Tag Archives: mary

Mary free fall continues

For the past two years I’ve been tracking the fate of the name Mary as given to girls born in the U.S., spurred by the observation that Mary was no longer in the top 100 names, after an unparalleled run at #1 that lasted for all but six years of recorded history.

It’s a difficult job, but it’s got to be done. (Follow the Mary tag for historical background, examples, and more figures.)

So: 2012 was another rough year, according to data from the Social Security Administration.

There was another 5% drop in the number of Marys born, and as a result Mary fell a record 11 ranks, from 112 to 123. The 2,535 Marys born in 2012 were a mere 0.13% of the 1.9 million girls recorded born. Once upon a time, in 1880, more than 7% of all girls born were named Mary.

mary2012rankPart of the point of the Mary name project is to show the predictability of (much) human behavior, even including rare events, such as naming girls Mary. I have a simple model which predicts that the number of girls named Mary will decline at a rate equal to the average decline over the previous five years — what falls continues to fall. This year, out of 1.9 million girls born and 2,535 named Mary, my model was off by a microscopic 79 girls. The model predicted the number of Marys to within 3.2%.

Take that, indeterminancy, free will, or postmodernism (your pick).

P.S. Despite the continued free fall of Mary, my model missed low, incidentally — or, Mary-naming Americans beat expectations by 3.2%. Since my Mary post on the Atlantic site last December was shared more than 5,000 times, unless proven otherwise we have to assume the 79-girl bump was a Mary-name-blog effect. (File under reflexivity.)

ADDENDUM: MARIA

By request, here is the trend for Maria. It is not the case that Maria is replacing Mary — both are trouble. In fact, with Maria falling steeply in the last decade, she has also dropped out of the top 100 for the first time since 1943!

maria-ranks

Speculation: As Marias of Latina origin grow more common, perhaps their increase is not enough to compensate for the resulting perception among non-Latinas that Maria is a Spanish name. (Remember, this is just girls born in the U.S.)

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Why Don’t Parents Name Their Daughters Mary Anymore?

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

Understanding the rapid decline of what was once America’s most popular name

virgin mary tattoo

Each year I mark the continued calamitous decline of Mary as a girls’ name in the United States. Not to be over-dramatic, but in the recorded history of names, nothing this catastrophic has ever happened before. Mary was the most common name given to girls every year from the beginning of record-keeping (at least back to 1800) through 1961 (except for a six-year dip to #2, behind Linda).

And then it happened. In 2011, according to the latest report from the Social Security Administration (SSA), Mary fell three more places, to 112th. In absolute numbers, the number of girls given the name Mary at birth has fallen 94 percent since 1961. Here is the trend:

cohen_mary.png

The modernization theory of name trends, advanced most famously by the sociologist Stanley Lieberson, sees the rise of individualism in modern naming practices. “As the role of the extended family, religious rules, and other institutional pressures declines,” he wrote, “choices are increasingly free to be matters of taste.” Mary—both a traditional American name and a symbol religious Christianity—embodies this trend.

The other day I did a search of newspaper birth announcements for the name “Mary,” and turned up a lot of grandmothers named Mary. Here, from a recent day’s birth announcement page from Rock Hill, South Carolina, are three Marys in the grandparent generation, in three different families announcing the births of Mazie, Ja’Nae, and Asani. I diagrammed the family names:

cohen_mary2.png

Other generational sequences in recent announcements also mirror the history of common names: Mary–Jennifer–Madelyn; Mary–Ashley–Emily; Mary–Cora–Elizabeth.

In the tradition of treating statistical trends as horse races, I imagine that there is one person named Mary, who is constantly falling behind: first behind Linda, then Lisa, Jennifer, Ashley, Jessica, and so on, all the way to Isabella and now Sophia.

But that’s not how it happens—it just looks that way because of the amazing regularity in human behavior, which produces an orderly succession of names. Incredibly, out of 1.7 million girls’ names recorded by the SSA in 2011, I was able to predict to within 87 how many would be named Mary. By simply taking the number born in 2010 and subtracting the 5-year average decline, I predicted 2,584 would be born; the actual number was 2,671 (an error of 3.3 percent).

Somehow, out of the millions of individual decisions parents make, they produce steady trends like this. (If you’re as amazed as I am, consider a career in sociology! If not, please bear with me.)

So what does the Mary trend mean? First, it’s the growing cultural value of individuality, which leads to increasing diversity. People value names that are uncommon. When Mary last held the number-one spot, in 1961, there were 47,655 girls given that name. Now, out of about the same number of total births, the number-one name (Sophia) was given only 21,695 times. Conformity to tradition has been replaced by conformity to individuality. Being number one for so long ruined Mary for this era.

Second, America’s Christian family standard-bearers 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. (If there is anything more specific going on within Christianity, please fill me in.)

I’m not here to give advice to people who want to bring back the “traditional family.” But if I were I would recommend putting your names where your tradition is—and producing some more Marys.

There are precedents for bringing names back. My simple linear prediction method fails once in a while, when a name’s trend turns around. The greatest example is probably Emma. Emma was at number three when the SSA records begin, in 1880. She fell almost down to #500 by the 1970s. But after a decade of uncertainty she began a fantastic run, finally reaching number one in 2008.

cohen_mary3.png

I don’t know (yet) what makes a name turn around like that. Why Emma and not Mildred or Bertha, both former top-10s who fell into oblivion? But if any name has a chance for a similar resurgence, it might be Mary, at least as long as Christianity keeps hanging around.

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Mary 2010: Buying time?

The Mary situation remains dire, but she did beat the model for 2010.

The name Mary is in tough shape, having fallen out of the top 100 for U.S. girls for the first time ever in 2009. However, with the release of the new data for 2010, I can report that she outperformed my dire model, falling only to position #109, better than the expected #115.6.

Here are the updated figures:

My rocket science now predicts she will drop out of the top 1,000 in 2052 instead of 2046. And things could still turn around. From 1986 to 1994 it appeared Mary might be stabilizing, which in the case of Emma in the 1970s, for example, led to a dramatic turnaround and meteoric rise — from #450 to #3 today.

But I’m still mostly just bowled over that out of 2 million girls born, we can predict the number of Marys born to within 22! (That is, if the decline had continued at 8% per year – as it did for the past 5 years – there would have been 2,848 born in 2010. Instead there were 2,826.)

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Once more, with urgency (the fall of Mary)

In case I wasn’t urgent enough in the previous post on the fall of Mary.

In the past 5 years the number of girls named Mary at birth in the United States has fallen at a rate of 8% per year, reaching an all-time low of 3,105 in 2009. At that rate — declining 8% per year — there will be less than 1,000 Marys born in 2022, and less than 100 by 2048. If you go by the absolute drops instead of the percentage drops, there will be no Marys born within 10 years.

Surely, you say, that can’t happen, not in a country where Mary was the most popular name given to girls from the beginning of recorded White European history until 1961 (with just 6 years out of the top spot). With more than 2 millions girls born per year, three-quarters of them to Whites, how is that possible?

Yesterday we learned learned that Mary had dropped below the rank of 100 for the first time. Here’s yesterday’s graph, but this time including all the years from 1880, to accentuate the suddenness of the drop, which started in 1962:

It’s a very rapid fall from grace, so to speak. But it’s not unprecedented.

For example, Ethel peaked at #6 in 1896. Where is she now? Fell to #100 by 1939, and dropped out of the top #1,000 in 1976.

Or consider Mildred, who peaked at #6 as late as 1920. She was out of the top #1,000 by 1985. I’ve done some sophisticated projections based on this history, and present them here for Mary beside the history for Mildred. The graph below shows the trends in rank, starting on the left side in their last peak year (1 on the x-axis).

Mildred’s actual history is shown in the blue line. A quadratic formula is used to approximate her progress, shown in the thin blue trend-line. After about 1935 that line is a great fit. The R-square measure of fit for this trend-line is .98 (with 1.0 being perfect).

The graph also shows two projections for Mary. Because Mary started her descent so much later, we can use Mildred’s function as a template, and apply a quadratic formula to Mary as well. Fitting a quadratic formula to Mary’s whole trend since 1961 produces a worse fit, however (.92). That projection has her reaching complete obscurity in 2150. OK, that buys her some time.

However, a closer look shows that Mary has been falling much faster since 1999 (the green inset line). A line fit to the 11 years from 1999 to 2009, also using the quadratic formula, fits much better (.98), and projects Mary disappearing by 2046.

Is it all over? Can Mary come back? Some names have come back, perhaps none more dramatically than Emma, which was #3 in the 1880s before cratering around #425 at the end of the 1960s, only to rise all the way back to #1 in 2008.

On the downside, of course, is Bertha. Her quadratic fit is only .97 — what she really needs is an exponential fit (.99), showing an initially slow drop building to a lightning collapse. Like Mary, she took more than 40 years to fall out of the top 100 — and then fell the next 900 places in following 55 years.

What makes someone’s name an Emma and someone else’s a Bertha? I don’t know, but Mary might want to look into it.

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The fall of Mary

Forget the war on Christmas. What about the fall of Mary?

I’m posting this a little before Easter to give The Media time to work up the story by the weekend. Here it is: For the first time in the history of the United States of America, the name Mary is not in the top 100 given to newborn girls.

That’s according to the 2009 Social Security name database. And it’s not just the rankings but the raw numbers. The number of Marys born in 2009 was down 93% from 1961, the last year she was at #1 — a drop from 47,645 that year to just 3,105 now.

Mary was the #1 name every year in the database from 1880 — it’s first year — to 1961 (except for dropping to #2 to Linda, 1947-1952). The database is not perfect or 100% complete. But there is no reason to suspect it was over-counting Marys. And I’m pretty sure she was #1 before 1880, too. Naming your daughter Mary was as traditional as girls wearing blue.

This is not about immigration or ethnic diversity. Although the number of immigrants has increased, so has the number of White Christian Americans. In fact, as Stanley Lieberson has reported in his seminal analysis of American naming patterns, in the old days Mary was common among Blacks as well as Whites, and in the mid-20th century even some Jews were naming their girls Mary. The fact is: few people want to have girls named Mary. (Maria did a little better than Mary,  #71.)

To put this in perspective, there were almost twice as many girls named Nevaeh in 2009; she came in at #34. The Nevaeh trend (which appears to have peaked) is a tipoff to what’s going on: the long-term increase in naming diversity. Americans want kids with less popular names than they used to. For example, the top 20 girls names were 34% of the total in 1940s, but they now represent just 12%. Isabella, today’s #1, was given to just 1.1% of girls in 2009. In 1961 Mary was given to more than twice that proportion, 2.3%.

If Americans like tradition, maybe they just want other people to name their daughters Mary. So, this Easter, who will stand up for Mary?

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