Name Spotlight: Sawyer
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.