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.

11 thoughts on “Once more, with urgency (the fall of Mary)

  1. OW. It’s like fashions in clothing. Names for girls, like clothes for girls, have been more diverse — the top ten names account for a smaller percent than do the top ten names for boys. They’ve also been more volatile, the fashions changing more rapidly. But naming for both sexes is becoming more diverse.


  2. It’s funny (ha ha) that newborn girls are like fashions. I seem to think that the popular interpretation of women’s fashions fadishness has to do with women’s fickle tastes, and their attempts to manipulate men. But these fickle females are too young to be driving the trends themselves. Hm. (Do women have the final say in child naming? I don’t think I’ve seen that question addressed.)


  3. I can confirm from census data that Mary was the number one name for white-native born girls from 1840-1930.

    Also, there’s a great book on fashions of names: “A matter of taste” by Stanley Lieberson.


  4. Hi Phil,
    As a dad of a daughter whose legal name is Mary, but is nicknamed Emma I found this really interesting — especially since we were litterally just talking this weekend about sociologists who study trends and patterns in names.

    I wonder, though, if there’s some sort of floor for Mary both because of religious connotations, and also because of the long history in the top and tendency to name after relatives.



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