Mad Men and Megan: Spotlight on a Misunderstood Name

Oct 20th 2010

Reader Lila wrote,

I know that Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, is meticulous in his attention to precise historical detail. But am I right in thinking that the name of Don Draper's new love interest, Megan, is something of an anachronism? Her character probably would've been born around 1940.

Anachronism it is, unlike most Mad Men names. The name Megan didn't come into common use in North America until the 1950s. In 1940, only nine girls in the U.S. were named Megan -- fewer than forgotten names like Cleva, Trellis, Nezzie, Icy and Doyce. Canada, the supposed birthplace of the TV Megan, was much the same.

Add the Sterling Cooper agency to the long list of folks who have misunderstood Megan. The #1 misconception is about the name's heritage. Spellings like Meaghan look like throwbacks to Irish roots for an Anglicized name, e.g Brighid for Bridget. In fact, Megan was never Irish to start with: it's a Welsh nickname for Margaret. That makes Meaghan something I've referred to as a "Häagen-Dazs name," carefully crafted to suggest ethnic origins it doesn't really have.

Much credit for the Irishization of Megan goes to author Colleen McCullough, who named her oh-so-Irish heroine of The Thorn Birds Meghann Cleary. The bestselling novel was published in 1977, and the names Meghann and Meaghan both debuted on the U.S. popularity charts the following year. A second boost followed in 1983, when the book became a smash TV miniseries. You can see the powerful Thorn Birds influence in this graph of the various Megans, via the Expert NameVoyager:


Only the standard spelling existed in significant numbers pre-Thorn Birds. Even that spelling, though, isn't as "traditional" as you might think. Old records of Megans are scanty, probably because the name was mostly used as an affectionate nickname. It's simply Meg with the Welsh diminutive -an. As a given name it was virtually unknown until David Lloyd George, Britain's only Welsh Prime Minister, bestowed it on a daughter. (His other children included Gwilym, Olwen and Mair.) The rate of Megans in the U.K. rose a hundred fold under Lloyd George's watch, and a new given name was born. Think of it as the Malia of a century ago.

Megan didn't cross the Atlantic until the mid-century rush of Karens, Susans and Sharons sent American parents looking for more names with that modern sound. Megan, Lauren, and Erin were the next wave.

All in all, that's a busy century for the name Megan. From occasional Welsh nickname to British given name to all-American given name to a name of misplaced (though well-meaning) Irish pride. And now we can toss in anachronistic emblem of the '60s modern New York working girl. Perhaps the take home lesson is that Megan is a supremely flexible name, ready to be whatever you want it to be.

Comments

1
By gwyneth (not verified)
October 20, 2010 12:30 PM

Note also that the character was raised in a french household, a step removed from the likelyhood of a name like Megan, but also subject to different name probabilities.

2
By bebe (not verified)
October 20, 2010 12:38 PM

Maybe it is short for something and we don't know yet. Or maybe she took it on to sound less French. The funny thing is that Peggy Olson's given name actually is Margaret.

3
By Guest
October 20, 2010 1:02 PM

**to hijack the thread for a moment**

I am 36 weeks pregnant with daughter #2 and we are having a terrible time picking a first name! Our last name starts with a B and is one syllable so we find that eliminates most B names and requires a longer first name.

Daughter #1 is Kathryn Leona (middle name after her great grandmother)

We've decided on Grace for the middle name of daughter #2 (also after a great grandmother) but are having trouble with the first name combo.

I LOVE Cecilia Grace, but my husband feels that is has an Italian flavour (which is not our heritage and as such feels funny about using it).

He LOVES either:
-Olivia Grace
-Abigail Grace
-Sarah Grace

All of which I like the sound of but don't like how popular they have become... I don't want her to be like the Jennifers and Jessicas of my era!

We both like Margaret (nn Maggie) but since that is my sisters middle name and his grandmothers name we feel like that might be too many name sakes. We like to honour people with the middle name but perhaps keep her first name uniquely her own... does that makes sense?

I am regular reader of this great blog and hoped another reader might have suggestions I haven't thought of yet. Any help would be appreciated!

4
By Jennie NLI (not verified)
October 20, 2010 1:21 PM

@Guest -- Your question is just begging for the new Name MatchMaker to offer solutions! i'm not logged in at the moment but will try to check later.

5
By JB
October 20, 2010 2:13 PM

Ok, Guest, I did a MatchMaker search on your husband's faves but limiting it to names that are not so popular currently and then I did a MatchMaker search on Cecilia but told it to avoid Italian... here are some names that came up (with a couple of spelling variations) on both lists:

Helena
Naomi

and here are some other suggestions that came up separately but which I thought seemed like possible middle grounds... I also thought you could put in Kathryn and Leona, but since Leona was a namesake, I wasn't sure...

Emilie
Ingrid
Marina
Annalise
Carina
Elisabeth
Camille
Corrine
Antonia

6
By Eo (not verified)
October 20, 2010 2:43 PM

Guest, I think your instinct is very smart to look elsewhere than Olivia, Abigail or Sarah Grace, if you want something not overwhelmingly popular...

JB had lovely suggestions. Since you like Cecilia, may I also suggest "Cecily"? It is closely related, has a great sound, has not yet boomed in popularity, and "Kathryn and Cecily" sound wonderful together.

Just as a side note-- If I did love Cecilia, the Italian connection would only enhance the name for me, and I have no Italian background at all.

The English have a long tradition, stretching back through the eighteenth century (not to mention way before, in Shakespeare, no less!) of "appropriating" Italian and Italianate names like "Bianca", "Alessandra", "Maria", "Beatrice" and on an on, too many to mention.
It's a lovely sub-category of "English" girls' names.

So, not trying to convince you, but just offering, for general consideration, another perspective on the 'borrowing' of names from other cultures...

7
October 20, 2010 3:37 PM

I'm feeling particularly unrooted by this article even though I already knew the facts. My name is Erin, my husband's is Brian and his sister's is Megan. Once when we were all together, someone commented that we must be from an Irish family. Not a bit. Our parents were just on trend in 1984-87. Kinda irritating like that.

8
October 20, 2010 3:48 PM

To me Sarah shouldn't be put with Olivia and Abigail as names that are suddenly popular. It's been popular a lot longer and it fits well with Kathryn. Both are timeless names that have had enduring popularity which are the opposite of trendy. Cecilia and to some extent Margaret also fits well in that category. Other timeless names that would sound nice with Grace in the middle: Anna, Joanna, Leah, Elizabeth.

Another thought: Could you get to Maggie with Magdalene or Magdalena?

I also agree that Cecilia doesn't ring particularly Italian to me but I know several non-Italian Cecilias and no Italian Cecilias. Would Celia be less Italian sounding?

Would the name Celeste be an option?

9
October 20, 2010 4:22 PM

"...Megan is a supremely flexible name, ready to be whatever you want it to be."

The special Megan in my life is the bright, spirited 9-year-old daughter of Vietnamese immigrant friends. Her parents chose the name Megan because it's a name they were hearing (they both completed college here) that was a good match for the wife's name, Mien. Megan's full name is Megan Phu0ng My D__. I call her Megan; she calls me Nana. :-) Megan suits her perfectly.

10
October 20, 2010 4:22 PM

Laura, so glad to see this post!

I'm a 1970 Megan, and if I had a nickel for every "what a lovely Irish name" comment, I'd be a wealthy woman! Being equal parts Welsh and Irish (and many other things), I usually just say "thank you" and grumble to myself.

My parents choose the name in part because it was Welsh to match my Welsh last name. Even as a kid, I was disappointed to have a nickname for a name, and think Margaret is much heftier/grander name.

(Ironically, my dad did work in an Ad Agency much like the one in Mad Men at the same time period. My mom was in the fashion world- I often think my name was due to their professions as "trend-spotters", given that they beat the trend by 7-10 years).

11
October 20, 2010 4:30 PM

Guest with the naming dilemma:
I'm with your husband regarding Sarah Grace. Sarah is classic and timeless, just like Kathryn. Kathryn and Sarah are lovely together.

(After writing that, I looked at Expert Name Matchmaker's matches with Kathryn: Sarah was the first name that came up.)

I like Celia too (which I pronounce with 2 syllables).

12
October 20, 2010 4:39 PM

I was pleased to see this post as well. Ever since Megan was introduced as a character, I've been grumbling about the unlikelihood of her name. For some reason, it stands out more than Bethany and Allison -- two other characters introduced this season with equally anachronistic names.

And yet the show does get it right sometimes. A recent episode, set in 1965, introduced a newborn named Tammy.

13
October 20, 2010 5:22 PM

Love the post. Megan W, I have to say that as classic as Margaret is, I prefer Megan. Margaret seems stuffy to me but Megan seems a bit more spunky.

Laura W-Does Shannon also have a similar graph to Megan, Lauren, and Erin? It is my favorite 70's "irish" name.

guest-I agree that Sarah does not quite fit in the mold that Olivia and Abigail do. They are all nice names though. Most any name would "match" with your other daughter's classic name. The ideas that you have gotten from the ENM are good. For comparison though, I have to use Nymbler and throw out a few more. By inputting Kathryn, Cecelia, Sarah, Olivia, Abigail the first page brings up these:
Victoria; Elizabeth; Laura; Johanna; Charlotte; Celia; Grace; Juliet; Ava; Nina; Julia; Eve; Elisa; Sara; Rachel
So not very much to use there. I think Victoria is pretty good. Rachel was one I was going to suggest though. Others I thought of:
Audrey; Lydia; Madeline; Natalie; Eleanor; Alexandra; Theresa; Danielle; Chloe; Zoe; Marjorie. Best wishes!

14
By Julie_O (not verified)
October 20, 2010 5:45 PM

FYI, Peggy is ALWAYS a nickname for Margaret.

15
October 20, 2010 6:45 PM

So if I understand this right Megan is a Scottish nickname which combines the standard Meg with the Scottish -an ending. That seems to support the Meg-an pronunciation. So where does the Me-gan pronunciation of Megan come from? I've always really liked the Meg-an pronunciation.

And Megan W. if I had to pick a name for my self I'd prefer Megan to Margaret. To me it doesn't have the same nickname feel as say just naming a daughter Meg or Maggie.

16
October 20, 2010 7:53 PM

"For some reason, it stands out more than Bethany and Allison -- two other characters introduced this season with equally anachronistic names."

I have already held forth on the extreme anachronism of naming someone born in the late 1930s-early 1940e Bethany. However, Allison/Alison was entirely possible at that time. I am only slightly younger than Megan, Allison and Bethany are on the show, and I had several acquaintances named Alison/Allison--sat next to one at graduation when I got my bachelor's degree, as it happens.

Another Laura, as Laura W. noted in her entry, Megan is Welsh, not Scots. The Scots nickname would be Maisy.

17
By Steve Paradis (not verified)
October 20, 2010 7:57 PM

Megan David is the name of a young woman in John Galsworthy's story "The Apple Tree", published in 1916. She's the embodiment of young beauty and innocence. The story is here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2684/2684-h/2684-h.htm#2H_4_0023

It would be hard to overstate the popularity of Galsworthy in the first half of the last century, and it's just the sort of thing a professor would have read.

It was filmed in 1988 as "A Summer Story"

18
By Julica Ipswich (not verified)
October 20, 2010 8:29 PM

Good catch on Megan. Similarly, one thing that always bothered me about the 1980s-set Freaks and Geeks was what they decided to name the show's two girl geeks: Lindsay (the pretty geek) and Millie (the geeky geek). The former wasn't popular until long after the character was born; the latter had gone out of fashion long before. As it turned out, these name choices were a pretty good reflection of the thought that was put into writing female characters on that show.

19
October 20, 2010 9:23 PM

Ah two of my favourite topics, Mad Men and The Thorn Birds! Megan annoys me too in Mad Men and I didn't think her being Canadian and speaking French made it any more likely, so I'm glad that I wasn't just making that up :)

I did like the use of Tammy for Trudy and Pete's baby I thought it was pretty spot on.

Guest: I think Sarah works well with Kathryn and can be used despite it's popularity. I like many of the other suggestions but was also going to suggest Elizabeth and Eleanor but see I've been beaten to it!

20
By Caro21 (not verified)
October 20, 2010 9:33 PM

I was also bothered that one of the ad exec's wives was named Jennifer. She too would have been born in the '40s, and that just doesn't seem to fit, to me.

21
By Julica Ipswich (not verified)
October 20, 2010 9:44 PM

I just remembered that Agatha Christie's 1942 novel The Moving Finger features a Megan, an ungainly but charming 19-year-old who ends up engaged to the main character.

22
October 20, 2010 10:16 PM

Miriam - thanks for catching me on that I should have said the -an was a Welsh ending. But my question on pronunciation remains.

23
By EVie
October 20, 2010 10:38 PM

Guest - Not sure how much sway this will have over your husband, but here are my 2 cents: I don't see Cecilia as too Italian at all. Sure, it's a name that is used in Italy, but that form of the name is the original Latin, so it pre-dates the notion of "Italian" by many hundreds of years (unlike names like Elisabetta, Giovanna, Vittoria, Francesca, Alessandra—those are names that I consider exclusively Italian, as they are originally-Italian spelling variants).

Moreover, the name Cecilia has been in use in English-speaking countries for hundreds of years—there are Cecilias recorded in the Middle Ages. There is a classic English novel published in 1782 titled Cecilia, in which the heroine is an English heiress. According to this Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecilia), the spelling Cecilia is also used in the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Seems like a pretty international name to me.

And the kicker: the way you will be pronouncing Cecilia (seh-SEE-lee-ah, I'm guessing, with 99% confidence), it's not an Italian name at all, because the Italian version of the name is pronounced cheh-CHEE-lee-ah.

But if that doesn't convince him, I agree with Eo's suggestion of Cecily as a great and bona fide English alternative.

In the interests of suggesting other names—what is it that you like about Cecilia? Are you looking for other names with a Latinate flavor?

24
By EVie
October 20, 2010 10:54 PM

another Laura - from what I've gathered, I'm pretty sure you're right that MEG-un is the correct original pronunciation of Megan. I have to imagine that MEE-gun and MAY-gun are just mistakes that got institutionalized, although to some degree they may also have to do with regional accents. I have some friends who pronounce the word "egg" as AYG instead of EG. I imagine that they would also pronounce Megan as MAY-gun. No idea how MEE-gun would come about, though.

25
October 20, 2010 11:40 PM

Cool... love the concept of Haagen-Dazs name!

Guest@3: I agree that Sarah is in a different category than Olivia and Abigail. So it depends what your concern is. If it's with the name being date-stamped, I don't think that's much of a concern with Sarah. If it's with the number of Sarahs in a classroom, if I'm reading NameVoyager correctly, there are about 2000 Sarahs in every 1,000,000 babies. So that's 2/1000 right? That doesn't seem so bad actually. Odds are, she'd be the only one at her high school, right? I also like the other suggestions of Natalie and Celia for you.

26
By Skyla (not verified)
October 20, 2010 11:57 PM

I think you're right about it being an accent thing, EVie. I say MAY-gun and AYG. I've never heard anyone pronounce it MEE-gun. But I am also unsure how else one would pronounce egg - do some people say EEG?

27
October 21, 2010 12:47 AM

I actually like Cecily more than Cecilia it seems less "s" heavy. But, although etymologically it's not Italian it still can seem that way because of it's closeness to Sicily.

28
By carriefromFrance (not verified)
October 21, 2010 5:04 AM

I think also like you. Probably she's called Marguerite, french form of Margaret. She took it as a nickname when she first came in US to sounds less french and more trendy.

29
By carriefromFrance (not verified)
October 21, 2010 5:07 AM

Like #2 bebe

30
By Meredith44 (not verified)
October 21, 2010 8:32 AM

I was born in 1944 and my best friend growing up was named Megan. Nobody seemed to think it was an unusual name. I was the one who had the problem name, Meredith. People always did a double-take on that one. They usually asked me why I had a boy's name.

31
By EVie
October 21, 2010 10:06 AM

Skyla - I pronounce "egg" and "Megan" with the same vowel as in "bed" or "bell." Does that help?

32
By Edith Bouvier Beale (not verified)
October 21, 2010 10:26 AM

Guest: For what it's worth, I know a family with a daughter named Kathryn (Kate, most of the time) and a daughter named Sarah. They have a sister named Molly (who might really be Mary--I'm not sure), in case you want to file that away for the future!

33
By talia_bl (not verified)
October 21, 2010 11:15 AM

Thanks for your input everyone! I am having trouble posting under my actual name(talia_bl), so sorry for being "Guest"...

Using your many suggestions on my husband last night I was able to expand the list to include the following:

- Cecilia (YAY! I was finally able to convince him it isn't an Italian name with your excellent proofs!) although he still isn't crazy about it
- Naomi
- Lydia
- Eleanor
- Amelia

plus the original Olivia, Sarah and Abigail.

I would have loved to include the suggestions of Victoria and Evelyn but my neice is Victoria and we thought that Evelyn was too close to Kathryn with the "yn" ending. We both really like Elizabeth as well but don't like Liz or Beth and pretty much 100% that she'd get at least one of those!

We both really like Sarah and I will admit that I do feel more confident using it despite popularity because of its classic, timelessness. I guess Sarah Grace just seems so plain and simple (not that that is bad!).

Despite my excellent arguments my husband is still convinced that Olivia is a timeless classic similar to Elizabeth, Sarah and Katherine (Kathryn)... so I am finding it frustrating lol!

Anyways, sorry for the long post - thanks again for your suggestions and keep them coming.

34
By Ash (not verified)
October 21, 2010 11:49 AM

talia_bl -- have you shown your husband the Name Voyager graph for the name Olivia? Since the other proofs we've offered seem to help, that would show him that Olivia, while having antique sound and genuine history does not have the same always classic/in use/popular numbers as Sarah, Katherine and Elizabeth.

That said, I love all the names on your list!

35
By MeghanMG (not verified)
October 21, 2010 1:10 PM

My mother and grandmother always told me that my name, Meghan, was a variant spelling of my mother's maiden name, Meehan. But no one would want me to be called MEE-an, hence MEG-an. They weren't exactly Irishizing Megan, but actually using the last name with a spelling that could be pronounced like a girl's name.

36
By MeghanMG (not verified)
October 21, 2010 1:13 PM

Nicknames for Elizabeth other than Liz or Beth:

Libby, Betty, Betsy

37
By bebe (not verified)
October 21, 2010 1:16 PM

Julie_O said..."FYI, Peggy is ALWAYS a nickname for Margaret."

Of course, I didn't mean to imply that I'm surprised that Peggy's real name is Margaret. I mean that it's interesting that for Megan, given both the Megan/Don storyline and the Peggy/Don storyline this season (and in particular what Don said to Peggy at the end of the season about Megan), they decided to give this new character a name that would most likely in the period be a nickname for the same given name as Peggy's. Maybe they were intentionally giving them the same name in one way and different names in another.

38
By bebe (not verified)
October 21, 2010 1:20 PM

Maybe there's even meaning in the fact that Megan sounds so modern to our ears (to the point that it seems anachronistic) and Peggy so old-fashioned, even though at the time they were both just nicknames for Margaret.

39
October 21, 2010 2:59 PM

talia_bl, are you calling Kathryn her complete name or a by a nn? If she's primarily "Kathryn", then Sarah would seem to be a better sister name than Elizabeth, which, as you said, usually gets shortened. My favorite nns for Elizabeth are Betsy and Libby, but neither coordinates well with Kathryn -- but with Kate/Katie they're fine.

Your comment that Sarah Grace sounds "so plain and simple" reminds me of a post on YCCII: "The little black dress of a name is one of understated beauty and deceptive simplicity. From Grace Kelly to Grace Jones, women throughout the ages have embodied these names in a way that becomes specific to the individual. These eternal classics will serve any girl well and allow herself to wear the name, rather than the name wear her." Sarah isn't on the short list that follows (Grace is), but I think Sarah fits that description too: http://youcantcallitit.com/2008/05/19/little-black-dress/

40
By anon (not verified)
October 21, 2010 2:59 PM

what about Molly?

41
By MeeGun (not verified)
October 21, 2010 3:37 PM

So I am a MEE-gun. The pronunciation of my name appears to be anathema to many respondents of this article which i find interesting in this age of Staci (note the i rather than y) or Lyndsey (note the y rather than i). I had no more control over my name selection or pronunciation than anyone else so why the snark?

42
October 21, 2010 3:56 PM

Meegun-I wouldn't say that posters have said that it is a "wrong" pronunciation, but rather that it is counterintuitive to the way most of the population is pronouncing it. Thusly the Meg-an version is generally referenced as being the standard pronunciation.

talia_bl-If Sarah sound too plain what about Samantha? I love your new expanded list. I don't personally consider Naomi and Cecelia to be in the same style family as Kathryn. However, I think Kathryn can go many ways.

43
October 21, 2010 4:20 PM

No snark intended just genuinely interested in the development of names and their pronunciations. What might have sounded like a rhetorical question, "Where did the Mee-gan pronunciation come from?" could have a really interesting answer and one that some of the posters here might be able to share with me.

44
By talia_bl (not verified)
October 21, 2010 4:35 PM

I had forgotten about Libby being a nn for Elizabeth, I will have to remind my husband about that - I like it!

@ Patricia - we call her by her full name "Kathryn" and would intend to call the new baby by her full name as well, we are just realists that others will eventually shorten it! Interesting article on the "little black dress" of names... I would agree that Sarah would fit in well.

@ zoerhenne - I do like Samantha as well but a close family relative has that name already and my husband is adverse to male sounding nicknames (Sam), even though I think it is cute! I agree that Kathryn (esp. given the spelling) isn't in the same style as the above list but think overall still "goes" well with any those options.

Thanks again everyone! This is such a help!

45
October 21, 2010 6:15 PM

Re the pronunciation of Megan, here in Australia virtually every Megan I've known (and there are quite a few) is Mee-gun or Mee-gan. May-gun and Meg-an isn't really common here. I don't know whether it's just the way we pronounce things or the version that took off?

46
By Megan S. (not verified)
October 21, 2010 6:20 PM

I'm a Megan born in early 1977, but I'm pretty sure my parents never read The Thorn Birds. The reason they give is that they were naming me after my grandmothers, so they chose Megan as my first name as a version of my grandmother's name, Margaret. My middle name is the same as my other grandmother's middle name.

I didn't meet any other Megans growing up until late elementary school (it was a girl at my school who was one year older -- and I vaguely knew one Meaghan who was several years younger than I am who was a daughter of a colleague of my dad's). Then in middle school, I met one who has been my best friend ever since :)

I still hear people calling out for Megans (who knows what spelling!) almost everywhere I go, and I'm always interested in looking and finding out how old the girl is that they're calling. They're almost always younger than I am, but they range from very young to high school/college age.

47
October 21, 2010 10:07 PM

Hi everyone! I don't have a lot of time to post, but I just wanted to quickly pop in and let you all know that our baby girl is here! Mabel Susannah arrived Oct. 11, joining big brother Solomon Grey. Thank you all very much for your naming help!

48
October 21, 2010 10:32 PM

As a Mee-gun (named by NYC parents), I have asked many times where they got the long E from.

The most convincing claim my parents have made is that it is closer to the original Welsh. I have my doubts about the authenticity of this claim, but I'm not about to challenge my mom!

What I find striking/interesting about the name is the sound alike Regan and Reagan. There is no doubt how to pronounce those. Yet many people tell me to "correct" my spelling to Meagan to get the sound I'm looking for. Reagan does not convince me that this will help.

I'm curious if anyone knows about the "h" in Meghan.

49
By Amy3
October 22, 2010 5:41 AM

@Empathy, congratulations! Mabel and Solomon ... I'm in love with that sibset. Enjoy your new baby!

50
October 22, 2010 8:25 AM

talia_bl - So I was thinking about Sarah with Kathryn and I think I prefer Sara. Normally I like the "h" ending but with Kathryn being a steamlined take on Katherine it would seem that her sister should be Sara. I really like the two together by the way. I have a Katharine and on the way to the hospital to have her I was still agonizing if she should be a Sarah.

Big congratulations to empathy on baby Mabel!