Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum

Have any of you seen or heard about the new PBS Kids show Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum? It premiered this week; it’s “[b]ased on the children’s book series Ordinary People Change the World by New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos … [and] will introduce kids to inspiring historical figures and the character virtues that helped them succeed.” (This was a pretty interesting article about it, which focused heavily on the need for kids to have good heroes today [secular, of course, I didn’t see any Saints in the lineup! 😀 ], and this quote was interesting: “where do you draw the line between someone whose flaws are flaws in a good person, and someone whose flaws are disqualifying for a kids’s how [sic]?” I’m glad that’s something they’re wrestling with! So far they seem to have done a good job — my kids have seen a couple of episodes and like it well enough, and I haven’t seen anything objectionable in it.)

Anyway, what made me sit up and take notice is how they said Xavier’s name: ex-ZAY-vyer! (You might remember that I have strong feelings on the pronunciation of Xavier.) I tried to find more info on the selection of Xavier as the protagonist’s name, and hoped that someone might have written about the pronunciation, but didn’t find anything — if you do, please share!


My book, Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018), is available to order from ShopMercy.org and Amazon — perfect for expectant parents, name enthusiasts, and lovers of Our Lady!

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?