In Search of the Meaning of Mary
Mary. Having remained in the US Top 100 for over a century, she has a strong case to be the most classic of all girls’ names. She enjoyed the same status in countless countries and cultures: just as no name is as quintessentially English as Mary, it’s hard to get more French than Marie, more Russian than Mariya, or more Arabic than Maryam.
What’s less clear is what the name means. A quick scan of the first page of Google results gives a cacophony of contradictory answers: “bitter”, “sea of bitterness”, “star of the sea”, “wished-for child”, “rebellious” and “beloved”, to cite just a few.
Why, one asks, are there so many rival theories? Is it at all possible to disentangle the etymologically plausible from the unfounded, or should lovers of the name and linguists alike renounce the quest of knowing with any certainty what Mary means?
The Origins of Mary
In order to answer this question, we need to retrace the history of the name back to Miriam of the Book of Exodus, prophet and sister of Moses and Aaron. By the 1st century, her name was already so well-loved that it is borne by at least six women in the New Testament, many of whom have been endlessly confused with one another.
Although vowels were originally not written in Hebrew, making the earliest form of the name Mrym, the translators of the Bible into Greek rendered it as Mariam. In the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible read and studied throughout Western Christendom in the Middle Ages, it became Maria. This became Marie in French, and finally Mary when it came into common usage in Norman England.
In Search of the Meaning of Mary
Most attempts to interpret the meaning of Miriam’s name have assumed that it derives from the Hebrew language.
One common suggestion is that it is a combination of the adjective mar, “bitter”, and the noun yam, “sea”, but this is linguistically problematic since Hebrew adjectives usually follow the noun rather than preceding them.
Another proposal is that it comes directly from the Hebrew noun marah, “bitterness”. This does appear as a name in the Old Testament: in the Book of Ruth, Naomi, aggrieved, renames herself Mara. The linguistic steps needed to derive Miriam from Mara are, however, far-fetched at best.
St. Jerome proposed a combination of the nouns mar, “drop”, and yam, “sea”. These words are not attested in any other Biblical names, but this theory does at least explain the spelling of Miriam, making “drop of the sea” perhaps the most convincing Hebrew option.
Jerome translated this interpretation into Latin as stilla maris, which was later misread as stella maris, “star of the sea”. This happens to be one of the epithets of the Virgin Mary, and is for this reason popularly, but incorrectly, cited as the name’s meaning.
Another derivation that has been proposed is from the Hebrew rama, “desired” or “wished for”, but besides the fact that rama usually means “height” rather than “desired”, the jump from this word to Miriam seems implausible.
The last major possible Hebrew etymology is from meri, “rebellion”, or from the verb marah “to rebel”, but again the jump from either of these to Miriam is a stretch.
Another tantalising possibility is that Miriam’s name was not actually Hebrew at all, but Egyptian. This would make sense since her brother Aaron’s name is generally accepted to be of Egyptian derivation, and this may well be the case for Moses as well.
One theory is that Miriam derives from the Egyptian mr, meaning “beloved”, which is the root of Ancient Egyptian names such as Meritamun (“beloved of the god Amun”). Unfortunately, the scarcity of surviving sources of the Ancient Egyptian language means makes it difficult to retrace what steps would be needed to derive Miriam from mr, or to definitively evaluate how convincing an etymology this is. Nevertheless, the possibility that the name has Egyptian roots remains a persuasive solution to the mystery of its origins.
The most likely contenders for Mary’s meaning are therefore “drop of the sea” from the Hebrew, or an uncertain Egyptian meaning, perhaps “beloved”. Ultimately, it seems that we will have to accept this plurality of possibilities as resulting from the fact that the origins of the name stretch so far back into antiquity, right back to the cradle of the Abrahamic religions.
Beyond the Literal Meaning of Mary
Indeed, Mary and all her variants across cultures have tended to be first and foremost used for their religious significance, leading to this rather replacing etymological meaning in the eyes of many.
For Jews, Miriam the sister of Moses is one of the most important female prophets. In Islam, Mariam the mother of Isa (Jesus) is the only woman mentioned in the Quran and is viewed as the greatest of women. In Christianity, meanwhile, the Blessed Virgin is regarded as the Mother of God: in Catholicism, notably, she is deeply venerated and has a rich personal theology and iconography.
And due to being such a continuous favourite across history and around the world, all the forms of the name have amassed a treasure trove of other associations, from novelist Mary Shelley to pioneering scientist Marie Curie.
Mary’s simple appearance and uncertain meaning therefore belie her unparalleled cultural significance.