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What happened to Mary?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 7, 2012 11:20 AM

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For the last few years University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen has maintained a small obsession with the name Mary. And for good reason, too. As he explains in a recent post at The Atlantic, “in the recorded history of names,” no name has suffered a more complete fall from grace than hers.

From 1800-1961 Mary exerted a dominance that no girl’s name in America is likely ever to repeat: It was the #1 most popular name every year but six (and in those years it was #2, to Linda). But as the 1960s got underway, Mary went into freefall and it still hasn’t hit the ground. Last year it came in at #112, its worst showing on record.

The fall of Mary,” as Cohen has termed it on his blog Family Inequality, owes in part to a general trend away from naming conformity. Two hundred years ago there was currency in giving one’s child a common name; today, the last thing parents want is for their dynamically original little son to be one of five Oscars in his kindergarten class. Consistent with this hypothesis, Cohen notes that in 1961 there were 47,655 Marys born in America but in 2011 the top name, Sophia, appeared on only 21,695 birth certificates.

Determining what causes an individual name to rise or fall in popularity is an inexact science. In his book “A Matter of Taste” Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson argues that mass media influences have less effect than commonly supposed on naming trends. More decisive, he suggests, are society wide shifts in phonemic preferences—a taste, that is, for names that sound a certain way. Following this idea, baby naming guru Laura Wattenberg observed earlier this year that many of the fastest trending girls names have a long “e” sound: Aubree, Briella, Brielle, Aubrey.

Regardless of what causes a name to rise or fall in popularity, Cohen writes that while a comeback for Mary is unlikely, there is hope for the name in the even more astonishing story of Emma: #3 in 1880, down below #450 in the 1970s, and all the way back to #1 in 2008.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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