Spotlight: Xavier

I started this post back in September, but was a bit overwhelmed by the depths of my emotion while writing it that I kept putting off finishing it, and putting it off and putting it off …

But I’m feeling energetic today, and I’ve got the Journey channel playing on Pandora, and I’m giving my older five haircuts, which is always a task that I sort of dread (even though I’m always happy at the outcome, and oh my are they looking shaggy right now), so I’m happy to have an interesting something to do in between shearings (they go right in the tub after, so I have a few minutes between each while I’m just letting them soak. So this post is an all-morning endeavor).

So: Xavier. Awesome awesome name. There is no cooler first initial than X, first of all, and St. Francis Xavier is just an amazing patron saint (side note: do you know the CCC saint movies? My boys love the Francis Xavier one — there’s fighting and swords and samurais and it just cannot get any better for a boy). It’s a bit trendy right now, but who cares when it’s got such deep Catholicky Catholic roots?! Also: trendy saint name=evangelization! Woo!

Xavier’s got great nicknames too — X, Xave, Xavey. There’s a little Xavier in my life who started out going mostly by Xavey but has recently declared that he prefers Xave. (He’s five.)

I know you’re wondering, so what’s the big deal? What’s with the “depths of emotion” that I mentioned in the beginning? Why on earth did I put off finishing this post for six long months?

One word: PRONUNCIATION.

Ohmyword, the conversations about the “proper” or “correct” or “only right” pronunciation of Xavier hit my very last name nerve.

This is the deal, this is *the only* thing anyone needs to know about the proper pronunciation of Xavier: There are more than one. Period the end.

Please don’t anyone feel offended if you believe there is only one right way to say it — I’m very sorry if I’m coming across too strong. I used to feel as you did, before I read (and read and read and read) America’s opinions about the pronunciation of Xavier.

For you linguist-types (which I’d like to include myself in, but I think a real linguist would laugh at me) I can give what I think is a pretty decent academic argument in favor of my position that both the ex-ZAY-vyer and ZAY-vyer pronunciations are valid.

Okay, to start: Yes, in American English, the basic rule is:

1. If the /X/ is between a vowel and consonant sound then it is usually pronounced as /KS/

2. If the /X/ is between two vowel sounds then it is usually pronounced as /GZ/

Of course, there is always an exception to every pronunciation rule in English.  If the letter X is at the beginning of a word, then it is sometimes pronounced Z.

Do note that “usually” and “sometimes” are used throughout that quote, and not once does it say “always” or “never”; this tells more about the exceptions to the “rule.”

Then there’s this:

Xylophone is from the Greek xylon, which is … pronounced with an initial [ks]. Many words borrowed from Greek via French developed a [gz] pronunciation along the way, which was reduced to [z] word-initially when adopted into English.”

and

“English, like some other languages, systematically reduces certain consonant clusters; but it has a conservative spelling system (which incidentally often reminds us where a word comes from).

The clusters we reduce are mostly in borrowings from other languages: particularly initial clusters /ks/ (‘x’), /pt/, /pn/ which are generally from Greek, but also for example /hr/ (and in fact /h/ anywhere but initial) as in “Tahrir square”.

This reduction happens in some native words as well: initial /kn/ as in ‘knave’ is pronounced /n/ in modern English, though the related word ‘Knabe’ in German still has the /k/ pronounced; and words like ‘night’, old English ‘niht’ (with the /h/ pronounced), cf German ‘Nacht’.”

Which I quite like, both because I’ve always wondered how it was that Xavier-pronounced-ex escaped the basic American English rule that x- words are pronounced with a z, and because it points out the “ks” idea, which I think is the key.

Here’s my hypothesis: What people variously call the ex-ZAY-vyer or eggs-AY-vyer or ig-ZAY-vyer pronunciation is really the evolution of an original ks-AY-vyer pronunciation. It’s pointed out in the Greek example above, and I was reading the other day a book called Polish First Names by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab and Ksawery is the Polish version of Xavier. There’s that Ks-!

But so many seem SO RELUCTANT to admit that both pronunciations are valid! And it doesn’t seem academic — it seems personal, empirical, subjective. Despite the fact that any name source that provides pronunciations always provides both (behindthename, babynamewizard, and nameberry are three examples [although Nameberry’s entry also includes this annoying and incorrect tidbit: “Note that though that the initial ‘x’ does have a distinct appeal, the correct pronunciation has it beginning with a ‘z’ sound”), people still insist that only one or the other is the *only* correct one (usually the ZAY-vyer pronunciation), usually based on their own experiences.

In my experience, ex-ZAY-vyer was the only pronunciation I knew, and I therefore thought it was the only one and certainly the correct one. As I learned more, I suspected it might be that the ex-ZAY-vyer pronunciation was more common in Catholic circles; even the Baby Name Wizard book had in its first edition that ex-ZAY-vyer was the “Catholic and X-men” pronunciation.

But then as I learned more, I discovered that that wasn’t watertight either — and even the BNW book, in its most recent edition, changed it to ex-ZAY-vyer being only the X-men pronunciation.

This discussion thread and this one too on the BNW forums suggested variations in pronunciation might be regional (and some also pointed to the idea of ex- being a Catholic pronunciation), but there were some commenters whose location and Catholicism seemed to dispute that. In fact, some of them pointed to the (Catholic) Xavier Universities as the benchmark for how to say the name … with a z:

the press in towns around the American Xavier Universities (one in Ohio, one in Louisiana) enjoy making fun of non-locals who do the “egg” pronunciation, even writing that when they quote the people, like during NCAA basketball tournaments, a time when these Catholic schools are more likely to be in the national spotlight”

and

“I spent 25 years in New Orleans, and I dare say the universities know how to pronounce their names

But then this, in the same thread, seemed much more balanced:

I’ve heard the Xavier University argument before, but I don’t find it convincing as far as what the English pronunciation of Xavier is *supposed* to be — all it says to me is the two universities chose ZAY-vyer as their pronunciation so yes, anyone who calls them ex-ZAY-vyer University would be incorrect, because that’s not their chosen pronunciation. I know other Catholic entities named after the saint that pronounce it ex-ZAY-vyer.”

I recently heard someone refer to the ex- pronunciation as an Americization (?) (by which she meant “incorrect”) of the proper pronunciation. A commenter on one of the threads linked to above said this:

This issue is SOLELY an anglophone problem for this Basque-origin name. Other languages, such as French and Spanish, have clear, single ways of pronouncing the name. And none of them try and and say “X,” whether that means “eks,” “eeks,” or “equis.” It’s solely from the British English and their anglicization of a foreign name, not part of the name’s origins. As I always tell people, you don’t pronounce “eks” to start xylophone, Xerxes, Xena, Xanadu, or Xanax, either.”

which sounds very fancy and educated, but she’s incorrect in that (1) I’ve already shown that both Greek and Polish say “ks” when beginning at least some x- words/names, which is what I argue the ex- pronunciation is really doing, and (2) while the examples she offers of various x- words and X- names are ones that are only said with a z sound, she didn’t include yet another exception to the “rule,” which bolsters my argument: Xenia.

Are any of you familiar with the name Xenia? It’s Greek, and also used in Poland and Russia, and while the ZEE-nyah pronunciation is used, it seems the ks-AYN-yah pronunciation is more prevalent. It’s even spelled Ksenia sometimes. (Also, how fun to know that several Sts. Xenia are revered in the Orthodox Church!) The BNW book includes it as an entry, so it must be used *enough* in the U.S., and yet there was no discussion of the “proper” pronunciation beginning with z, or that the ks pronunciation is wrong.

So what does this all boil down to? Both pronunciations are fine and acceptable. ex-ZAY-vyer is not incorrect, though I might be more inclined to call it the k-SAY-vyer pronunciation. I will absolutely support your right to pronounce your child’s name any way you wish (since, when it comes to proper names, no one has the market on the “correct” pronunciation, so say the Sisters that taught my mom) — but I will also argue tooth-and-nail with you if you try to tell me that the ex/ks pronunciation is wrong.

There. Glad to have that sorted.

I did try to come up with a list of names that are pronounced in such a way that don’t follow American English pronunciation “rules” and thought of Thomas (the Th pronounced T) and Camille (the i pronounced ee) and Padraig (no one bats an eye at saying PAW-drig instead of PAD-rig) and Siobhan (not easy for a lot of people to remember how to say, but I don’t hear anyone saying shi-VAUN is wrong) and Nathalie (the French spelling but as far as I know no one fusses and insists on saying the th as th rather than T like Thomas), also Rene(e) and Desiree …

One last thought: I saw someone online say once that the disagreement over the pronunciation of Xavier was enough to make her not want to even consider using it for her son. PLEASE do not let that be your takeaway from this post. It’s an AMAZING name with an amazing patron  saint. All that’s required when people wonder about the pronunciation or say your version is wrong is to state simply which pronunciation you use and that both are considered acceptable, just as you would if you named your daughter Lucia or Lara or Corinne. If they tell you you’re wrong, send them this link.

What do you think of all this? Have I lost any readers over my strong opinion that both pronunciations of Xavier are valid? Can you think of other proper names, used here in America, whose pronunciations don’t follow the “rules” and yet they’re accepted as fine?

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48 thoughts on “Spotlight: Xavier

  1. This makes me think, in a somewhat related way, to the names Seamus and Geoffrey.

    And, on a female spin to the concept of this post about Xavier, I think would be Therese.Talk about a “controversial” name. (te-REE-sa, te-REZ, te-REEse, te-Ray-sa) I know women/girls with each of the pronunciations for this name.

    Great post! Xavier is one of our fav names as well 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree that Therese is a very controversial name for pronunciation! I grew up saying “te-REESE”, and in the last 10 years started saying “te-REZ”. But I have a friend who pronounces this name, with the “e” ending “te-REE-sah”. So surprising to me!

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      • I’ve heard the -ah ending, but mostly in a foreign context — like I think it’s said that way in Germany? Interesting to me that you know Americans that say it that way!

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  2. I know twins named Zander and Xavier. The latter pronounced ZAY-vyer, probably to match the other brother’s name in beginning sounds and syllables (not to mention ending sounds and number of letters) while still being somewhat distinct and different names. I have seen this pronunciation (with a Z) more often, so I am more inclined to it. But I know there are others out there and always wonder which it is. I guess, in my option, pronouncing it with an X seems to add more syllables that I care for.

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      • I have also heard of Xander and Xavier, both pronounced with a Z. Xander, I think kind of like coming from Alexander, without the Ale at the beginning.

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      • I think, for twins I either like it better with Zander and Xavier, because then they at least have their own initials to distinguish, but Xander and Xavier are very pleasing to look at together. My son had a Xander on his baseball team last year, but I think it was a nickname for Alexander.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. Don’t you find, the older you get, the more people you meet, with various names/spellings/pronunciations-that you really can’t always ‘know’ what the ‘correct’ way to say someone’s name until they themselves say it? I taught at several different schools and definitely had an Xavier (pronounced with X) and another Xavier (different class) pronounced with the Z. I think it can also be connected regionally, depending on where the child’s parents were from (originally) and also, the culture of the family (Hispanic, Anglo, African-American, etc). Thanks for your research!

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  4. What an amazing amount of research! Objectively speaking, there are many fun & varied thoughts expressed here!
    I would simply like to offer the thought that it seems to boils down to respect for the person or place that bears the name & what the personal pronunciation happens to be.
    My Dad, God rest him, has Xavier in his name & always pronounced it eggs- zayvier…he was born in 1904 in Ireland. Is someone really going to say he promounced his own name wrong? I don t think so.
    Respect is the guideline that
    sounds right to me!

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    • Yes! I meant to mention Grampa and forgot to (I’d written a whole paragraph about him and then it didn’t fit where I had it and I meant to put it somewhere else and forgot to) … he’s a great example of how that pronunciation is NOT an “Americization” and that it’s as traditional in English as the other pronunciation.

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  5. Well, you just made me fall in love with this name all over again. It was on my list for #1, but got nixed before the final list because I was afraid it was the next big thing (I was wrong… yes, it’s rising, but it’s no Mason). I tend to prefer the Z pronunciation, however, in a practical sense, I have seen legit “ks” pronunciations too. And reading this was definitely interesting and settles any confusion over this name for me! Also, adding to the pronunciation complexities of this name, my Dh’s family is Hispanic, and in their culture, it would be Javier (with the “J” pronounced like an “h”).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yay Sarah! I’m so excited that this post made you “fall in love” all over again! Javier is a cool pronunciation too, I love that Xavier and its variants work in so many languages. (Which tends to be the way with saints’ names, so awesome.)

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  6. I pronounce this name in 3 syllables, ZAY-vee-er.

    I love this name, and St. Francis Xavier (which I pronounce “ZAY-vee-er” also) is so beloved to me that I can hardly think of him without tearing up.

    But. The pronunciation drama stresses me out so much that I’m afraid I could only ever use it as a middle name. Sigh.

    It’s not so much my own disapproval of the way other people pronounce the name for their own families, but the fact that my child would have to spend his entire life correcting people. I just wouldn’t want him to have to do that. And it makes me super sad all the time when I think about it.

    This was also the reason I had to drop one of my favorite-ever girls’ names, Amelia. I pronounce it in four syllables, “a-MEE-lee-ah”, but obviously “a-MEAL-yuh” is the most common. Here in the western US, there’s also the “a-MILL-yuh” pronunciation which I find pretty irritating, but the people who say it can’t usually perceive they’re saying it any differently than the standard “a-MEAL-yuh” because of their accent.

    So, goodbye, Amelia. 😭

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  7. We have a Xavier (ZAY pronunciation) and it hasn’t really been an issue. A few say Eg but most get it. We call him Xavi though, pronounced like the Basque soccer player: Shah-vee. That gets quite a few questions….but St. Francis Xavier was from there anyway so I feel justified. 😉

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    • Ooh I like it! The little Xavier in my life is k-SAY-vyer but his almost-always nickname is Xave(y) said ZAY-vee, so there’s that confusion for us too. Shah-vee is a cool pronunciation!

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      • Do you really say it like k-SAY-vier (with a hard “k” at the beginning)? Or more like an “egg/ig”? I grew up only know the “egg/ig” pronunciation, but later came to prefer the “z” pronunciation because it was cleaner sounding to me.

        However, I should say—how I pronounce things and enunciate is kind of an OCD thing for me. It started when I was about 12 and my brother had a friend named Troy. After hearing his name pronounced “chroy” every 5 seconds when my brother talked about him, I started developing an aversion to that sound. I became hyper aware of my own enunciation on “tr” blends. Later I started having an aversion to glottal stops (“Martin”, “button”, etc.), and it has only snowballed from there.

        Back to the name Xavier, though…I think there’s a lot of confusion and discomfort about this name in the general public. When I was in college, my cello professor’s son named his baby Xavier and I remember he struggling with the pronunciation and going back and forth on it, or stumbling, when she mentioned her grandchild. (I don’t know what the preferred pronunciation of the parents was.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • My theory is that the egg- pronunciation *is* the ks- pronunciation, unrecognized and evolutionized. When I say it, it sounds more like egg- but since finding out the ks- business I’ve tried to make it more like that. But then, chroy and troy are the same to me — not that I can’t hear the difference, but that I know people are attempting to say the same thing as each other. Some people can’t hear those differences! And some are hyper aware of them! I love reading about/learning about stuff like this — there are a few people on the BNW boards that are so knowledgeable — linguists and philologists — I’ve learned so much about all that from them!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m kind of wondering if the “z” pronunciation is actually the result of the consonant cluster reduction. It seems like it would be, based on that paragraph you quoted about “xylophone”. To my ear, the ks sound in a name like Kseniya (Xenia) is really different than the additional vowel sound that seems to appear in the egg/ig pronunciation of Xavier. Either way, I do think this is one of those names where there’s room to pronounce it as you choose—like Zelie, Therese, Kateri, and so many others. (But I’m sticking to my guns on Aquinas!)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ooh interesting! I like the idea that “the ‘z’ pronunciaiton is actually the result of the consonant cluster reduction.” I really tried to find somewhere an explanation of the egg- pronunciation, and the internets totally let me down, but I still think it’s the evolution of the ks-, probably coupled with some people’s (incorrect) thought process that the X is supposed to be “said” (as in, you’re supposed to say “ex” because it begins with an X, even though you don’t say X for any X word — from that perspective, I get why the ZAY-vyer preferrers always point out that no X word starts by saying “ex,” which is true. But ks-? Different idea and totally makes sense. And I could totally see people hearing k-SAY-vyer for the first time and seeing that it’s spelled with an X and thinking that what they heard was “ex-ZAY-vyer” which sounds like “egg-Z/SAY-vyer” to many). I would love for someone who actually knows the answer to tell me! I just haven’t found that anywhere.

        Re: Aquinas, wasn’t the original Aquino? Which is probably said more like uh-KEEN-o? But I’m pretty sure you’re right that Aquinas is *the* English pronunciation and any other would be weird. There is the girl name Aquinnah (Michael J. Fox has a daughter so named), which is uh-QUIN-nah I believe, but I think it’s the double N that makes the short I …

        Liked by 1 person

      • OH! Btw, have you heard of The History of English podcast? I think you might LOVE it as much as I do! It’s incredible and so well done.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No! I’ll have to find that! I took History of English in college and Psycholinguistics in grad school, which also covers a bit of the history of English — I LOVE that kind of stuff! Also why I love learning about the Basque language, because it’s sort of mysterious (and how lucky are we that we have an actual Basque expert in skimac!!).

        Liked by 1 person

      • AND! One more thing. We use this great learn to read/learn to spell curriculum called All About Reading & All About Spelling. But occasionally it drives me nuts because they teach occasional sight words (in this program, these are usually limited to words that the reader needs to use but hasn’t yet learned the phonics rules for—for example, the very first one is “the”), and on some of these they say it’s a rule breaker because it’s pronounced so-and-so way, when that’s not totally universal. I wish I could think of an example off the top of my head, but there were a few where I was like, “well, *I* don’t say it that way…and neither do my kids who learned to talk from me…”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes! That’s fascinating! That reminds me of dialects in general, and one of my writing professors could totally tell each of his students where they were from in the country (without knowing ahead of time) based on how they talked. One of the people over at BNW can do that too I think — Miriam — she’s an expert on all this stuff, I love to see her get going.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This here is what I think might be going on.
        “Xylophone is from the Greek xylon, which is … pronounced with an initial [ks]. Many words borrowed from Greek via French developed a [gz] pronunciation along the way, which was reduced to [z] word-initially when adopted into English.”

        The egg/ig pronunciation is related to this initial [gz] that happened in French before being further reduced to [z]. However, for English speakers, an initial [gz] is pretty difficult to say, so the short vowel sound is added at the beginning (eh or ih). I don’t think it’s an Americanization at all, but part of the process of anglicization. Perhaps because Xavier became a given name during the period when pronunciation changes were happening a lot in English (the Great Vowel Shift, etc.), it kind of stuck whereas it didn’t in the Greek loaner words. (No “native” English words begin with an X). I also think there’s a good chance that History of English dude with cover this X thing in one of his episodes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Re: Aquinas, for some reason I don’t understand, Church Latin doesn’t exclusively use pure vowels (although ancient Latin probably did), so I believe that’s why Aquinas is pronounced with the long i. It doesn’t make sense from a linguistic perspective otherwise.

        Also interesting, our Archbishop Aquila pronounces his surname uh-QUILL-uh. This name means “eagle” in Latin and Italian, and it’s águila in Spanish. In Italian it’s pronounce AH-kwee-lah, and the Spanish is AH-gee-lah, so I was really surprised to learn he used a short i, and that the emphasis was placed on the second syllable, which seemed so unusual. Names can be weird!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree that there is no one right way to pronounce a name. Just in relation to the Irish names you gave as an example – many have a fada over one of the vowels, so Padraig is actually Pádraig and Siobhan is Siobhán which elongates the vowel. Other examples are Seán and Mairéad.

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    • Thanks for this! I just don’t know enough about the fadas and what they do, and I tend to leave them off because they’re not on the keyboard and it’s an extra step to figure out how to insert them … but I should do it! Can you tell me, for example how Mairead differs from Mairéad in pronunciation?

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  9. […] Finally, as I noted on FB, this just can’t bode well to me for this couple: Man starts online petition in battle over baby name with wife. I haven’t checked out the petition and I’m sure someone’s already thought of this but my suggestion would be Michael Spyridon (first name middle name) or a Greek form of Michael for a first name (according to Behind the Name: Michail, Michalis, Mihail, Mihalis). (Very like the Russian Mikhail, no? Why all the squabbling??) (Also — Kseniya! I mentioned it in the spelling Xenia in my Xavier post!) […]

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  10. Interesting. When I see Xavier, I always think the pronunciation of Javier. Some Spanish words from a particular era pronounce X the same as J – similar to an H sound in English – for example Mexico, so Xavier looks identical to Javier in my mind. Javier is a favorite name of mine, but my husband isn’t too keen on it, unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Just discovering this older thread. Like Elisabeth alluded above, in Basque the X would be pronounced “sh” (or sort of between a “sh” and a “ch” sound – hard to describe). The Basque version is Xabier, nickname would be Xabi. V is not considered part of the Basque alphabet. Where is does appear in words that have come into the language, it would be pronounced “b”. So would be pronounced Shah-bee-air, Shah-bee.

    Regarding St. Francis – The name has evolved to be most commonly written as Xavier, but it is the place name for the castle where he was born/family home – Xabierko gaztelua in Basque (which he was), Castillo de Javier in Spanish. Proud Basque here – sorry for going on.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. We have a Xavier Joseph and pronounce it zay-vyer, but we also went to Saint Louis University where there is a St. Francis Xavier church…and that’s how we said it! My own name is Kasia, which is much more difficult than Xavier, and it’s never really bothered me to have to correct people. I often times don’t, and to be honest, I’ve always enjoyed having a unique name! Names are so important to me, and I love St. Francis Xavier, as well as the awesome nicknames — we often call him Xavi baby (he is ten months!) Love your site 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. If you look on the school’s website, they show the pronunciation as zey-vyer. Therefore, there is only one correct pronunciation for the name of this school. It doesn’t matter what other people call their kids.

    Liked by 1 person

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