The baby names Shevawn and Siobhan

Actress Siobhan McKenna on the cover of LIFE magazine (Sept. 10, 1956)
Siobhán McKenna

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:

  • 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
  • 1953: unlisted

The spellings Shevon, Shevonne, Chavonne, and Chevonne also debuted in ’55.

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:

  • 1958: 54 baby girls named Siobhan
  • 1957: 67 baby girls named Siobhan
  • 1956: 58 baby girls named Siobhan [debut]
  • 1955: unlisted
  • 1954: unlisted
  • 1953: 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

7 thoughts on “The baby names Shevawn and Siobhan

  1. Interesting history. This is a name I do not like – for the spelling of it. I always thought it was pronounced like “cinnamon” up until a few years ago. If I could spell it any way – I would pick simply: Shavon.

  2. I do like the sound of Siobhan, and even the look of the name, but the knowledge that it would constantly be misprounced would remove the name from contention. If pressed to use the name, I would spell Shivaun.

  3. I like it but it’s not a favorite name. If I was using it I would definitely use the correct/traditional spelling, but I can see why some in the US would choose to spell it phonetically.

    FWIW, as part of a volunteer job where I deal with hundreds of people each week I am often in charge of verifying names and recently had a Siobhan who was surprised but very happy that I pronounced her name correctly. She said it almost never happens so it always surprises her when someone gets it right.

  4. My name is Siobhán and I was born in 1962. I have six siblings with 1950/ 1960 names except for Stella who was named after my maternal GM. My father named me after the actress in your article . I hated my name when I was young but as I got older , people would comment on how beautiful it was and they still do . So I learned to identify myself with my name . My daughter is pregnant and if it’s a girl , she will name her Siobhán . I know that she will be explaining her name to most people all her life , but I highly doubt anyone will pronounce it “ Cinnamon ! “ I’m happy that my middle name is not as exotic . It is Mary , after my paternal GM and Our Blessed Mother . BTW, my new granddaughter will be Siobhán Eleanor , after my dearly beloved deceased mother . Thanks Nancy for the cool information on my name !!

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