Name Spotlight: Sawyer

May 3rd 2010

Join me for a journey down the Mississippi with an all-American name.

Sawyer is an occupational surname that originally referred to someone who sawed wood for a living. Its free-spirited style, though, comes straight from Mark Twain's boy hero Tom Sawyer. Sawyer started to rise in popularity in the 1990s as part of a trend toward tradesman names, then spiked up after its prominent appearence on the tv series Lost. Like other literary surnames (Harper, Beckett), it has a broad appeal, luring in an educated slice of parents who usually prefer more traditional given names. It is pronounced...well, that's where today's story starts.

A site visitor clicked the "Report inappropriate content" on the Sawyer page in Namipedia. The visitor wrote:

There is an error in the pronunciation of this name. I named our son Sawyer and we have spent 22 years correcting people you (sic) slovenly say "SOY-yer." The word AND the name are correctly pronouned just as it reads: "SAW-yer." One wouldn't say, "I soy your mother at the store." :-)  I hope you will change this. Thank you.

22 years of correcting people can't be any fun, but there's a reason all those folks said SOY-er. It's the standard pronunciation of the word and name in both the U.K. and the U.S. -- take a listen at this Oxford dictionary page. SAW-yer is an acceptable variant, used by a small minority of people. I added it as a second listing in Namipedia, but parents of a SAW-yer should know they're fighting an uphill battle. (As for the idea that not pronouncing a word phonetically is "slovenly," hey, this is English we're talking about. Even the word English itself isn't pronounced phonetically.)

As I learned more about the word sawyer, though, I came to realize that the standard listing for the name really is wrong. Not the pronunciation, but the meaning.

Look up sawyer in a modern dictionary and you'll find two definitions. First is the person who saws wood, second a beetle that bores into trees. Look it up in a baby name dictionary and you'll find just the first definition. That's proper, since little Sawyers are hardly likely to be named for the beetle. But look up sawyer in a 19th-century American dictionary and you'll discover something quite different. Here's an excerpt from Noah Webster's 1828 edition:

In America, a tree which, being undermined by a current of water, and falling into the stream, lies with its branches above water, which are continually raised and depressed by the force of the current, from which circumstance the name is derived. The sawyers in the Mississippi render the navigation dangerous, and frequently sink boats which run against them.

In the words of John Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, "This may truly be called an American word; for no country without a Mississippi and Missouri could produce a sawyer."

It was this all-American word, this peril of the Mississippi and scourge of steamboats that gave Tom Sawyer his name. Tom, in turn, gave all the first-name Sawyers their names. After all, as a surname Sawyer is less common than Glover, Decker, Collier, Skinner and many others. Its style mojo comes from the book. So arguably, the "real" meaning of Sawyer that should be listed in baby name dictionaries is a submerged tree.

Just think of it. All of this uncertainty about the pronunciation and meaning of a name that is an English word, a familiar surname, and one of the most recognizable names in American literature. Meanwhile new names are being introduced every day. A Baby Name Wizard's work is never done.

Comments

2
May 3, 2010 9:53 AM

Well researched, Laura!

I find the topic of parents having to correct people about the pronunciation or spelling of their child's name very interesting. Surely we're heading into that territory more and more with so many invented names. It seems to point to the question of when a name has a life of its own, as Sawyer clearly does, and when it belongs to you.

3
By Guest (not verified)
May 3, 2010 10:15 AM

Certainly the character of SAWyer on LOST will help people learn to pronounce it the way those folks want it to be.

4
May 3, 2010 10:17 AM

guest #3,
really? i think they pronounce it SOY-yer on lost... or at least some of the characters do. maybe it is said both ways on the show.

5
By Uly (not verified)
May 3, 2010 10:30 AM

"(As for the idea that not pronouncing a word phonetically is "slovenly," hey, this is English we're talking about. Even the word English itself isn't pronounced phonetically.) "

Yes it is. E before a nasal is either (depending upon your dialect) pronounced as a "short e" or a "short i" - which we've got. And then the second syllable also pretty routine.

6
May 3, 2010 10:36 AM

Wow, Laura! I bet you never imagined you'd be poring through the pages of old dictionaries when you started this career. Fun!

7
By bebe (not verified)
May 3, 2010 10:38 AM

It's funny because on the show LOST, Kate conspicuously pronounces Sawyer SAW-yer, while most other characters use the more common pronunciation.

8
May 3, 2010 10:41 AM

uly,
i'm confused. are you saying that the /e/ in english should be pronounced as a "short e" or a "short i"? because in my dialect, it is definitely a "long e"...right?

also, is uly short for ulysses? i hope so. :]

9
By Tintin LaChance (not verified)
May 3, 2010 10:42 AM

Well, I'll happily continue to speak slovenly English if saying SAW-yer is the alternative; that pronunciation is difficult for me to say and sounds pretentious to boot. (And when I say "I saw your mother at the store," it does turn out sounding a little like "soy yer!" At least I'm consistent, lol.)

In any case, great research! This is a word where my favourite lexicon, the Online Etymology Dictionary (basically a free version of the real OED) falls short--it doesn't have a listing for "sawyer." And I'd never have thought to look it up anyway. The definition you've given makes me like it far the more than I did before, though; it's a much more satisfying meaning to me than the more commonly cited derivation.

10
May 3, 2010 10:42 AM

bebe,
oh interesting. i wonder if that's a difference between evangeline lilly's regnional accent or if the writers did that intentionally.

11
By Kristen R. (not verified)
May 3, 2010 10:52 AM

"Slovenly"---sigh. If people could just put their arguments in a more friendly, less aggressive tone, other people would be so much more open to them. If someone wants to pronounce Sawyer like saw-yer-mother, or if someone wants to pronounce Archer ARK-her ("We wouldn't say Noah's ARCH!!") or Alice ah-LEESE, fine. But to say that people who pronounce things differently are slovenly, and ask the entire world to conform to their way? Ridiculous and unnecessarily mean.

12
By quellebelle (not verified)
May 3, 2010 11:02 AM

Emilyrae,

Do you say "EEEEEnglish?" I don't know of any American dialect that pronounces English with a long E. Just curious.

The E in English is pronounced as a short i. Because the vowel sound is followed by a velar nasal ("ng") pronounced far back on the soft palate, the short i is "longer" that it would be if it were followed by a consonant that is pronounced further up front on the hard palate.

/linguistics geekdom

13
By hyz
May 3, 2010 11:05 AM

Responding to the previous thread...

namedaftermygrandmother, congratulations!! We're due around the same time, so we can have fun going through the naming process together. Do you know when you're going to find out the sex yet?

14
By Uly (not verified)
May 3, 2010 11:10 AM

What Quelle said.

And no, Uly is actually short for Ulyyf, though nowadays most people who know me figure it's short for Conuly which is me everywhere.

15
May 3, 2010 11:18 AM

quellebelle,
i do say een-glish. hmm. i'm going to have to start paying attention and seeing how my peers say this word. your information was very interesting/helpful.

uly,
oh, ulyyf is equally interesting! where does that come from?

16
May 3, 2010 11:33 AM

Very interesting, I definitely say Soy-er and find Saw-yer harder to get out. I wonder what Mark Twain said (probably Soy-yer sounds like). I don't know why name pronunciations get under the skin so much but they universally do (I took a class where we read "A Civil Action" which is set in Woburn, MA (pron. WOO-burn) and the class was in NY so everyone said WOH-burn and it drove me crazy even though it really didn't matter.

As for "English" emilyrae, do you say een-glish pretty quickly, because I say in-glish, but if I say "een" quickly it's actually hard to hear the difference. I've never heard anyone say it slowly with an "een" before though.

17
By hyz
May 3, 2010 11:38 AM

Wow, I've never heard English pronounce "eeng-lish"--interesting. I think what Laura was referring to was that most people pronounce it as though though it were written as "Inglish" (same initial vowel as Inga), while a more phonetic pronunciation would give it the same initial vowel as Emily or enter.

Oh, and I say Sawyer somewhere between SOY-yer and SAW-yer, so neither sounds especially weird to me, unless you really emphasize the SAW.

18
By Guest (not verified)
May 3, 2010 11:36 AM

I think a lot of CA people say EEnglish. I know I grew up saying eenglish. But in speech/drama I was taught that inglish is the proper pronunciation.

19
May 3, 2010 11:46 AM

huh. the english thing is sort of baffling to me now. i didn't realize i was so much in the minority.

jenny l3igh,
yes, i do say the "ee" in english pretty quickly, so i agree that it really isn't as different from "inglish" as what most people are probably imagining in their heads. (in other words, i don't say EEEEEEnglish.) but at the same time, it's definitely an "ee" for me, not a short /i/.

20
By Air
May 3, 2010 11:55 AM

I have to agree that the short i and the long e could be very similar at the beginning of English. In fact, I'm having a difficult time telling which I use!!

How would you all pronounce Ephrem? Starting with a short e or a long e?

21
May 3, 2010 11:56 AM

Thanks, hyz! I was thinking about you when I announced. We find out the sex within the next 4 weeks--I'll definitely let you know, and the name-odyssey can begin!

22
May 3, 2010 12:00 PM

alr,
i pronounce ephrem as ehf-rem (short e), but i am not sure how much that means, as i've never actually heard it said out loud.

namg,
yes, congratulations! i can't wait to hear what you're thinking of to go with orion. i love (love!) constellation/star names!
oh, and i also meant to say, i also love your name. i pronounce it ee-va, and i think it's a wonderful name.

23
May 3, 2010 12:05 PM

@namedaftermygrandmother

Congratulations ! That's wonderful news

@Alr
I say Ephrem as EH-frehm.The 'e' is a short sound

I say English EXACTLY like emilyrae

I love the name Sawyer & I think I hop between the '2' ways of saying. I'd love to use it the one day, though the construction part of it makes me shy away. I like it when names profess a positive thing i.e. Joy, and not that there's anything wrong with being a sawyer- but, I've grown up in a building/construction family & I'm a bit sick of that.... so, Sawyer is probably out.... unless he a wood sculptor It's the same reason that I avoid Tyler/Mason

24
By hyz
May 3, 2010 12:04 PM

alr, definitely short e, either as "eff-rum", or probably more like "eff-rem" with your spelling.

25
May 3, 2010 12:08 PM

larksong,
oh, yay, i'm not a pronunciation pariah! :]

26
May 3, 2010 12:21 PM

@emilyrae

LOL. And when I say 'exactly' , I do say it exactly as you described .

27
By JB
May 3, 2010 12:25 PM

Curious whether the word "sawyer" was an american-ism for "saw yer" as in "I saw yer tree thar under the current" or reference to fallen trees were sawed.

?

28
May 3, 2010 12:52 PM

I've been intrigued by this name and its appeal as a girls' name. I know one little girl Sawyer who's about a year, and I've heard of a few others. To me, it seems sooo masculine, unlike the more "androgynous" names like Riley or Cameron. There don't seem to be any girl Masons or Hunters (or are there?), so I'm curious why Sawyer seems to have crossover appeal...?

29
May 3, 2010 1:00 PM

I really, really like these etymological-type posts. More please!

Anyhow, in my default accent, I can hardly detect the difference between the two pronounciations- soy-er and saw-yer. If I try to make a difference, then it sounds more like "sigher". I rhyme Sawyer with "lawyer", in each case the "y" seems to modify the ah sound in "saw" and "law".

And now my housemates now know I'm insane, because I've spent the last five minutes saying soyer, saaawyer, sigher, soy, sigh, saw, lawyer and law over and over again...thanks, BNW!

30
May 3, 2010 1:01 PM

I have to agree with emilyrae and Larksong. The name of this language is Eenglish, not Inglish.

I am Californian, and I have a very strong difference between long e and short i. The vowel in "sing" is completely different from the vowel in "singe".

(Also, from a couple blogs back: The US has three major A sounds: Father, Apple, and Same.)

31
May 3, 2010 1:06 PM

English is such a crazy language. Any child named Sawyer in New York City would definitely be called SOY-er, mostly because there are SO many New Yorkers who are lazy with their vowels and say "sau" (think stereotypical NY accent, like dawg, but a bit more subtle). So a SAW-yer in my area just wouldn't fly. Also, I say English not in-glish, but ayn-glish. There's this strange "ay" vowel that a lot of New Yorkers substitute for "e" so egg turns into "aygg" for example. No idea where that comes from. I do agree that when a parent tries to use a less established pronunciation of a name that it is a totally uphill battle. Our friends have a little Evelyn pronounced EVE-lin, not EH-vuh-lin. They constantly have to correct people who say the name the second way.

It's funny because the way we (and most people) pronounce Levi is LEEV-eye, like the clothing brand. But my parents, who speak yiddish, pronounce it LAY-vee. Sometimes Levi refers to himself as LAY-vee, which is really interesting. I hope were not confusing the kid too much...

Oh, and congrats NAMG! Can't wait to discuss some awesome sibling names with you.

32
By Daffy Castilian (not verified)
May 3, 2010 1:09 PM

This entry is exactly why I keep coming back here! Such great food for thought.

This ain't no Nameberry. They wouldn't meddle with such hifalut'n foolishness!

33
By DEH (not verified)
May 3, 2010 1:23 PM

Another West Coaster here chiming into the "English" discussion.

I don't know anyone personally who says anything BUT eeenglish. In fact, it never even occured to me that there were other correct ways to pronounce it. But I do think that the difference between the long e and the short i here is very subtle.

I'm guessing this is a regional thing. Very interesting.

34
By hyz
May 3, 2010 1:24 PM

Rocster, I knew a girl Hunter (sister to Tayl0r, also a girl--they'd be in their early 20s now, I think), and I have a girl cousin named Huntley (sister to M@deline, also in their 20s).

I think there was definitely a time, esp. in the 1980s, when one of the mainstream feminist messages was that "women can be just like men" and "women must be like men to be powerful." That era saw a lot of girls born and given traditionally masculine names (at least in my experience), and if you'll recall, was also the era of business pant suits for women with big shoulder pads (mimicking men's broad shoulders), and even fashions for women featuring neckties, suspenders, men's style hats, etc. The next wave of feminism went back to the idea that women don't have to be the same as men to be equal to men, that individual differences should be appreciated and embraced, and that it is in fact male-centered and perhaps subconsciously sexist to think that women have to mimick men to be powerful. Some people have not fully hopped on this newer train of thought, and so you will still hear statements like "I named my daughter Riley/Cooper/Sam/Charlie/Jordan/Rowan/whatever because I think it sounds spunky and strong."** I find this grating, personally, because I feel my daughter can be strong and powerful and spunky "even" with a name that clearly marks her as female.

**p.s. I'm not saying this is the only reason someone might choose a masculine or androgynous name for their daughter. For instance, maybe people have one name in mind that they love for either a daughter or son. Also, I've heard some lgbtq and postmodern feminist folks discussing choosing androgynous names for their kids (of both sexes) as a way to get past traditional gender norms and treat their children as individual people, not "boys" or "girls". It's not my personal preference, but I do get the point.

ok, rant/tangent off....

35
By Guest (not verified)
May 3, 2010 1:32 PM

Maybe Kate prnounces it that way because the actress that plays her is Canadian. Just a theory.

36
By hyz
May 3, 2010 1:35 PM

Ok, now I'm going to have to poll my Californian friends to see if they all say Eenglish and I just never noticed it before.

Becky, I don't say AYNG-lish (although I wonder if this kind of pronunciation comes somehow from a continental European influence--for instance, "eng" is a German word meaning "narrow", and the pronunciation of that is a bit like "ayng"), but I do often say "AYGG" for egg, as you describe. I think I switch back and forth between "egg" and "aygg". Interesting. When I've taken the accent quizzes before, I come out with a totally "neutral American" accent. I grew up in the mid-Atlantic suburbs.

37
May 3, 2010 1:38 PM

@Rocster

I know of Hunter Tylo the actress & one other girl named Hunter. I was actually thinking the other day, that a name like Mason seems incredible masculine (to me, anyway), but when you break it down it sounds , it isn't necessarily. -MAY- is all girl, -AY- is either as well as -SON- because of names like Addison, Madison & Alison being so popular on girls. I'm with you on Sawyer, though. I do know of studies that have been done that say that giving your daughter an androgyneous name will help them professionally (it's up to you how seriously you take name studies). I actually know of a guy who had 3 girls & that's why he gave them all male/unisex names.

I guess some names just sound different to people. To me, Riley is completely gender neutral. A name like Bailey is all girl to me, but for others it's completely boy or both.

hyz made some excellent points as well

@Becky
I say Levi slightly differently. It's LEE-vye for me.Interesting about your son saying it as LAY-vee.

@Daffy Castilian
'This ain't no Nameberry. They wouldn't meddle with such hifalut'n foolishness!'

LOVED THAT !

38
By Laura M. (not verified)
May 3, 2010 1:45 PM

I would have to check, but I feel pretty sure that Sawyer (from LOST) says his own name as SAW-yer. The character is from Knoxville (and Josh Holloway, the actor who plays him, is from the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia). I am also from Tennessee and say the name as SAW-yer, and know several families with the last names Sawyer and Sawyers, and have never heard the first syllable pronounced as SOY. The mother in question definitely has a legitimate claim for her preferred pronunciation--it just requires a bit of a drawl to get it out right.

39
May 3, 2010 1:53 PM

I just asked a family member to say it, and he says it as SAW-yer, but with a bit of a twang to it.

Did anyone get confuse themselves saying SOY-er & SAW-yer? I momentarily messed up my accent :)

40
May 3, 2010 1:56 PM

on Becky's point about family members pronouncing Levi differently - my dad always pronounces my name (Laura) Lar-uh while my mom pronunces it Loor-ruh. I never even really realized it was different until college and my sister didn't notice it until I pointed it out to her recently. I call myself Loor-ruh.

41
May 3, 2010 2:03 PM

just for the record,
as far as the pronunciation of "english" goes in relation to location, i'm not in california, but in the midwest. indiana, to be specific. in accent quizzes, i always come up as "american neutral."

linnaeus,
ditto, sing and singe, very different vowels.

in regards to names like hunter and sawyer and parker, they are still purely male to me. i think in some (though not all) cases, the girl numbers are pretty negligible. for example, sawyer isn't in the top 1,000 for girls.

also, i agree with everything in hyz's "rant" and find the point of view she speaks of equally grating.

oh, and hyz, perhaps your california friends DO say eenglish, but you never noticed because, as mentioned before, the difference between eenglish and inglish could be fairly slight, depending on accent.

42
By EVie
May 3, 2010 2:35 PM

Becky - funny, I grew up in Manhattan and can't recall hearing egg as "aygg" - is it maybe a Brooklynism? I do have a friend from California who says it that way. I also definitely say English as "inglish". Eeenglish to me sounds very Australian (and I guess South African too?)

I read Tom Sawyer many years ago, but currently my strongest reference point for Sawyer is Sawyer on Lost, which is one of my favorite TV shows. With that reference in mind, I cannot, cannot like this name on a girl. For those who don't watch, the character is an incredibly masculine, sharp-tongued con-man. Early in the series he's an arrogant jerk; later on he becomes much more sympathetic, but remains pretty ruthless and rough around the edges through the very end (or so I'm guessing--there are only about 4 or 5 episodes left). It's been a very popular show, so I feel like this image is going to be pretty widespread. The name itself plays an interesting role in the development of the character--without giving away too much for those who haven't watched but may want to pick it up later, Sawyer is an assumed name that he took on to represent the bad-guy, con-man persona that he hides behind. Where he got the name is a pretty big revelation that shows you just how damaged the character really is. It's no accident that whenever the other characters are trying to take him down a notch, they call him by his real name, James.

43
May 3, 2010 2:46 PM

I always have said Eenglish and aygg. And I don't remember ever hearing English as anything other than Eenglish or Aynglish.

I was born in New Jersey, lived there for about seven years before moving to southern Ohio for a year, then on to Utah, where I've been for 15ish years.

44
May 3, 2010 2:48 PM

Yes, I absolutely drove myself crazy pronouncing Sawyer, now I can't even tell the difference! But whoever noticed that Kate on Lost pronounces it SAW -yer -- very astute!

@linnaeus -- sing and singe are different? they are exactly the same to me.

On another note, I'm fighting serious baby fever, but it is NOT time for another one, yet. If I talk names with DH, he'll just roll his eyes, but I am truly obsessed with a couple of name issues. Maybe someone can help so I can stop thinking about this and get ON with my life?? :)

My issues:

(1) How much of an uphill battle would I or my future daughter fight with the name Margaret? I know most on here will say it's okay(being much more evolved, name-wise than most :), but do most people generally think it's still an "old lady" name? Will she hate me in high school because kids tease her by calling her "Margie"? btw, she would ALWAYS be "Meg."

(2) The name Jane with a LN that starts with "n" -- do the "n"s run together to much? My gut says yes, but I hate to let it go!

45
By Amy3
May 3, 2010 2:55 PM

Love this analysis, Laura! Particularly the sleuthing that led to the meaning of sawyer as a downed tree.

I find the pronunciation angle funny because my husband has always insisted on the SAW-yer pronunciation (and, similarly, LAW-yer) while I am firmly in the SOY-yer (and LOY-yer) camp. We agree to disagree, but I had never actually heard of others who used the SAW (or LAW) pronunciation. He'll feel so vindicated!

@NAMG, congratulations! Can't wait to see the names you're considering.

@hyz, I completely agree with you. There are so many lovely girls' names that are already spunky and strong. I don't see a need to "steal" boys' names in order for girls to make it in the world.

Re: pronouncing English, after much whispering of this word at my desk today, I think I'm in the ING-glish group.

ETA: Sing and singe are also quite different for me. Singe lacks that zingy /ing/ sound, but is like sin-j'h (with that j'h being a fast juh sound). And egg is always just ehgg, never aygg.

46
May 3, 2010 2:57 PM

rocster,
do you mean sing and singe are exACTly the same for you? or just the vowel sounds? because even if one pronounced the vowels the same, there's still the matter of the different g's at the end....right?

47
By hyz
May 3, 2010 3:01 PM

rocster--I love Margaret, and I think it has so many great nns that it shouldn't be a problem. I think Meg is a great one--my only downside for it is that I hear it so much as a nn for Megan these days that it seems less interesting/spunky than if it were just a nn for Margaret. And I do think Jane N. will probably run together too much.

Sing and singe have the same vowel for me. They are both -ih- in the middle (same vowel as "in" and "middle" and "English").

48
May 3, 2010 3:17 PM

rocster,
i agree--there are so many good names for margaret, i don't think it would be a burdensome name for a child to have. jane n. does run together, but honestly, some people don't care. i know someone who is considering the name jude even though their last name starts with a /d/. she just says that they'll have to ennunciate. and i think that's a perfectly fine point of view as well.

hyz, huh! the vowels in sing and singe are definitely not the same for me (again it's the long e (ee) in sing vs. the short i (ih) in singe).

49
By Amanda W (not verified)
May 3, 2010 3:14 PM

Pronunciation is varied and regional. I am driven insane by my in-laws (from Maine) who seem to believe there is an R in my name. I'm not Amander from Canader. My daughter is not Rebeccer! My husband says he purposely tried to lose his accent once he moved out.

50
May 3, 2010 3:18 PM

emilyrae -- oops, no, I meant that I pronounce both sing and singe with the same short "i" sound.