Thoughts on Lisieux (et al.)?

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(You guys had SO MANY great thoughts and ideas for Kathleen’s TV character!! I loved reading them all, both here on the blog and on Facebook and Instagram! You often fill in holes in my knowledge and make connections I didn’t see. I hope to post the name Kathleen chooses soon!)

Abby from Appellation Mountain posted on Facebook a list of names trending on her site last week, which included Lisieux — a name I would only expect to see among Sancta Nomina readers! (As in St. Therese of Lisieux.) One of her readers asked how it’s pronounced, and since I’ve heard it said a couple different ways by Americans for whom English is their native language, I thought I’d do a poll on Twitter to see if one pronunciation was used by a clear majority. I first asked my mom (who took years of French) and checked out Forvo to try to replicate in writing what the actual French pronunciation is, then I added in other pronunciations I’ve heard, and posted the poll to Twitter.


Do you see how many votes I got? Eighty five (85). Eighty five! That’s like, four times as many as I usually get for my name polls! I received several comments too, who knew this would be such a hotbed of controversy??

In hindsight, I realized I should have phrased my question differently — I wasn’t looking for the correct French pronunciation of the town, though I can see that it could come across that way. I was looking for how *you* say it — I know not everyone says it the French way, and I wanted to gather data for how the average American Catholic Joe/Jane says it (apologies to my non-American readers! I’m always happy to get your input, even if it’s not entirely relevant for American parents). I also realized it would be helpful to add the context: “Lisieux as a given first name for an American baby girl.”

Those who know and use the authentic French pronunciation were well represented both by the poll results (receiving 33% of the votes, only one percentage point behind the leader of lih-SOO, with 34%) and especially in the comments. I do appreciate how frustrating it can be for those who *know* how to say a name to hear it said “wrong” — Sean said as “SEEN” is one example for me. But even then, I’ve written about how, when it comes to proper names, no one has the market on the “correct” pronunciation.

One comment surprised me — it suggested that bestowing the name Lisieux in honor of St. Therese without using the pronunciation she would recognize is disrespectful. I disagree, and the three names that came to mind immediately as names American Catholic parents use that they generally say differently from the way their saints would have said them were Avila, Jacinta, and Kateri. I’d never seen it suggested that the American English way of saying those names is disrespectful, so I’m not sure why Lisieux would be any different. Regardless, I always think that parents’ goal of naming their baby after a beloved saint is the opposite of disrespectful. I’m trying to think of examples where I think the execution of such a lovely desire might border on disrespectful, but I can’t think of any.

I’d be interested in your input! Both on what pronunciation you would use, if you were an American Catholic parent for whom English is your first language and you wanted to name your daughter Lisieux, and whether you think using a pronunciation different than how the saint would have said it (for Lisieux or any name) is disrespectful.

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19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Lisieux (et al.)?

  1. Not related to Lisieux, which I think is best said the French way, I have run into people thinking the name Cohen (my nephew’s name) is disrespectful to the Jewish community because we are not Jewish and the name carries a priestly significance for people of Jewish faith.

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  2. I honestly like it better than Terese, the American pronunciation of which has always struck my ears harshly. I would pronounce Lee-syoo if I saw it on a class roster, but I would do my best to adapt to the student’s preference.
    Interestingly, this subject is very relevent to me-my name, Laura, is pronounced by my family as LAH-ra. People are constantly insisting that I say it wrong, and it’s LOR-ra. I went with it until college, when I insisted that all my friends learn to say my name my way. (There was a Laura (LOR-ra) in the music school too, and we used the pronunciation to help our friends differeniate between us in conversation. My daughter is Clara (CLAIRE-uh), but I debated having it be the more traditional KLAH-ra for a while. I opted against it finally because I didn’t want our names to rhyme. Lol! Caoilfhinn is our second daughter’s middle name, so I buried the hard-to-pronounce name in second place, which is probably what I’d do with Lisieux.
    Also, I had a Lilanny in my class this year whose pronunciation was SO hard for me (and I speak five languages!!!). She doesn’t use LIH-lan-nee, or lih-LAH-nee, but rather LUH-lah-nee…I think. Sometimes when she was speaking Spanish with friends, they addressed her more like LAI-lah-nee. I was so stressed trying to get it right for her the first few days of school!

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  3. Lisieux, what a lovely name! I’ve never come across it being used as a given name anywhere, but I immediately liked the idea – of it being used in the US anyway, not necessarily here in Poland as that probably wouldn’t work out too well and would likely be seen as pretentious. – Well, if I was an American mommy and had a little girl named Lisieux, I think I’d try to pronounce it the French way. I’m a language geek so I don’t like messing up a language’s phonetics, and, even though I don’t speak French myself, I’ve always been familiar only with the French pronunciation. As I said I don’t like languages being messed up so I’d probably automatically flinch a little bit internally hearing it pronounced in some other way, but overall I don’t see anything wrong in adapting its pronunciation for those whose first language is English, and I definitely don’t think it’s disrespectful. If naming your child Lisieux and pronouncing it differently than st. Therese did was disrespectful, so would be using any variants of a saint’s name – if you would want to name your daughter after st. Catherine of Siena you shouldn’t call her Catherine but Caterina, which was the saint’s actual Italian name. – It’s OK for people to adapt foreign words/names to their language, I think so anyway. From what I’ve noticed, it’s a common thing in the English-speaking world to name your child after someone but not using their actual name – like naming a baby Nellie after her grandmother Ellen – so, thinking this way, that would probably be disrespectful too, because it’s not her grandma’s actual name and she only goes by Ellen.

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  4. Years ago, as a graduate student, I worked on a project concerning Honduras with a native Spanish speaker. Her English was flawless, but whenever she said Tegucigalpa – the capital – she pronounced it with a Spanish accent, even when we were speaking English. I couldn’t say it that way. But she couldn’t NOT say it that way. It was clearly recognizable, and neither of us was wrong. I think it was the first time I understood how very individualized language can be – maybe spoken language more than anything.

    I’m in the minority – I’ve been saying lis ee YEH in some sort of franglais mash-up for years. But I think the name might be more appealing, and far easier for Americans to say, if it’s lis-SOO or lis-SYOO.

    As for respectfulness? Listening to Forvo, I’d guess that pronunciation varies by region in France, and throughout the French-speaking world. And pronunciations change over time. Certainly, from the late nineteenth century of St. Therese’s life to today, it’s possible that sounds have evolved.

    So I like your rule best of all: the parents, and then later, the bearer of the name, get to tell us how to pronounce it. It’s just not something you can be wrong about.

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  5. Ah, eirlysgwenllian makes a great point- if you’re going to be a stickler about the proper original pronunciation, then you can’t translate or use a different derivative either. I’ve always heard lih-zoo so I didn’t even know that was wrong- oops! I’ll admit it sometimes makes me cringe to here Thérèse pronounces ter-eese, but I guess that’s inconsistent since I don’t say ter-AY-sa for Teresa of Avila even though I speak some Spanish. And I have a daughter Zelie that we pronounce to rhyme with kelly- ha! So obviously I don’t think it’s disrespectful (and honestly I did try to find out the correct pronunciation of Zelie but I came across different people saying “it’s pronounced such-and-such because of the way the accent is”…. but their suggested pronunciations were different!) I’ve also had two people tell me we say it wrong but neither of them said it the French way either (one for zilly and one for zee-lee).

    Most Americans pronounce Gianna wrong, as I understand; Cecilia would be quite different than how we say it; any John that’s not named for an English-speaking John, etc. etc. and what about Mary?! I also have a Jane who is named for St. Joan of Arc. Jehanne/Jeanne can be translated to Jane as well as Joan.

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  6. Hah, our priest even mentioned in a homily how not to butcher St. Terese’s name. 🙂 I became Catholic in Maine and learned how to pronounce her name in the weird French-Canadian-Maine way. I definitely would not say LiZoo! I would try to make it the proper French pronunciation. That said, you’re giving your baby a lifetime of mispronounciations…and it gets tiring to constantly explain how your name is said. Friends of ours just named their baby girl after St. Terese’s mother, Azelie. Beautiful, and maybe slightly more pronounceable? (If that’s a word. 😉

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  7. Hi, Kate! I took French at school (and actually, I have been to Lisieux 🙂 ) and I think the correct French pronunciation would be Lih-zi-UH.

    Regarding what is respectful to St. Therese, foreign people can always “translate” or adapt place names: St. Frances of Rome would say her city’s name is actually Roma, St. Brigid of Sweden would actually say her country is Sverige and so on. So I don’t think whatever you call the place is disrespectful to St. Therese. It just means our church is universal, so lots of languages and cultures, but only one Faith, and that’s ok 🙂

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  8. Well, Pope Francis is only Francis in English so that settles it for me. He obviously doesn’t consider it disrespectful to adapt his name (a Saint’s name) for the local language.

    I’m one of your non-American readers and now I wonder if my frequent comments on baby name sites are irrelevent?? I hope not, I always try to be helpful but now I’m thinking maybe my comments are off base. I think one way that disrespect could come into the discussion is if a person not only pronounced a name differently to its background but also insisted that the new way was the *right* way and so diminished the people who used it in the original language. I can’t see many people doing that. I don’t imagine that many people honouring a saint would in any case.

    I have never heard Lisieux spoken only written and I always said (in my head) Li-sew (rhymes with Beau) so I learnt something today. Love this blog!

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    • Oh Maree, I’m sure your comments are helpful!! I love hearing foreign perspectives!! In this context, I only mean, non-Americans won’t be as familiar with living with American naming culture on a day-to-day basis — like the different pronunciations of Lisieux Americans use, and how difficult or not it might be for a little American girl to live with that name. Otherwise, hearing non-American perspectives can be SO helpful and enlightening!!


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