Concerning the Names
Xavier, Javier, and the Like

by Lyle Gray and  Josh Mittleman

known in the SCA as Lyle FitzWilliam and Arval Benicoeur respectively.
©1998, 2000 by Lyle Gray & Josh Mittleman. All rights reserved.

Last updated 25 Jan 2000

Xavier or Javier was originally a place name in Navarre, used as a surname by the family of the 16th century saint Francisco Javier (Francis Xavier). It was not used as a given name until well after the saint's canonization in 1622.

Francisco Javier was born at the family castle of Javier in 1506. He co-founded the Jesuit order, died during a missionary trip to China in 1552, and was canonized in 1622 [1]. The surname was not unique to the saint's family; Juan Aznares de Sada y Javier was created Count of Javier in 1625 [2]. The place name derives from Basque Etchaberri "new house" [3].

The given and place names are both spelled Javier in modern Spanish. In that language, J and X are both pronounced like the ch in Scottish loch or German Bach. In 16th century Navarran Spanish, both letters were pronounced \sh\ (although they were distinct in other Spanish dialects), and so could also have been interchangeable [4].

The earliest example we have found of the saint's name being taken for commemoration is a French Jesuit, Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, born 1682 [5]. It is likely that he added the saint's name to his own upon taking vows. The use of the Francis-Xavier as a compound name became common in the 18th century and has persisted to the present day [6].

Xavier was used in other compounds -- usually with other saint's names -- in the 18th and 19th centuries. Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, Count of Provence and later Louis XVIII of France, was born in 1755. Ignaz Xaver, Ritter von Seyfried, was born in Austria in 1776, and Giuseppe Saverio Raffaele Mercadante in Italy in 1795. Ker Xavier Roussel was a mid-19th century French painter, and José Xavier Zubiri Apalategui was born in 1898 in Spain [7].

The earliest evidence we found of Xavier used as an independent given name is in mid-18th century Italy: Saviero Bettinelli, a mid-18th century Italian theater critic, and Saviero dalla Rosa, who painted Mozart in 1770 [8, 9]. However, it was not unusual in Italy in this period for a man with two given names to be generally known by the second, so we cannot say for certain that either man's first name was Saviero [10]. The first clear example of the given name is Xavier Letendre, a mid-19th C French-Amerind [11].

In modern times, the name spread throughout the Catholic world and beyond. In English, the name has been spelled Zavier. In Italian, it became Saviero and Zaverio and produced feminine forms Saviera, Zaviera, and Saverina [12, 13, 14].

In conclusion: Xavier was not used as a given name until after the canonization of Saint Francisco Javier in 1622, and we have no evidence that it was used as an independent given name until two centuries after that date.

Notes and References

[1] "Xavier, Saint Francis" Britannica Online. [Accessed 31 August 1998].

[2] De Atienza, Juan, Nobilario Español (Madrid: Aguilar SA, 1954).

[3] Dauzat, Albert, Dictionnaire Etymologique des Noms de Famille et Prenoms de France (Paris: Libraire Larousse, 1987), s.n Xavier.

[4] Penny, Ralph A History of the Spanish Language (New York: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1991), 86ff.

[5] "Charlevoix, Pierre-François-Xavier de" Britannica Online. [Accessed 03 August 1998].

[6] We found 18th century examples in France (Marie-Francois-Xavier Bichat, b.1771), Italy (Francesco Saverio Castiglioni, later Pope Pius VIII, b.1761), and Germany (Franz Xaver, Freiherr von Zach, b.1754; Franz Xaver von Baader, b.1765).
  Britannica Online, accessed November 9, 1998.
    "Bichat, Marie-Francois-Xavier"
    "Zach, Franz Xaver, Freiherr von"
    "Pius VIII"
    "Baader, Franz Xaver von"

[7] Britannica Online, Accessed 09 November 1998.
     "Louis XVIII"
     "Seyfried, Ignaz Xaver, Ritter von"
     "Mercadante, Saverio"
     "Denis, Maurice"
     "Zubiri, Xavier"

[8] Gozzi, Gasparo, Count" Britannica Online. [Accessed 09 November 1998].

[9] Mr. Guarnere's Music Pages on the WWW

[10] Giuseppe Saverio Raffaele Mercadante, mentioned above, is known in
history books by his second given name.

[11] "Batoche" Britannica Online. [Accessed 09 November 1998].

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

[13] De Felice, Emidio, Dizionario dei Nomi Italiani (Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milan, 1992), s.n. Saviero.

[14] The name has been incorrectly associated with various similar-sounding but unrelated names. Charlotte M. Yonge, History of Christian Names (London: MacMillan and Co., 1884), derives it from Arabic Ga'afar, Gaiffar, or Jaffier. This derivation is simply wrong; we can't even verify that the Arabic name exists. Yonge also counts among its derivatives Slavic Xaverie, Xavery, and Sawerij. The Slavic name occurs throughout the 15th century in a variety of spellings, and so could not be related to the Spanish saint. Taszycki, Witold (ed.), S{l/}ownik Staropolskich Nazw Osobowych, vols. I-VII (Wroc{l/}aw: Zak{l/}ad Narodowy Imienia Ossoli{n'}skich, Polska Akademia Nauk, 1965-1987).