If you are old enough to remember, you probably know that Mary used to be a wildly popular name. Do you know just how popular? For every year between 1880 and 1961, except five of them, Mary was the #1 name for daughters. (Between 1947 and 1952, it got nudged into second place by Linda.)
The popularity of Mary has been slipping. By 2009, for the first time, the name Mary did not even crack the top 100 names given to daughters.
Are you thinking – that’s kind of interesting, but so what? That was my initial reaction, too. I learned about the Mary phenomenon from a new book by Philip N. Cohen, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else that Makes Families Great and Terrible. The first thing I do when I get a new book is to skim the table of contents. All the chapter and section titles in a book by that name made sense to me, except for the one about Mary. For example, there are chapters about “Marriage, Single Mothers, and Poverty,” “Marriage Promotion,” “Race, Gender, and Families,” and “Marriage Equality in Social Science and the Courts.” But naming trends?
The demise of Mary, it turns out, is not just some isolated fun fact. It is, Professor Cohen argues, “mostly about the emergence of a modern view of children.” To give you a hint about what he means by that, consider this: Mary did not just get replaced by the next most popular name, such as Linda, then Lisa, Jennifer, Ashley, and Jessica. Instead, the names parents chose for their newborns became much more diverse.
In fact, even when Mary was reigning supreme in her Number 1 slot, she had been losing ground for more than a century. She was #1 that whole time, but the proportion of babies named Mary was slipping. For example, in 1850, Mary was the #1 name for baby girls and 13 percent of them were given that name. In 1961, Mary was still #1, but only 2.3 percent of girls were named Mary.
The rise in the diversity of names given to newborns is part of the rise of individualism. Parents have come to value what makes their children unique; in naming their children, they are making a statement about their identity.
Here’s how Cohen put it:
“Two centuries ago, the vast majority of European Americans were not looking for a unique name, or a name that was coming into vogue, or a name that matched a popular cultural figure – or trying to avoid a name that had jumped the shark. They usually just named children after family members. Besides the sad fact that many children died at young ages – and that there were too many children to keep track of (the average White woman had seven children in 1800) – it just didn’t seem to occur to people that children were priceless individuals. And naming wasn’t a way to make a statement about character and identity.”
The rise of books full of baby names, with Mary losing her place of prominence, is part of the sweep of individualism that includes the rise of single people and decline of marriage. Those trends are happening not just in the U.S. but in many places all around the globe. That’s why the Mary phenomenon is relevant to the study of single people, even those who do not have children.