Concerning the Name

by Sharon L. Krossa
known in the SCA as Effric neyn Kenyeoch Vc Harrald

©1997, 2002 by Sharon L. Krossa. All rights reserved.

Last updated 6 Sep 2002

Fiona (pronounced \fee-OH-nah\ [1]) is a given name that was invented in the 19th century by Scottish author William Sharp (1855-1905), who used it for his pen-name, Fiona Macleod [2]. The name did not exist, and so could not have been used, previous to this. While it is very popular in modern Scotland, it is not a medieval name.

Sharp presumably intended Fiona to be a name based on the modern Gaelic word fionn, which means "white, fair" and is pronounced roughly \fin\ or \fyun\ (where \y\ represents a consonantal \y\ sound, as in the English word "you", and so \fyun\ is pronounced as a single syllable, not two). However, although there are a number of historical Gaelic names based on colour adjectives, none of them is formed by adding an -a to that adjective.

One of these historical colour based names is Early Gaelic [3] Finn (pronounced roughly \fin\). The later form is Fionn (pronounced roughly \fin\ or \fyun\). This was usually a masculine name, but it was also occasionally used as a feminine name.

Although it was sometimes possible in medieval Gaelic to form a feminine name from a masculine name, this was not done by adding an -a to the masculine name, but rather by using the Early Gaelic feminine suffixes -nat and -sech (which later became -nait and -seach). This was done with Finn, creating Early Gaelic Finnat (pronounced roughly \FIN-ahtch\) and Finnsech (pronounced roughly \FIN-shehkh\, where \kh\ is the hissing \k\ sound found in Scottish loch and German ach). The later forms are Fionnait (pronounced roughly \FIN-ahtch\ or \FYUN-ahtch\) and Fionnseach, (pronounced roughly \FIN-shehkh\ or \FYUN-shehkh\).

There are a number of other feminine Gaelic given names that are formed with Finn-, including Early Gaelic Finnguala, Finnmaith, Finnabair, and Finncháem. However, none of them could have given rise to a medieval Fiona for several reasons. Firstly, Gaels did not normally form nicknames or diminutives by simply dropping off the end of a given name. Secondly, they never formed nicknames or diminutives by dropping off the end of a given name and then adding -a. Thirdly, even if they had broken the rules to form a nickname in this way, no name formed from Finn-/Fionn- could result in a name pronounced as Fiona is (\fee-OH-nah\), because Gaelic words, including names, almost always have the emphasis on the first syllable, not the second, and Finn- (later Fionn-) is pronounced as a single syllable, \fin\ (later \fin\ or \fyun\), but never as two syllables with the emphasis on the second, \fee-OHN\. Fourthly, in Gaelic it is significant whether a word is spelled with two <n>s, as in Finn-/Fionn-, or with one <n>, as in Fiona. A word or name with two <n>s will not normally transform into a word or name with only one <n>.

There was an Early Gaelic feminine given name Fíne, meaning "a vine", derived from Latin vinea. This is the same as the Early Gaelic word for vine, fíne. Both the word and the name were pronounced \FEEN-yeh\. Ó Corráin & Maguire, in Irish Names, give the modern Irish spelling of the name as Fíona, but go out of their way to explain that this modern name, pronounced \FEEN-ah\, is not the modern "popular fancy name, Fiona ... invented by William Sharp", which is pronounced \fee-OH-nah\. However, the spelling Fíona would appear to be a modern invention, perhaps influenced by Sharp's Fiona, but not used in the medieval period. In Gaelic it is significant whether a consonant is "slender" or "broad", that is, next to slender vowels (like <i> and <e>) or broad vowels (like <o> and <a>). The <n> in Early Gaelic Fíne is slender, but the <n> in modern Irish Fíona is broad. A word or name with a slender consonant will not normally transform into a word or name with a broad consonant. That the Early Gaelic name Fíne would not normally become Fíona is supported by the fact that the Early Gaelic word fíne remained fíne into the 20th century. The only example of Fíne given by Ó Corráin & Maguire is from the Early Gaelic period, an abbess of Kildare who died in 805. It may be that the name was not used in the later middle ages, but if it was, it most likely would have been with the same spelling (and pronunciation) as the Early Gaelic, Fíne, and not Fíona.

So, while there are a number of different medieval Gaelic names based on the adjective finn/fionn, meaning "white, fair", the modern name spelled Fiona, or any name pronounced \fee-OH-nah\, cannot be documented or even reasonably supposed to have existed in the Middle Ages.


[1] Pronunciation guides appear between backslash brackets, \ \, and are intended to be read as if they were modern standard American English (except where noted) with the emphasis placed on the capitalized syllables.

[2] At least one modern name dictionary, P. Hanks & F. Hodges, A Dictionary of First Names, attributes the invention of Fiona to James Macpherson (1736-96), author of the Ossianic poems. We could not find the name in Macpherson's work. [Additional note, September 2002: Macpherson's use of <Fiona> has now been found, thanks to online editions of his work. This article will be revised to include a full consideration of this information as time allows. In the meantime, note that Sharp may have gotten <Fiona> from MacPherson's use. However, it is not clear that MacPherson was using the name as a human name, and, of course, it changes the end conclusion very little whether the name was invented by Sharp in the late 19th century or Macpherson in the very late 18th century -- it still cannot be documented or even reasonably supposed to have existed in the Middle Ages.]

[3] 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. (All examples of historical Gaelic names in this article have been taken from Ó Corráin & Maguire, and so reflect specifically Irish usage. These names may or may not have been used in Scotland, but their presence in this article should not be taken as documentation that they were actually used by any medieval Scots.)


Dinneen, Patrick S., Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla (Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1979 [Orig. publ. 1927 and reprinted with additions in 1934]).

Donaldson, Gordon, and Robert S. Morpeth, A Dictionary of Scottish History (Edinburgh: John Donaldson Publishers Ltd, 1977).

Dwelly, Edward, compiler, The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (Glasgow: Gairm Publications, 1977).

Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, and Fidelma Maguire, Irish Names, 2nd edn. (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990).