About Names: “In song or in prayer, Maria is ‘beloved’ by many”

Physicist and chemist Maria Skłodowska-Curie, renowned for her work in radioactivity

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his December 5th column, he looks at the history of the name Maria.

Maria and Tony meet on screen again Friday.

Steven Spielberg’s remake of 1961’s “West Side Story” premiers Dec. 10. Based on 1957’s Broadway hit with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021), who died Nov. 26, it’s the story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, who fall in love despite being connected to rival New York City street gangs.

Maria is the Latin form of Miryam, the Hebrew name of Moses’s sister in the Bible. The origin of Miryam is unknown. The most common guess used to be “bitter sea,” because Mara is a Hebrew name meaning “bitter.” Today “rebellious” and “wished for child” are thought possible. Some modern scholars think Miriam was based on Egyptian “mry,” “beloved.”

Whatever its origin, Maria is famous as Jesus’s mother, venerated as the “Mother of God” by Christians for two millennia. Today it’s her name in most European languages. English (Mary), French (Marie), and Irish Gaelic (Máire) are among the few where Maria isn’t the traditional name of the Virgin.

Though Orthodox Christians have named girls Maria since ancient times, in the Middle Ages Roman Catholics thought it too sacred to give to babies, as Christians outside the Spanish speaking world still think of “Jesus.” When Orthodox Princess Maria of Kiev married Duke Casimir of Poland in 1040, she was rebaptized “Dobroniega,” because Catholic Poles found calling her “Maria” offensive.

This attitude changed in Iberia and Italy by 1250. Soon so many Spanish and Portuguese girls were named Maria, they were given titles of the Virgin, such as “María de los Dolores” (“Mary of the Sorrows”) as their full name, with epithets like Dolores, Gloria “glory,” and Mercedes “mercies” becoming names themselves.