Revisited Spotlight Name: Martha

In memory of Rob’s grandmother, Martha, who passed away on April 14th at the age of 94, I am re-running the Spotlight I did on her name a couple of years ago. 


Rob’s family photo. His grandmother, known by the French MeMere (pronounced Mem-may) is in the center, back row. This was a French Canadian potato farming family that lived in Maine when the picture was taken.


Martha can be the polished, sophisticated business woman. Martha can be the girl next door. If you’re looking for a cute nickname there’s Marty, but Martha is great on its own.

Martha has much credibility. The biblical name also happens to be the name of the US’s very first, first lady.

Martha’s time for a revival has almost passed. She peaked in the 1880s, around the same time as other modern revival names, like Anna and Emma, that have been popular for almost a decade already. Anna has already begun to decline.

However, parents may not have grown tired of the 1880s yet. For proof, see Alice and Clara’s recent rise: Alice jumped 28 places in 2010, ranking at 172, and Clara has climbed steadily the past decade, ranking slightly ahead of Alice at 167.

Update: Both names continue to rise, though Alice is now slightly ahead of Clara. Most recently (in 2012), Alice ranked at 127 and Clara ranked at 136.

Yet Martha continues to decline, dropping over 300 places the past decade, ranking at 697 in 2010. Update: In 2011 Martha dropped to 763 and then rebounded slightly. In 2012 Martha ranked at 730.  I’m not sure why this is, but I’m not really concerned with why, but rather I want to draw attention to an underused gem.

Like many names that appeal to parents, Martha can have many faces. In addition to the first-First Lady, there’s:

  • Model-turned-stockbroker-turned-entrepreneur, Martha Stewart
  • 80’s MTV personality, Martha Quinn
  • Fox News personality, Martha MacCallum
  • And finally, Martha Plimpton who may not be a household name, but whose face would be recognized from several movies, notably The Goonies and Beautiful Girls. Currently she has a regular role in the hit Fox comedy, Raising Hope (another fantastic name).

My husband’s grandmother is Martha, and there’s a good chance many of today’s parents have a grandmother, great-grandmother or great-aunt Martha. The name stayed close to the top 30 until around World War II.

I had briefly considered Martha as a middle name had our son been a girl. But its hard to say if Martha could have ended up on another birth certificate in our family.

When I first mentioned Martha as a potential middle name to Rob, his response was, “Like in Martha Washington. That’s cool.”

When he started nixing every girl name on my list, I thought despite my dislike of alliteration with our M last name, perhaps Rob would agree to Martha as a first name.

When I mentioned Martha again, his response was, “Martha? Isn’t that sort of old?”

And that is the most likely reason Martha is still on the decline; she is still seen as “old” to many modern parents. Why some great-grandmother names are seen as charmingly vintage while others are seen as dusty relics is sometimes a mystery.

Consider this though: Martha has more history and stability than early 20th century flash-in-the pan Gladys. While Gladys still ranked lower than Martha in 2010, I had met a little Gladys at my daughter’s library playgroup. The other parent’s reaction to Gladys on a little one was positive.

Update: Despite the positive reactions Gladys got in my daughter’s library playgroup a few years ago, the numbers don’t suggest Gladys is about to turn around anytime soon. Gladys has been outside the top 1000 since 2000, and its birth numbers have continued to drop. Martha appears to be the name more likely to come back, which (in my opinion, anyway) is a bit of a relief. 

Personally, I would much rather see a little Martha, a name that has the same classic charm as Anna and Emma. Adding even more potential, those stylish Brits appreciate Martha, ranking her at 85 in 2010. As mentioned in my post on nickname names, the UK trends are sometimes a precursor to US trends.

Update: In the UK, Martha has since risen to 77 in 2012. 

For those looking for something a little more exotic and spunky there’s Marta with origins in several European countries, including Spain, Portugal, Poland, Norway, and Italy. Marta was also one of the children in The Sound of Music.

Before I began to consider Martha, I had turned to Marta three or four years ago. Martha still seemed a bit dusty to me at the time. However, after realizing the appeal of Martha, I like that name even more than Marta now.

From what I learned from Rob’s relatives at his grandmother’s funeral this past Monday, Martha was an incredibly hard worker; she was a farmer, a seamstress and cooked everything from scratch. She was in good health. She didn’t have an easy life, but she had a good life. I like Martha even more today than I did when I wrote this a couple of years ago. 

Readers: Perhaps at some point I will run a new poll on Martha later, but for now the original poll on Martha can be found on the original Spotlight on Martha.


  1. I love that you did this, Angie. What a nice way to honor Rob’s grandmother.

  2. I’m sorry to hear about your family’s loss, Angela. Martha is one of those rare, “soft-but-strong” feminine names, and I’ve always thought it deserved more use. I’d be happy to see it hop the pond, though the belief that trends in the UK predate US trends sort of scares me! My favorite name is currently only being used in the UK, and I’d like it to stay that way…selfish, I know 😉

  3. Jennifer R. says:

    So sorry for your loss Angela. We lost my great grandmother two years ago at 97, and still feel the loss as it changed our family forever. Still – it is amazing to look at the big family that came from one person. My great grandma had 2 children, who then made 6 grandkids, and from those, 10 great grand kids, and soon to be 2 great-great grandkids. Family is such a blessing!

    Martha is an interesting name to me. I see it’s appeal when compared to Emma, Clara, and other classic choices. But I don’t think it is one that will be coming back though, simply because of the “THA” ending like Bertha and Agatha. Still a pretty name well worth consideration if you have a family connection. 🙂 It will always be a classic like Mary in my mind.

  4. Thanks for the condolences everybody.

    @Jennifer R. You make a good comparison to Bertha and Agatha. But Martha does seem more classic than those choices, like you said. The Ma beginning seems softer than the Be and especially Ag.

    I am not a fan of the Ag sound, although I think Aggie can be cute. I hear a lot of people raving about another Ag name, Agnes. I think Aggie can bring back Agnes and Agatha the same way Abbie brought back Abigail.

    Agatha may have a chance, but I still prefer Martha. 🙂

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