Concerning the Names
Iain, Ian, and Eoin

by Josh Mittleman
known in the SCA as Arval Benicoeur

©1999 by Josh Mittleman. All rights reserved.

Last updated 12 Oct 1999


Eoin is a Gaelic form of John, adopted into Gaelic in early medieval Ireland from the Latin name Ioannes. It was carried to Scotland by Irish settlers and has remained in use in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic to the present day. Eoin was pronounced \OAÑ\ [1], with the same vowel as moan and with \Ñ\ as the Spanish ñ in señor or the French gn in montagne. The pronunciation evolved over time, but this pronunciation was used in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic past the end of the 17th century.

Iain is a modern Scottish Gaelic name, derived from Eoin but considered distinct from it in the same way that Jane and Joan are distinct in modern English. We have found no evidence that a name Iain existed before the 19th century. Ian is an English or Scots [2] spelling of Iain, coined in the 19th century according to our evidence. We find no evidence of any Scottish name pronounced \EE-@n\ until modern times. \@\ represents a schwa, the sound of the a in about.

Concerning Eoin

Eoin or Eóin originated in Ireland, an early medieval adaptation of the Latin Ioannes. Some early medieval Gaelic versions of biblical tales use Iohanna [3]; the forms Ioan and Eoan appear in Irish Gaelic in the 13th century. Eoin thrived throughout the Middle Ages, though it was partially supplanted in Ireland after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century, when the Norman form of Ioannes, Jehan, was borrowed into Gaelic as Seaan, Seón, and Seóan, later spelled Seán [4]. A similar process in Scotland produced the name Seathan, but apparently later, perhaps not until the 15th or 16th century [5]. However, Eoin persisted in Scotland well past 1600 as the standard Gaelic form of John.

In Irish Gaelic, Eoin was pronounced \OAÑ\, with the vowel of moan and ending with a palatalized n [4]. Palatalization is the pronouncing of a consonant with the tongue arched to touch the upper palate, like the ñ in Spanish señor or the gn in French montagne. We can deduce the Scottish Gaelic pronunciation from early 16th century examples of Eoin recorded in Gaelic transliterated with Scots spelling conventions: Oyne, One, Óyne, Óyn [6]. The yn combination suggests that the n was palatalized. Thus, the Scottish Gaelic pronunciation was probably also \OAÑ\, though we suspect that \YOAÑ\ was used in some regions, especially in the early Middle Ages [7]. By the 16th century in some Scottish Gaelic dialects, the name was apparently pronounced \AYÑ\ (with the vowel in hay); a Scots document records Ane McCohynnoquhen in 1541 [8, Maccohenane], and many Scots spellings of the Gaelic surname mac Eoin imply the pronunciation \m@k AYÑ\, e.g. Makayn 1502, m{c}ayne 1512, M'Ean 1535 [6; 8, MacKean].

The Scots clearly recognized the relationship between Eoin and its Latin root: Throughout the late Middle Ages it regularly appears in Latin and Scots records of Gaelic names as Johannes, Johnne, Jhone, etc. [9] For example:

Concerning Iain

We have found no example of the name Iain before the 19th century [11]. From that date, it has been used in Scotland as a second Gaelic form of John, distinct from Eoin. In Gaelic it is pronounced \EE-@ñ\ [12].

Iain appears to have to developed in the northern dialect of Scottish Gaelic. Its origin is unclear. It may have evolved directly from Eoin, or it may be a Gaelic re-adaptation of the English Ian. Either way, it appears to have been the result of a rather complicated shift in pronunciation that involved the confusion of the name Eóin with the word eòin "birds". That process may perhaps have begun as early as the 15th century, but we must stress that we have found no evidence of the pronunciation \EE-@ñ\ until the 19th century [13].

Independent of the Scottish name, Iain appears in a few 12th century Irish Gaelic documents as a rare genitive (possessive) form of Eoin or Ioan, usually in place names and in religious contexts. For example [3]:

It is likely that the 'cells' mentioned in these examples and a number of others were churches named after Saint John, and do not reflect normal use of the name. Certainly these examples show that Iain was used as a genitive form of John in Ireland, but they do not unambiguously demonstrate that this form was used for people as opposed to the saint. (It is not unknown for a unique form of a name to be preserved only in connection with a saint [14].) The last example, Eithne ingen Iain i nOchtur Aird, is stronger evidence, but at best Iain was a very rare form that did not persist in later-medieval Gaelic [15].

Concerning Ian

Ian, a modern Scots and English spelling of Iain, appeared only in the late 19th century. It became extremely popular and spread throughout Britain, to Australia, Canada, and the United States. In the 1960s, it was one of the most popular boy's names in England and Wales [16].

Other Connections

Eoin has often been confused with the unrelated but similarly-pronounced Gaelic name Eógan, later spelled Eoghan and Eoan. This name was anglicized in Ireland as Oyne, Oynie, and Owen (confusing it with another unrelated name, the Welsh Owain) [4]; and in Scotland as Ewen, Ewan, and Evan, among others. [8, MacEwan, Eoghann]


Eoin \OAÑ\ is the oldest and most consistently-used Gaelic form of John in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It was usually rendered into English and Scots as John, in one of many different spellings. The modern Scottish Gaelic form Iain appeared sometime after 1600, perhaps not until the 19th century, probably having evolved in the northern dialect of Gaelic. Ian, an English form of that name, appeared in the 19th century. We have found no name that existed before 1600 that could have been pronounced \EE-@n\.

Notes and References

[1] Pronunciations are given between \backslashes\ and are intended to be read as if they were standard American English except where noted otherwise. The capitalized syllables are stressed.

[2] Scots was a language closely related to English, distinct from Gaelic. In the late 14th through 16th centuries, it was the language of the Lowlands, the royal court, and the burghs (towns) of Scotland. Before 1600, the Gaelic spoken in Scotland and Ireland was one language, with only dialectical differences, though there were some differences in naming practices. For more details, please read Scottish Names 101.

[3] Ó Riain, Pádraig, ed., Corpus Genealogiarum Sanctorum Hiberniae (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1985), p.4 footnote to entry 9; p.14 entry 87; p.14 entry 88.1.

[4] Ó Corráin, Donnchadh and Fidelma Maguire, Irish Names (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990), s.nn. Eoin, Seaan, Eógan.

[5] Calder, George, A Gaelic Grammar; containing parts of speech and the general principles of phonology and etymology with a chapter on proper and place names (Glasgow: 1923; reprinted Glasgow: Gairm Publications, 1980 1990), pp. 40, 143.

[6] Watson, William J., ed., Scottish Verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore, Scottish Gaelic Texts, Volume 1. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1937), poems IX, XV, XIX, XXI, XXIV. The original source was published in 1512.

[7] Maclennan, Malcolm, A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language (Aberdeen: ACAIR and Aberdeen University Press, 1984). He gives an initial \y\ sound in pronunciations of words beginning eo.

[8] Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: New York Public Library, 1986. Original edition, 1946.

[9] Black also lists several examples of John as early as the 14th century. The early examples are English translations of Latin documents. Some of the 16th century examples may be accurate, but they may also be modernized spellings; with the sources at our disposal, we cannot tell.

[10] Reaney, P. H., & R. M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (London: Routledge, 1991; Oxford University Press, 1995), s.n. M'Crimmon.

[11] Some confusion has resulted from examples of Iain that appear in editions of The Highland Papers, a collection of Scots documents from the 16th and 17th centuries. These documents are widely quoted in such sources as [8] for 16th and 17th century examples of Iain, such as Iain McGalssan, dated 1515 [8, Macglashan]. We have obtained abstracts from this source, editted in the 19th century. The editorial notes are insufficient to determine whether Iain actually occurs in the original Scots manuscript or whether the 19th century editor expanded common 16th and 17th century scribal abbreviations like J', Jn', and I' into the standard 19th century name Iain. We suspect the latter. In any case, without examining the original manuscript, we cannot say that The Highland Papers offer any evidence of Iain before the 19th century. It is worth noting that even if Iain did appear in the original documents, it would not have been a Gaelic name, but rather a Scots or English spelling of Eoin.

[12] Morgan, Peadar, Ainmean Chloinne: Scottish Gaelic Names for Children (Scotland: Taigh na Teud Music Publishers, 1989), s.n. Eoin. In modern Scotland, Eoin is still in use (perhaps revived after a period of disuse), and is pronounced \YOE-in\ or \eh-YOE-in\. It is treated as a separate name from Iain, which is now pronounced \EE-ahñ\, \EE-@ñ\, or \AY-@ñ\.

[13] The pronunciation of the name Eóin was re-fashioned to match the singular eun "bird" (of which the plural is eòin. That word was spelled én in Old Irish, and the name Eoin can be found in the spelling En as late as 1923 [5, 17, 18]. The pronunciation of the name, originally \yOAÑ\, shifted to \AY@Ñ\ with the rising diphthong \yOA\ becoming the falling diphthong \AY@\. A further slight shift in the first element of the diphthong (specifically, an increase in height or tenseness) led to the pronunciation \EE-@ñ\. The Scots transliteration Ane 1541, noted earlier, may represent the pronunciation \AY@Ñ\.

[14] Modern Irish offers another example: Muire is used exclusively as the name of the Virgin Mary, while Máire is the normal Irish equivalent of Mary. Woulfe, Patrick, Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall: Irish Names and Surnames (Kansas City: Irish Genealogical Foundation), s.n. Muire.

[15] The last passage appears in a number of variants in different manuscripts, and the name Iain isn't included in all of them. The text we have given is probably the best [3, introduction], so we believe that Iain is correct but was unfamiliar to later copyists [3, 19].

[16] Dunkling, Leslie and William Gosling, The New American Dictionary of First Names (New York: Signet Books, 1983).

[17] Royal Irish Academy, Dictionary of the Irish Language: based mainly on Old and Middle Irish materials (Dublin : Royal Irish Academy, 1983), s.v. én.

[18] Dwelly, Edward, Faclair gaidhlig: A Gaelic Dictionary (Herne {Bay Eng.} E. Macdonald & co., 1902-{11}), s.v. eu.

[19] Hogan, Edmund, Onomasticon Goedelicum: Locorum et Tribuum Hiberniae et Scotiae (An Index, with Identifications, to the Gaelic Names of Places and Tribes) (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1993 {1910}).