Tara, Maeve, and many of the other Irish names used in the U.S. today weren’t popularized by Irish immigrants. Instead, they gained traction after being introduced to the public via movies, television, and other types of pop culture.
Siobhan is no different. But it’s also a special case, because Americans heard about the name before they saw it written down. The result? The Irish spelling made a splash on the U.S. baby name charts…but only after a phonetic respelling made a similar splash. In fact, the misspelled version and the correctly spelled version were consecutive top girl name debuts in the mid-1950s.
So who’s the person behind the launch of Siobhan? Irish actress Siobhán McKenna (1923-1986).
In 1955, McKenna was nominated for a Tony for her role as Miss Madrigal in the play The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold (who had written National Velvet two decades earlier). The same year, the name Shevawn debuted in the U.S. data:
- 1960: 5 baby girls named Shevawn
- 1959: unlisted
- 1958: 9 baby girls named Shevawn
- 1957: 8 baby girls named Shevawn
- 1956: 24 baby girls named Shevawn
- 1955: 36 baby girls named Shevawn [debut]
- 1954: unlisted
The next year, Siobhán McKenna impressed audiences with her portrayal of Joan of Arc in the George Bernard Shaw play Saint Joan. Her popularity in this role earned her the cover of LIFE magazine in September. Next to her image was her name, Siobhan, spelled correctly (but missing the fada). Right on cue, the name Siobhan debuted in the data:
- 1960: 90 baby girls named Siobhan
- 1959: 85 baby girls named Siobhan
- 1958: 54 baby girls named Siobhan
- 1957: 67 baby girls named Siobhan
- 1956: 58 baby girls named Siobhan [debut]
- 1955: unlisted
- 1954: unlisted
Once U.S. parents learned how to spell “Siobhan,” the alternative spellings became less common, though they remained in use.
Siobhan was boosted into the top 1,000 in 1979 and remained popular during the 1980s thanks to the soap opera Ryan’s Hope, which introduced a character named Siobhan in 1978.
It’s rather fitting that Siobhán McKenna was best known for playing Saint Joan, as both “Siobhán” and “Joan” were derived from the name Jeanne, which is French feminine form of John (meaning “Yahweh is gracious”).
How do you feel about the name Siobhan? If you were going to use it, how would you spell it?
Update, 3/2018: Here’s some new info on Shevawn!
Sources: Siobhán McKenna – Wikipedia, SSA
Image: © 1956 Life