©1997 by Brian M. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated 16 Jul 1997
The name Liam is certainly a modern Irish  pet form of Uilliam, but there is no persuasive evidence that it was used before the 17th century. In particular, no one has found direct evidence that it was used that early. Indirect evidence for the name has been offered, in the form of a surname which might be derived from it; but careful analysis shows that the surname was actually derived after 1600 from an independent source. Therefore, no evidence supporting earlier use of Liam remains. (For this reason the SCA College of Arms will not register the name.)
The indirect evidence in question is found in the article on the surname Willmore in Edward MacLysaght's Surnames of Ireland. This article reads as follows: 'Better known now as Mac Liammóir. It is on record in Co. Tyrone in the sixteenth century.' Some readers have taken this to mean that the name Mac Liammóir is on record in the 16th century as an Irish form of Willmore. Since Mac Liammóir is clearly mac Liam móir 'son of Big Liam', this reading would show that Liam was in use by 1600.
Whenever it occurred, the association between the surnames must have come about as follows. Once the name Liam had become popular, it would have been a natural Irish equivalent of English Will. Apparently the name Willmore was then interpreted as Uill mór 'big Will' and Irish Liam was substituted for English Will to make Liam mór. Finally, the name was turned into a patronymic, Mac Liammóir, to fit the dominant style of Irish surnames. In fact the English surname has nothing to do with the given name William.
On a literal reading, however, MacLysaght says only that the name Willmore is on record in Co. Tyrone in the 16th century. It appears that this is his intended meaning. In his More Irish Families, he says that he has 'not met any near-Gaelic anglicized form of the name [Willmore]'; this indicates that its association with the Gaelic name Mac Liammóir is late. It also turns out that the Co. Tyrone citation is from a 1596 Fiant pardoning Anne Willmore and others and is therefore for Willmore, not for Mac Liammóir. Finally, at that time Anglicization of Irish names was almost invariably phonetic (Woulfe, 36), so it seems very likely that the woman's name really was Willmore.
In short, there appears to be no evidence for an Irish surname Mac Liammóir before at least the 17th century. This does not rule out the possibility that the diminutive Liam itself was in earlier use, but it does eliminate the only suggested evidence for such use. The little evidence that remains is inconclusive but negative.
The name William was very common amongst the 12th century Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland, and it was soon borrowed by the Irish in the form Uilliam. According to Black s.n. Macwilliam it came into use amongst the Gaelic-speaking Scots at about the same time.  Ó Corráin and Maguire note that by the early 14th century it had produced the Irish pet form Uillec or Uillecc.  (This is an Early Gaelic spelling ; it was gradually superseded by the Common Classical Gaelic spelling Uilleag, which is still in use.) This represents the addition of a standard Gaelic masculine diminutive suffix to Uill-, just as Middle English Willot was formed by adding the diminutive suffix -ot to Will-. In both cases it was the stressed first syllable that was preserved, not the weaker second syllable. This type of construction seems to be typical of Gaelic diminutives at least through the 16th century.
Neither Liam nor any other Irish pet name of similar construction is attested before 1600. It therefore seems very likely that Liam is a later innovation. How much later is not known, though it seems to have been in use by 1900.
 It seems to be very little used in Scotland.
 There are virtually no Gaelic-language Scottish records from this period, but see .
 There is some inconclusive evidence suggesting that this or a similar pet form was in use among the Gaelic-speaking Scots before 1500.
 Early Gaelic (aka Old Irish) is the form of Gaelic used in Ireland and parts of Scotland from roughly 600 - 900 AD. Middle Gaelic (aka Middle Irish) was used from roughly 900 - 1200 AD, while Common Classical Gaelic (aka Early Modern Irish, Common Literary Gaelic, etc.) was used from roughly 1200 - 1700 AD. Pronunciation of Early Gaelic was pretty much the same in Ireland and Scotland, but in the Common Classical Gaelic period differences in pronunciation had become more marked. Very generally, both Early Gaelic and Common Classical Gaelic spellings were used in the Middle Gaelic period, with Early Gaelic spellings being more common in the earlier parts of the Middle Gaelic period, and Common Classical Gaelic spellings being more common in the later parts. Early Gaelic spellings are occasionally found in the Common Classical Gaelic period. Please note that although they shared a common language, the Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic name bases and naming traditions were slightly different.
Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: New York Public Library, 1989. Original edition, 1946.
MacLysaght, Edward, More Irish Families (Dublin: Irish Academic Press Limited, 1982).
MacLysaght, Edward, The Surnames of Ireland (Dublin: Irish Academic Press Limited, 1989).
Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, and Fidelma Maguire, Irish Names, 2nd ed. (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990).
Woulfe, Patrick, Irish Names and Surnames (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1993 [orig. publ. Dublin, 1923]).
Problem Names Project articles are published by Sharon L. Krossa (contact), with the assistance of The Academy of Saint Gabriel.
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