Name of the Day: Niamh

It’s an authentic Irish appellation boosted by a Dutch-Canadian actress and the Portuguese word for snow.

Thanks to Mercedes for suggesting Niamh as Name of the Day.

She’s taken from legend, where the name was worn by a beautiful, golden-tressed princess, the daughter of a god. Niamh comes from a word meaning bright, but her story is sad.

She falls for the poet Oisín, and he loves her right back. They make their home together in the Land of Youth, but Oisín grows homesick. Niamh hasn’t explained that time works differently in their new love nest – Oisín thinks he’s only been away a few weeks. So when Niamh sends him off for a visit home, with instructions to never, ever leave his magical horse or let his feet touch the ground, well … Oisín doesn’t get it.

You can imagine the rest. He disembarks, and all those 300 years hit him like a freight train. Instantly transformed into an old man, Oisín lives just long enough to tell his story. Niamh comes searching for him, but he’s already dead.

The tale is a tearjerker, but that hasn’t troubled Irish parents. Niamh has appeared in Ireland’s Top 20 for the past several years.

Politicians and actresses answer to the name, as do several singers. Folk singer Niamh Parsons is internationally known. Miss Ireland 2009 was also a Niamh.

In the US Niamh has never broken into the US Top 1000. Unlike the similar in style Maeve, her pronunciation is far from obvious.

The single-syllable neev is usually given as the correct choice, though some suggest two-syllable NEE uv might be closer to the mark. Faced with the unfamiliar -mh combination, little wonder that some parents have sought an Anglicized spelling. And this is where it gets really tricky.

Neve is an obvious choice, the one used by the very Irish Conan O’Brien for his daughter in 2003.

But the best known Neve says her name nev – rhymes with rev rather than leave.

As it happens, Neve Campbell isn’t Irish. She’s wearing her mother’s maiden name in the first spot, and Marnie Neve Campbell was born in Amsterdam. As a surname, Neve relates to the word for nephew. (Presumably, it was given to somebody whose uncle was a big deal.) Campbell’s career has been a long one, from Party of Five to the Scream trilogy – soon to add a fourth installment. Render Niamh as Neve, and odds are you won’t hear neev.

Nieve is another possible respelling, but this takes us in yet another direction. Nieve is the Spanish for snow, and is pronounced nee AY veh. Pretty, but if you were hoping for an Irish heritage choice, probably not what you had in mind.

Speaking of snow, neve is Portuguese for the fluffy white stuff. And, via the French, névé is a scientific term for a particular type of snow that helps form glaciers.

All of this makes Niamh tricky. As parents explore more Gaelic names, Niamh isn’t quite the unthinkable tongue-twister she might have seemed in years past. But her pop culture associations could lead even those familiar with Niamh to mispronounce the name. Still, her spare, tailored style and undeniable history make her worthy of consideration.

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12 Comments

My daughter’s name is Niamh (NEE-uv), but just about everyone pronounces her name “Neev,” with one syllable. I think that’s how they hear it when I say it, though it’s the same “ia” vowel sound as “Liam,” and I don’t generally hear people saying “Leem.”

One of my (British) high school classmates just had a daughter. The baby’s name is Nieve (sister to Faye). I don’t know how they pronounce it, but it’s a refreshing choice. 🙂

Faye and Nieve – what a lovely naming style. It’s restrained, but still feminine, and light without being lightweight.

I’ve frequently seen “Niamh” and “Oisín” as recommendations for boy-girl twin names, and that just seems icky!

I’ve seen some ‘interesting’ respellings in the Aussie, Kiwi and Brit BAs lately e.g Neeve and Neive.

It’s generally well received here. Sure, you will get some hassle with the pronunciation (and more likely the spelling) but I’ve definitely noticed more recognition of this name and see it frequently enough in the BAs. A little of Aoife too. I know of one Kiwi with both a Niamh and Aoife.

It’s nice although its closeness to naive now bothers me.