They’re the most familiar names at this time of year, but Mary and Joseph are disappearing from the cultural landscape as quickly as Santa’s sleigh at daybreak.
No matter that they preside over the world’s most famous family. No matter that, for most of the past century, they were as common as, well, inns. These days, in lists of the most popular baby names, Mary doesn’t even make the top 100. Joseph has fared marginally better; he’s in 53rd place on BabyCenter’s list of the most popular names of 2014. (Mary trudges in at 146, ignominiously sandwiched between Kinsley and Juliana.)
Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist, says no other name has so spectacularly fallen from grace as Mary has. It was the most popular girl's name for the first half of the 20th century, and going all the way back to 1800, according to Social Security and census records.
In fact, from 1900 to 1961, Mary was No. 1 every year, except for the six times she was bumped to second place by that upstart Linda.
Beginning in 1962, however, Mary began to decline in popularity and never made the top five again after 1968. Today, she’s eclipsed by a long list topped by Sophias, Emmas and Isabellas.
The rise of celebrity culture
Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur, author of “The Catholic Book of Baby Names” and “Letters to Mary from a Young Mother,” suspects television has something to do with Mary’s decline. Although the first color TVs were sold in 1953, it was another 10 years before they began to be common in homes, kindling the rise of celebrity culture. “People started to see characters on TV whose names they really liked,” Fagnant-MacArthur said. “And also, part of it is the focus on uniqueness that we have today. People want their children to have names that are different from their peers.”
Cohen, whose book “The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change” was published earlier this year, agrees that the declining popularity of naming girls Mary is not so much a statement on the secularization of American culture as one about the nation’s obsession with individuality. When Mary prevailed, “It was not an ideal to have an original or interesting or fashionable name. If you go back even farther, in some families, people would have two sons named John, in case one of them died. Individuality was not celebrated,” he said.
Moreover, it’s not a sign that an increasingly secular society is shunning religious names. The top boys’ names still include perennial favorites Jacob, Michael and Noah, and Cohen notes the recent phenomenon of “Nevaeh” – “heaven” spelled backward — which hit 25th in popularity in 2010.
“I don’t think it’s a rejection of biblical names, because Old and New Testament names like Daniel and Isaiah are very popular now. They are interesting and different, while feeling traditional,” said Janet Ozzard, executive editor of BabyCenter.com, which has been analyzing popular baby names for 17 years.
But there’s something about the disappearance of Mary, in particular, that no one can completely explain.
Can Mary make a comeback?
It’s possible that Mary, once considered too holy a name for common use, has simply become too common, or worse, too much the brunt of jokes. “When I was younger, people always sang ‘Mary had a little lamb’ or said ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ to me,” said Mary McDonald, born in 1995 (when Jessica reigned). “And I get a few religious jokes here and there: Mother Mary, Virgin Mary, where’s Joseph?”
But McDonald, a Catholic and a sophomore at Notre Dame University, likes her name, saying it connects her to her family, and especially her grandmother. And, “it’s short and easy to remember, and outside of Notre Dame, it’s fairly unique.”
That, Cohen says, may be the key to why names prevail today. Looking at blogs where people discuss baby names, he finds a contradictory preference for names that are “kind of unique.” Given this, Mary might experience a resurrection of sorts, like Emma did. That name was popular late in the 17th century, hit bottom in the 1970s (dropping way below Mary — down to No. 450), and then rebounded to hit No. 1 again in 2008. It’s possible that Mary could rocket back to the top again some day, ironically propelled by her current unpopularity.
But that may take awhile, since Mary has not completely disappeared in America; she’s just going gray.
The website howmanyofme.com says that overall, it’s still the fifth most common female name in America. Despite the decline of new Marys during the past half-century, there are still more than 4 million Marys among us. They’re just not on baby-name lists, but in the Social Security line.
And Christians should take heart that names don’t necessarily speak to the popularity of the namesake. There are nearly 247 million Christians in the U.S., after all — and just 250,713 people named Jesus.
Jennifer Graham is an East Coast journalist and author. On Twitter, she's @grahamtoday.