Help with baby number 3 - how important is the name meaning for future happiness

Hello my husband and I are expecting our third child (a girl) and have decided we both love the name "Mara" but the biblical meaning: "a bitter life" gives us pause.  Our other two children are Isla and Callum and both have Scottish/Irish names to honor our family's Scotch/Irish heritage and we prefer the garlic meaning of Mara "sea" to the biblical meaning but will the google search make life diffucult for her ?


March 7, 2017 4:37 PM

The easy answer is no, my four children all have Norman names, we're Irish but I am a historian and just love the plantagenants so my children have names from that period that also crop up in my family history. My eldest daughter who's now 24 is called isabelle, if you check the bible the only isabelle in the bible is a harlot! It's not affected my sweet girl one jot. My eldest Richard feels no pressure to be like his namesake Richard couer de lion either!! Mara is a beautiful name which she will totally make her own. My name Niamh means bright in Irish, hopefully it's a reflection if my intelligence and sunny disposition!!!! I like it, of course no one in America can pronounce it but that's ok! Good luck with number 3!!!!!! It's about to get crazy in your house x

March 7, 2017 5:53 PM

In my opinion, and I am a philologist by profession, name "meaning," origin, derivation is the least of it, but if it is important to individual parents, then they should be sure their information is accurate.  If you consider Mara as part of the Miriam-Mary family of names, then bitter is almost certainly a false etymology based on the misconception that the name has a Hebrew root.  Almost certainly Miriam, like Moses, is Pharaonic Egyptian.  So forget the bitter business; it does not apply.

" [I]f you check the bible the only isabelle in the bible is a harlot!"  Um, no. Isabelle is a form of Elizabeth (Elisheva), and the biblical woman with that name is the mother of St. John the Baptist.  Not a harlot!  In the Hebrew scriptures there is a woman named Jezebel (in Hebrew pronounced roughly Izabel).  But she is a Phoenician princess who becomes queen when she marries King Ahab.  Both Jezebel and Ahab have terrible reputations, but she is not in fact a harlot either.  Named biblical harlots include Delilah, Rahab, Gomer, and the sisters Oholah and Oholibah.  Tamar disguised herself as a ritual temple prostitute.  Other references to prostitutes are either nameless or metaphorical. Mary Magdalene, like Jezebel, developed over time a reputation as a harlot, but but like Jezebel, she is not so described in scripture.

March 9, 2017 6:22 PM

I'm most familiar with the name "Mara" from the Biblical story of Ruth where Naomi which  says "Don’t call me Naomi," she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter."  I'm neither a philologist nor a Hebrew expert (though I love the great tidbits that Miriam and others provide on here about name derivations), but this looks like a clear link between "Mara" and "bitter" to me.  I've always assumed (wrongly perhaps) that baby name books got the meaning for the Mary-family of names from Mara.  Once I learned that Mary probably has an alternate etymology, I've imagined (wrongly perhaps) that Mara is an unrelated sound-alike name.  I'd be delighted to be educated differently if I'm wrong though.

That said, I agree with everyone else that a name's "meaning" has little impact on future happiness--unless that name meaning is readily obvious and inescapable every time the name is used.  For example, a child named "Hitler" or "Despair" would probably come to resent his name.  In the case of Hitler, the problem isn't the original derivation but the what the name has come to mean to modern ears.  In the case of Despair, the problem is the meaning of the word itself.

Mara just sounds like a name.  It's historical use (meaning bitter or otherwise) is not at the forefront of people's minds when they use the name--at most it is a curiosity.  At some point growing up, I read in a baby-naming book* that my middle name (from the Mary family) meant "bitter."  I asked my Mom why she gave me a name meaning bitter.  She pointed out to me that her Mom (my grandmother) gave her two names the Mary family (first and middle).  (Neither of us know if Granny meant to do that on purpose or not.  Her first name doesn't sound like it comes from the Mary family.)  We had a laugh and moved on.  No lives ruined.

Far more important is the significance of your daughter's name for you.  What you tell her about why you loved her name and gave it to her can imbue her with more than enough pride in her name to overwhelm any external "meanings" that are largely unknown by larger population.  If you are choosing between two equally loved names, then name derivation can be a good tie-breaker, but I wouldn't use it to rule out a favorite that works for your family in every other way.

*Many thanks to those on these boards that have opened my eyes over the years to the massive inaccuracies in baby naming books.

March 9, 2017 6:45 PM

Well, there is 100% a connection between the word mara and bitter, but not necessarily between the name Mara and bitter. I'm no expert, but I wonder if in the biblical story, Mara is used more as a description than a name - literally as an adjective. In Hebrew, mar means bitter, but since Hebrew has gendered nouns, there is also a female version of the adjective, which is mara. So by asking to be called mara, she's basically saying to call her the bitter (female) one, much like how she could have been called "ketana" (small) or  chachamah (smart) or any other female adjective. I suspect that the name came about via a different route, but that's just a hunch.

And although I am fully aware of the connection between the word mar(a) and bitter, I know somone named Mara and never once made that association.

March 9, 2017 8:45 PM

It is my impression also that in the Biblical story, "bitter" is used as a descriptive label, not a name. I've also usually seen it written as Marah, not Mara, although I haven't a clue which (if either) is more accurate as a transcription.

My favorite baby name book (besides BNW) says something to the effect of "you wouldn't expect a person named Holly to be glossy green and prickly, would you?" (The example name may actually be Heather, but I'm too lazy to go upstairs and find the book to look it up.) For names derived from other languages, the meaning of the root word(s) is even less relevant. My name traditionally "means" "downy-bearded", but I can attest that the pesky things I occasionally pluck from my chin are anything but downy (and nothing like a beard, thank goodness).

March 9, 2017 9:34 PM

To the extent they are historical, the events described in Exodus most likely took place sometime in the period of 1400-1200 BCE.  Pharaohs advanced as possible candidates for the pharaoh of the exodus include Thutmose III and Ramses III.  The names Moses and Miriam are believed to be from Egyptian roots, Moses and Thutmose sharing a root.  Both Exodus and the Book of Ruth are believed to date from the Babylonian exile, roughly a thousand years  later than the date of the events depicted in Exodus.  By the time that these texts were written down, any knowledge that these names were derived from the Egyptian language was long lost.  In fact Jewish tradition specifically gives the enslaved Hebrews credit for retaining their original names and not taking Egyptian names. Hence the false etymology developed because by the time of the Exile the name Miriam was believed to derive from the Hebrew root meaning bitter, cf. with maror, the bitter herbs of the Passover seder plate (today usually represented by horseradish or lettuce). Hence the use of Mara in Ruth is either an adjectival noun as Karyn suggested, or it is basically an allegorical name based on a false etymology.

A more recent example of the allegorical use of a name based on a false etymology is Tristan.  In medieval literature the romance hero Tristan is described as sad, based on the French word triste.  In fact Tristan is a Pictish name Drustan, probably from a root meaning riot, disruption, nothing to do with sadness.  Another example: Rosamund, which is falsely etymologized as rose of the world, when in fact it is a Germanic bithematic name derived from words for horse and hand, protection.

March 7, 2017 5:27 PM

Why would name "meaning" affect a child's future happiness? What does your name mean and has it affected your happiness? 

My name ostensibly (probably doesn't) means "industrious." I have a "beloved" sister and a variant of John (so I guess that would be "God is gracious") sister. We're all equally beloved, I have met far more industrious people than myself, and my parents and the rest of the family are atheist. So name meaning has had precisely zero effect on anything.

Mara almost certainly doesn't mean a bitter anything, as the regulars will probably be along to point out, as well as the fact that names don't have meanings anyway. If it's what you love, go with it, tell her it means "sea," and if she googles her name and comes up with "bitter," tell her to look harder!

March 7, 2017 5:59 PM

"if she googles her name and comes up with "bitter," tell her to look harder!"

I love that--it's never too early to get them started with information literacy and critical thinking :).

March 8, 2017 11:29 PM

Thank you all so much for your comments! 

March 8, 2017 11:53 PM

I totally agree with the others, but just wanted to leave you with my first thought, which was that you should consider the name Maura instead. It's but a dipthong away from Mara, but more in keeping wiht the Scotch/Irish heritage. I really love the name.