though the percentage steadily decreased, Mary stayed No. 1 until 1947, when Linda displaced it. In 2022, Mary only ranked 136th, its lowest in 700 years.

It’s surprising Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) was the only sitting President’s wife named Mary. Two others were acting first ladies — Mary McElroy (1841-1917) for widowed brother Chester Arthur (1881-1885), and Mary Harrison McKee (1858-1930) for father Benjamin Harrison after mother Caroline’s death in October 1892.

“Mary is a Grand Old Name” was written by George M. Cohan for musical “Forty-five Minutes to Broadway,” which debuted Jan. 1, 1906.