famous namesakes, fictional namesakes, historical records, Irish Gaelic words, Irish names, name history, name popularity, Norman-French names
If you are a fan of comedian Shaun Micallef you must be very happy (at least on Wednesdays), because he is in two TV shows on two different channels on the same night. On the ABC at 8 pm, he hosts his own satirical news programme, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, and on Channel Ten at 8.30 pm, he co-stars with Kat Stewart in the comedy-crime-mystery series, Mr and Mrs Murder. Unfortunately, your happiness will end soon, as one series wraps up tonight, and the other next week.
Like Rebel Wilson, Shaun is trained in law, although unlike Rebel he actually got to the practising part of it, and worked as a solicitor in insurance. Somehow this failed to keep him entertained, and he did a bit of comedy on the side. Eventually Shaun’s wife got sick of him banging on about how he’d much rather work full-time in comedy; she circled a day on the calendar and told him that he had to quit his job and become a comedian by that date, or shut up about it forever. He opted not to shut up, and went into TV comedy as a writer and performer.
Shaun’s style of comedy is cerebral and surreal in a Pythonesque sort of way, and he seems like a cross between George Clooney and John Cleese, veering an erratic silver-haired path between charm and rudeness. Now that his early audiences have grown up, got mortgages and become TV executives, his style of humour has moved further into the mainstream, and he has won several awards. I think his best work was on the short-lived Micallef Tonight, his absurdist chat show which was unfortunately cancelled on flimsy pretexts.
Shaun is of Irish and Maltese heritage, which explains why he has an Irish first name and a Maltese surname. He went on genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? in order to learn more about both sides of his ancestry, which was a surprisingly emotional experience for this aloof performer.
The name Shaun is a variant of the Irish name Seán. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they brought the name Jehan or Johan with them, pronounced something like DZUH-an – the DZ is like that in the word adze. In English, this was spelled Jean, and pronounced John.
When the Norman English conquered Ireland a century later, the Irish nobility were replaced by Norman aristocrats, many of whom were named Jehan or the Anglicised John. In Ireland, the name became Seán, said SHAWN, which is closer to the modern French pronunciation of Jean than it is to the English pronunciation of John. Once Anglicised, Seán dropped the accent mark to become Sean, which was further Anglicised to Shawn and Shaun.
Now, some people will object that there is no need to further Anglicise Sean – we all know the proper way to pronounce it, which is SHAWN, and Sean is the only correct English form of Irish Seán. However, it’s not quite that simple.
The little mark over the letter a in the name Seán is called a síneadh fada (or just plain fada), and it indicates that the vowel sound has lengthened into an AW sound, so that the name is pronounced SHAWN. However, in Northern Ireland the name is Séan, with the fada over the e to indicate that it has lengthened into an AY sound, and is pronounced SHAYN.
So when you see an Anglicised Sean, how do you know which way to say it – like Seán, or like Séan? We turn it into two different names, Sean and Shane, for the two different Irish pronunciations.
But this is just a useful convention, for without any fada, Sean would be pronounced neither SHAWN nor SHANE, but more like SHAN (by coincidence, shan is the Irish Gaelic word for “old”). We agree to overlook this, for the sake of convenience, but convenience isn’t exactly correctness.
In fact, depending upon their regional accent, people in Ireland may say Sean as SHAWN, SHAYN, SHON, SHEN or SHAHN, so you can see that we are not being entirely accurate when we insist that Sean is always said SHAWN.
The phonetic spellings Shawn and Shaun make things clear, and both were used in Ireland from around the 18th century, with Shawn the older form. Shaun is much more commonly found in historical records than Shawn, both worldwide and in Australia, although both are far outstripped by Sean.
Sean and Shaun began charting in Australia in the 1950s, when Irish names became fashionable, with Shawn following in the 1960s. Shaun debuted higher in the 1950s at #195, to Sean’s #209. Shawn’s debut was at #203 the following decade.
Sean and Shawn peaked in the 1970s at #44 and #144 respectively, and Shaun in the 1980s at #48. Currently Sean is #145, Shaun is #521, and Shawn #586 in New South South Wales. In Victoria, Sean is #183, Shawn is #639, and Shaun doesn’t rank at all.
Apart from Shaun Micallef, Shaun is a name well used in humour, for Shaun the Sheep is a funny animated kid’s show, and Shaun of the Dead a zombie comedy movie. Meanwhile, skater Shaun White and Australian motorcycle racer Shaun Geronimi help give this name a laid back, sporty feel.
Despite debuting higher and peaking later, Shaun hasn’t had the staying power of Sean, but it’s still a cute Irish boy’s name that won’t seem unusual in a class of Liams and Connors.
Thank you to Sarah for suggesting her son’s name to be featured on the blog.
POLL RESULT: Shaun received a decent approval rating of 70%. People saw Shaun as an Irish name well suited to Australia (21%), relaxed and friendly (14%), and easy to pronounce (14%). However, spelling was an issue, for 12% worried that it might get confused with Sean or Shawn, and a further 12% only liked the name spelled Sean. Only one person thought the name was dated.
(Photo of Shaun Micallef from Adelaide Now)