Spellings signal gender in names that sound the same

Happy Friday! I’m up far too late on what started on Thursday night, but had to share this with you before I go to bed. I was reading this article on gender-neutral baby names, and was distracted by this statement: “spellings have long signaled gender in names that sound the same: Yves vs. Eve” — of course I had to make a list of such names! These are some I’ve seen/heard:

Adrian and Adrienne
Elliott and Eliette
Francis and Frances
Gene and Jean
Jesse and Jessie
Julian and Julienne
Marian and Marion
Micah and Meike
Michael and Michal
Noah and Noa
Noel and Noelle
Rhys and Reese/Reece
Ryan and Ryann(e)

I know they’re not all strictly traditional (Ryan and Ryann(e)); and I’ve seen women with the masculine spelling (Gene), and men with the feminine spelling (except it’s not always feminine, like Jean and Reese/Reece); and the pronunciations aren’t always that simple (knoll or no-EL for Noel?), but still — pretty fun! What can you add to this list?

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!

Reading round-up: Naming twins, celebrity babies, and correct pronunciation(s) of Elisha

A few things to share with you all:

My CatholicMom column posted today, which was the result of two readers telling me that they had a hard time finding good resources for naming their twins. So I compiled all the resources and advice I’ve come across when doing consultations for parents expecting twins (except for one thing, which I only remembered after I’d already submitted the article, and which I’ve found helpful: Name the babies as if they were singletons. That is, name Baby B what you would have named him/her if born two years after Baby A): Naming Catholic Twins and Multiples.


There’s also the following celebrity baby news:

— Mario Lopez and his wife had their third baby a few months ago and named him … Santino Rafael, nicknamed Sonny! I loooove Santino nn Sonny!!

— I’ve written about Rachel Campos-Duffy’s family before (here and here), and she recently had their ninth baby! A beautiful baby girl named … Valentina StellaMaris! She has Down Syndrome and a heart condition, which will require surgery in the near future, so extra prayers are needed for her family in this time of adjusting to life with a newborn and one with special needs. I’ve been so moved by their love for her, even before she was born — dad Sean resigned from his job representing Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District when they found out the baby would need open heart surgery after birth, and mom Rachel reports that, now that Valentina’s here, “When we visit with her at the hospital, the kids [who range in age from 3 to 20!] fight over who can hold her.” ❤ ❤ ❤

— I posted this about the Alec and Hilaria Baldwin family on Instagram a couple of years ago, when they had three children together:


They’ve since had another baby (in 2018), and sadly suffered a miscarriage this past spring, and just announced they’re expecting another baby — a little girl! (I think people are going to continue to think that they’re Catholic! 😂)

Finally, I kind of loved this article by Jimmy Akin on the proper pronunciation of Elisha — lots of good info here about Standard English pronunciations and Hebrew pronunciations, all done in the kind of ranty way only someone who loves language would rant. I learned a lot! One pronunciation he didn’t mention, though, is the one I usually hear at church: eh-LEE-sha (like Alicia) — I didn’t even know of the ee-LIE-shah pronunciation until I was an adult! How about the rest of you?

That’s all for now! It’s almost the weekend! Hang in there!

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!

Thoughts on Lisieux (et al.)?

If you’re looking for a great Prime Day deal, look no further than my book of Marian names! It’s currently on sale, and there’s a $5.00 off promotion running as well! 

(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.

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 the expectant parents, name enthusiasts, and lovers of Our Lady in your life!

Funny pronunciation video

I linked to this a while ago, but my mom sent it to me recently again, and since one of my new capabilities since I upgraded is embedding video, I wanted to try it out. The recent birth announcement for Molly Róisín made me think of it — the pronunciation of Róisín is discussed/demonstrated (hilariously!), as well as a bunch of my other (admittedly difficult) faves (from YouTube).

CatholicMom.com column for June

Louisville Pronunciation Guide by Alex Leung (2004) via Flickr, CC.

My June column is up over at CatholicMom.com today: Let’s Talk About Pronunciation. I’d previously blogged about it here, but I expanded it a bit and incorporated into this article some of your feedback from my original post. I love how much I’ve learned from you all! ❤

It would be great if you could pop over and check out the article, and leave any thoughts/comments you might have!

A couple Irishy things

I watched this video the other day and just died: Americans Try to Pronounce Traditional Irish Names. So true, so funny.

And I meant to post this on St. Paddy’s Day and forgot: Selected entries from “Some Common Words Derived From Christian Names” (in Withycombe):

Biddy: nickname for an Irish-woman, from the prevalence of the name Brigid in Ireland; hence old biddy, an old woman. Also used for calling chickens.

mick(e)y: temper, possibly, like Paddy, from the supposed short temper of the Irish, with whom this is a common name.

Paddy: nickname for Irishman (cf. Biddy).

paddy(whack): a rage, fit of temper. (From the supposed irascibility of the Irish.)

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?


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.”


“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”


“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?