Colbert is the new Letterman

Sarah Posted by Sarah at April 10, 2014 17:02:12 April 10, 2014 17:02:12

Hi Duana,

I have a question about name spelling. I love the Irish name Sadhbh. But I wonder if the traditional spelling might be difficult for most people to understand. I was wondering if the anglicized versions are ok to use? I've seen it spelled Saeve and Sive. I like both of those and I feel like the phonetic spelling will be easier. I am not Irish nor are any of my direct ancestors that I know of. Would this be offside? Your input is much appreciated. Thanks!


This was a tough one. I wanted to answer it as soon as it came in, because it’s a great question, but it’s not easy to actually answer.

More and more, I find myself needing clean, crisp, but clearly feminine names for people who want to avoid the ultra-feminine names but don’t want ‘unisex’—and they can’t all be named Claire. I tend to offer Greer, Pilar, and Shea to go along with already popular choices like Maeve and Grace and Jane…and yeah, the name you bring up, pronounced ‘Sive’, would fit perfectly into that slot.

The problem, of course, is the traditional Gaelic spelling. Sadhbh. Yes, really. It’s totally unusable and uninstinctive to look at, for anyone but Gaelic-speakers… and even then. I probably talk more liberally about Gaelic and its confoundedness than I would about any other language, but partly it’s because almost all Gaelic speakers are also English speakers, and/or it is very, very few people’s first language exclusively… and even Gaelic speakers know it can be ridiculously confusing. So that would seem to be a vote to use Sive (may as well keep it simple) in an anglicized way.

Then again, at one time there was talk of Gaelic becoming a ‘dead language’, or one that had only theoretical use, not unlike Latin. So shouldn’t we preserve it, and its names, in the most pure context to make sure we respect the origin of the name?
To me, the answer is simple. It’s Ruadrhi.

Or Rory.

The first is the traditional Gaelic spelling. The second is the way we commonly spell the name. The second is also the one that’s way more accessible, easy to understand and spell, utterly phonetic – many times more intuitive than Phoebe, for example – and it still maintains the charm of the original name. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that there’s a sophistication or specificity to the original spelling that’s lost by going for the ‘easy’ version, but nobody’s going to learn about the sophistication or specificity if the name isn’t used at all. 

So I say yes – use the anglicized version in this case. I’m also not the only one – Irish playwright John B. Keane made the same choice when he wrote a play called 'Sive' (who’s also the title character) in 1959.  But I will admit to being conflicted about it, and I don’t call for an across-the-board simplification of Gaelic names (not now, when we’ve finally got everyone on board with Siobhan). It’s not just my half-Irish origin story, either, but that I’m not sure having everything simplified is good for us, in the long run.

I think it behooves all of us to constantly be challenged by the names we hear coming from other cultures in our global village, not to expect everything to be automatically easy to understand, and to make an effort to understand the roots of the words and the names we talk about. In some cultures that don’t use the Roman alphabet, the names are automatically translated phonetically, but otherwise, it’s a case-by-case basis… and an understanding that everyone has their own responsibility toward how much of a steward for the language they want to be.  Personally, I think Anglicizing the spelling of ‘Sive’ is going to resurrect a charming and stylish choice, but do not come over here looking for a dispensation for Mairead – pronounced like “Parade”.

What do you guys think?


Previous Article Next Article