Why Don’t Modern Parents Name Their Little Girls ‘Mary’?

Why Don’t Modern Parents Name Their Little Girls ‘Mary’? April 23, 2014

Have you noticed that there aren’t many little girls around these days named Mary?

I was reading an interesting analysis of “favorite girls’ names” and couldn’t help but notice just how subject to fad and fashion children’s names really are.

But don’t take my word for it!   Here, an analysis of the most popular girls’ names since 1960, courtesy of Twenty-two Words:

So in 1960, and probably for many years before that, “Mary” was the most popular name given by parents to their infant daughters.

I have my own “Mary” story to tell. My mother had always intended to call me “Kathy”, but wanted to also honor Mary, the Mother of God, giving me the full name “Kathleen Mary.”  The sisters who provided nursing care at St. Mary’s Hospital were scandalized by that.  “No!” they told her, “You can’t put the name of Mary second after any other name!”  So it was that I was given the name “Mary Kathleen” on my birth certificate, but called by my middle name “Kathy.”  So began a lifetime of explaining myself and my legal name to doctors’ offices, school guidance counselors, banks and prospective employers.

But back to the report of popular names in America.  By 1965, the style had changed and the most common first name for girls was “Lisa”.


Just a few years later, in 1975, the tides had rolled in, bringing the name “Jennifer” to the fore.

Ten years later, in 1985, “Jessica” and “Ashley” had taken over as the best names for cool girls. Little Jessicas and Ashleys filled playgrounds and parks and classrooms across America.

Then “Emily” had a turn on top in the 1990s….

until “Sophia” and “Emma” took over in 2012, the last year for which data is available.


You can read more–and see the popularity maps for girls’ names during the intervening years–at Twenty-Two Words.

The Atlantic carried an interesting report in December 2012, asking “Why Don’t Parents Name Their Children Mary Any More?”  The author, Philip Cohen, cited this dramatic statistic:  “Mary” has dropped from the #1 most popular name in 1960, to #112 in 2011.

According to Cohen, the number of girls given the name “Mary” has dropped 94% since 1961, according to Social Security Administration statistics.

But why this dramatic decline in little “Mary’s”?

Cohen quotes sociologist Stanley Lieberson, who cites the rise of individualism in modern naming practices.  Lieberson writes,

“As the role of the extended family, religious rules, and other institutional pressures declines, choices are increasingly free to be matters of taste.”

Cohen acknowledges the accuracy of Lieberson’s claim; but while individuality is prized more highly than tradition, he doesn’t think the change signals an end to devotion. “America’s Christian family standard-bearers,” Cohen writes,

“…are not standing up for Mary anymore. It’s not just that there may be fewer devout Christians, it’s that even they don’t want to sacrifice individuality for a (sorry, it’s not my opinion) boring name like Mary. In 2011 there were more than twice as many Nevaehs (“Heaven” spelled backwards) born as there were Marys.”

Catholic writer Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur has published an excellent resource for expectant parents, The Catholic Baby Name Book.  Patrice offers more than 10,000 names for Catholic girl and boy babies, explaining their derivation, and offering a brief bio for the saint who carried that name.

If you will be privileged to welcome a new member of your family this year, consider using The Catholic Baby Name Book as a reference.  The book can help you to choose a name that your daughter or son will want to live up to:  a noble and brave martyr, a prayerful mystic, a social activist, or even Mary, the Mother of God.



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  • george-a

    My daughter, born 1997, is named Mary. She’s not the only Mary her age, but there aren’t many. We chose that name because we wanted to be counter-cultural by returning to traditional family names, us be little rebels!

  • Perhaps because Mary was so popular for so long, people had a contrarian reaction to it and want to be different. I tend to agree with Cohen. Anyway, my mother is named Maria.

  • Richard Collins

    I have three daughters, all called Mary. But then, I’m an out of date Catholic.

    • All three? Is that the female version of the skit where the southerner says, this is my brother Darrel and this is my other brother Darrel? LOL.

      • hows_the_boy

        George Foreman has five sons all called George.

        • Thanks. How silly, in my humble opinion.

      • RPTMS

        Minor correction: Larry, Darryl, and Darryl were on Newhart. It was set in Vermont. They weren’t Southerners unless you are in Quebec.

      • Richard Collins


        • I’m sorry. I was only kidding.

          • Richard Collins

            So was I. 🙂

  • By the way, if I were to have a girl today I would name her either Rebecca or Catherine, but Mary would be the middle name.

    • Ha! Just realized that my two most commented blogs here are Rebecca Hamilton’s and Kathy Schiffer’s. No, I didn’t pick those names based on my reading of Patheos Catholic blogs. 😉 Nor is that an attempt to suck up. 🙂

  • Aquinas5

    We named our youngest Maria, named after our Blessed Mother and as a deviation of my grandmother Marie. We always hear, “what a beautiful name!” But she’s the only child I know with that name. I think this has more to do with what’s fashionable, and right now Mary isn’t that. Names come in and out of vogue, like Emma which was popular more than a century ago and once again has become a popular choice. In much the same way you don’t hear parents calling their daughters Cheryl, Ethel, or Sandra. Here’s hoping that Mary will make a comeback.

  • Harry Flynn

    “…and how do you catch her eye, when six of them pass you by?”

  • Allie

    We named our daughter Mary as we like Catholic, traditional names that our children won’t be embarrassed when they become adults.

  • Marc

    Caught this aritcle on Spiritdaily and was suprised as well. My wife and I had our only daughter (we have 4 kids now) in 2011 and we were inspired to name her Mary Faith, both names so fitting and perfect for our times. We need Mary and we need her faith!! God Bless!!

  • Romulus

    “Mary” is toxic to this age of unbelief, embodying more truth than it’s willing to bear.

    • Randall Ward

      You mean the age of unbelief in the Western world, I bet. The rest of the world is exploding in belief and the Church is actually growing faster than it ever has.

  • Catholic Tech Geek

    Are we including the many cultural forms of “Mary” such as Maria (in Spanish, Italian, and the original Latin) or Marie (in French) in this as well?

    • CRS

      Or Miriam, the Hebrew version (and likely Mother Mary’s proper name (Maryam), but I’m only guessing….).

      • Father, 30, of three

        Yes, the Greek Gospels give a Hebrew transliteration of Mariam, which we make into Miriam.

    • de Sales

      We named our first daughter Maria-Donna in 1980! I loved the Spanish version of the august name of Mary, too. And Donna – – Our Blessed Mother is referred to as the Madonna; my own mother’s name was Donna Mae. Thus, we put our daughter’s name together. 🙂

    • James

      We don’t have a “Mary”, but we do have a “Marie”. I like the alternate forms better than the traditional English “Mary”.

  • Rob B.

    When my wife and I adopted three kids from Russia, we kept their Christian names, but gave them new middle names. We were sure to give our daughter Daria the middle name of Marie. 🙂

  • kelso

    What a shame! Not surprised however. Mary is so beautiful a name. Indicative to me of a lack of devotion to Our Lady. Large families used to always have a Mary. My sister named her daughter Mary and she had eleven. I did hear about Sophia being the most popular name some years ago not 2012 but earlier. It was common, too, for boys, in the nineteenth century to have Mary for a middle name.

  • Lisa

    I purposely did not name our only daughter Mary because it is such a sacred name…I’m not always the most patient of persons and didn’t want to be saying (all right, yelling…)the Blessed Mother’s name in anger! We chose Rachel (born 1994). Saints Joseph, John, and Stephen weren’t so lucky 🙂

  • Mark

    Mary is my least favorite of all the ways to name to a daughter after Our Lady. I much prefer “Maria” or even “Miriam” or “Marie.”

    Truly, now, “Mary” sounds Victorian or like something out of early modern England. A bit stuffy.

    “Maria” is just as much her name, but a bit more vivacious.

    • Jhawk77

      Miriam, I believe, is more of a Hebrew pronunciation, too…

    • Marie

      Mark, I do agree. Though my objection is not so much that “Mary” sounds stuffy but that it just simply is plain and pedestrian. It hasn’t the three syllabled lilt of Maria or Miriam nor the delicate (I’ll borrow your word :)) vivacity of the French Marie. (Which you can tell I like since I picked it for my screen name!)

    • mimi

      mary is a very pretty name , your name mark isnt a particularly attractive name in fact it is possitively stuffy

  • ColoradoTim

    When you have multiple children, Mary becomes a choice almost guaranteed to used by a Catholic family. When you only have one or two not so much

    • Athelstane

      And there are lots of Catholic famiies having just their 1.6 children (the TFR for college educated women) these days. The pews tell the story – when there’s anyone in them at all.

      • catholicmommyMD

        I am a Catholic Physican and mother. I have 4 kids and 1 on the way. I get a lot of eyebrow raises, but I feel so blessed with my big family!

    • James

      Unless, of course, they have all or nearly all boys.

  • chionactis

    We named our daughters: Samantha (b. 2000), Alessandra (b. 2003), Laura (b. 2004), MARIA (b. 2007) & Josephine (b. 2009). Maria was chosen in honor of Mary, the Mother of God, my own mother and also several aunts.

  • Mollie

    I have often wondered why I am the first of all of my devout Catholic friends to name her first (or any) daughter Mary. My Mary was born 5 weeks ago. Thanks for the article!

  • CRS

    I am one of those people who likes really unique names as first names and a saints’ name as a middle name. I love many saints’ names, but some are so common, and I can’t stand the thought of my kid sharing a name with over a 100 people in the same city: it makes acquaintances confusing, i.e., are you referring to Stephen P. or Stephen D.? So my kids have a unique (but decent!) first name combined with a saint’s name that flows nicely. However, given that my newest addition will probably not be sharing “Mary” with many her age in the next few years, I am considering this as her first name. And what better patron saint than the Mother of God herself?

    • Marie

      There are lots of uncommon saints names you could use for first names…

      Not to many Clothilde’s, Adeline’s, or Gwynnin’s out there! (Zita, Kateri, Honorina, Faustina, and Fabiola are also uncommon) Or for boys: Ambrose, Cyprian, Cornelius, Dallon, Cyril, Methodius, Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Tressan, or Ormond. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

      Of course someone has to widen the pool of saint names by becoming a saint while wearing a non-saint name. St Gemma is one example of this. Her name simply means “gem” or “jewel” and at the time of her baptism there wasn’t a saint with that name, but her parish priest did not tell her parents not to name her that, but simply that she’d have to be a jewel for God and become a great saint – which she did!

      • Marie

        PS Ooh, here is a really cool one (though I don’t know if I would *quite* have the courage to name my son this…) St. Dominator He was a bishop in Italy in the late 400’s. Definitely a strong name! And veeery unique!

        • CRS

          Those are all great options, it’s just some role off the tongue oddly. I am very strategic when it comes to picking names. I have an Innocence Cecilia (one a pope’s name, the other patron of music) and a Desmond Paul (first name uncommon in my area, and second name a saint’s name). This next one is Mary Carmen, both names referring to Our Lady (Carmen is derived from Mt. Carmel and is my first name).

      • El_Tigre_Loco

        I remember an acquaintance saying that when he told a priest his name the priest said that that wasn’t a saint’s name. I told him he should have said, “Not yet.”

  • Andy

    The Catholic hipsters are getting a bit carried away too. It’s like a contest to come up with the most obscure saints and martyrs. But at least they’re trying to have some kind of meaning and not just another “unique” name that will sound terribly dated before long. (“McKelby” was the latest to roll my eyes…)

  • Jhawk77

    I’m tired of the streets, the seasons, the weather, the last names, etc., used as first names! Please, parents, use common sense!

  • Monica

    My girl’s name is Maris, as in Stella Maris. She gets a lot of compliments on it and I enjoy explaining where the name comes from.

    • Elizabeth517

      That’s beautiful! I am interested in names that honor Mary without actually being “Mary.” There seem to be so many of them in Spanish especially (Immaculada, Altagrácia, Dolores, Rosario, etc.). My daughter who will be born soon is named “Rose Miranda” and it’s really after Our Lady, even though her name day will be Rose of Lima. I have to admit that I am probably afflicted with the modern quasi-hipster anxiety to name my kids something unusual. Well, give it a few more years–the tide will turn and Mary will seem exotic and counter-cultural and therefore will suddenly become common again!

  • Elremg G

    in the philippines, it is customary to name their daughters MARIA followed by a second name, in honour of the Blessed Mother. i am a maria, too.

  • KyPerson

    My first name is Mary and my daughter’s middle name is Marie. I teach at a university and I see some extraordinary and very odd names out there. In one class, I had 4 girls named Michaela and they were all spelled differently. The oddest name was Gynipher (pronounced Jennifer). The poor dear will have to spell her name for the rest of her life.

    I don’t know what causes some parents to give a child such an odd or oddly spelled name. It only causes them difficulty later.

  • mac

    I have my own “Mary” story as well. My Mom already had six boys when she became pregnant with me. She prayed the whole nine months to Mary and her mother, St. Ann, that this time it would be a girl. The promise to our Blessed Mother was that if I were a girl my name would be Mary Ann. And so I am!

  • Marie

    Not naming a child “Mary” does not mean not naming her after Our Lady. What if someone thought another version of the Blessed Mother’s name sounded prettier? Personally, I think the English translation of Our Lady’s name is nowhere near as lovely as other languages’. The Spanish/Italian/Latin “Maria,” the French “Marie,” and the original Hebrew “Miriam” all sound so much nicer to my ear than “Mary.” Also, other names honor Our Lady too: I have known Fatima’s, Guadalupe’s, and Dolores’s (for Our Lady of Sorrows), just to name a few.

  • Father, 30, of three.

    We’re expecting our fourth, and if she is a girl, she’s Mary Agnes.

    • judith

      Mary Agnes …. how lovely! My mother was an Agnes, born in 1917. Glad to hear the name coming back as Emma did ……

  • Patricia

    When I the lived in Hawaii in the 80s, Malia, the Hawaiian form of the name Mary, seemed to be very popular.

  • dad

    all our daughters have the middle name of Marie, in honor of the Mother of God. Madeline Marie, Clare Marie, Elizabeth Marie and Catherine Marie. 🙂

  • conmargar

    We chose Mary for a girl’s name although we might have had a brawl over the middle name. I dislike double names – My husband wanted Mary Catherine and to call her by the whole name. However, it was never a problem as we have boys (Peter, Philip and David) We do have a granddaughter Mary, though, born in 2005. I am sure she is the one in her class with the “strange” name!

  • catholicmommyMD

    I have 4 children and one on the way. All my children are named after saints and we celebrate their name day. My only daughter has the middle name Panagiota which is her Grandmother’s name. It is Greek for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

    • lorimav

      Η Παναγιά μαζί της!

  • Elizabeth

    A friend has 5 daughters…they are all “Mary _________” and go by their middle names, except the first who uses both : )

  • Elizabeth

    BTW: Mine are Catherine Elizabeth, Joanne Marie (Mary), John Edwin, and George Frederick…traditional, family names with great saint stories : )

  • lewbee06

    When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, her non-religious family asked what name we were thinking of for our daughter. We nonchalantly said that we were deciding between Seven, Oxygen and Metro. They seemed rather quiet and nonplussed. We baptized our daughter Mary in honor of our Virgin Mother. With this they were openly, negatively surprised!

  • Randall Ward

    We are bible based Christians, and named one of our daughters, Mary Elizabeth and we call her MaryBeth.

  • lorimav

    Apparently even in George M. Cohan’s day there were the snobs that did not appreciate the Anglo Saxon version of Our Lady’s name and so he wrote this song for his lovely wife (listen to James Cagney): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzsfa-egjD4

  • casha scy

    Since parents seem to want uncommon names for their children and Mary is uncommon nowwould make the prefect name.