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I have read that "Marlene" Dietrich was originally named Maria Magdelena Dietrich. If this is true, would Marlene then be a contraction of of Maria Magdelena? Or did the name exist before Ms. Dietrich in other contexts for other people?

Born about the same time as Marlene Dietrich was a female film producer who went by the name "Leni." Apparently it was a contraction of the name Helene. Is Leni ONLY a reference to Helene, or can it be used to refer to women named Marlene, Arlene, Darlene, and similar names?

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Your finding is entirely correct. Marlene is a contraction fo Maria and Lena (short for Magdalena or Helena). This female name became popular by Marlene Dietrich, but was known before as we can see from this Google Ngram.

Etymologic roots of Maria (lat. for Hebrew "Mirjam") come from the Egyptian mry (loved one) and became one of the most popular names in Christian cultures. Magdalena is of Hebrew orgin too and became another popular name from the role she played as one of the few mentioned female followers of Jesus Christ. Helena on the other hand has Greek roots as Helen of Troy.

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I would only add that the Biblical Magdalena wasn't the ONLY female follower but just the most famous. ;-) Otherwise great research! –  Kevin Apr 22 '12 at 17:23
    
Meinte nicht pingelig zu sein. :-p –  Kevin Apr 22 '12 at 23:42

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