The Gaelic for Wendy
This blog post is co-authored by my friend and colleague Antone Minard. Dr. Minard is a folklorist specializing in Welsh and Breton language and tradition.
On a previous blog post about Gaelic tattoos, a reader recently made a translation request comment: “hi i want to find out how to find the scottish name for wendy.”
Since they asked on the Gaelic Revitalization blog, we’ll assume that they were asking about Scottish Gaelic and not Scots (which is a different language from Gaelic).
As previously mentioned, this blog cannot carry out Gaelic translation requests. However, we’ve decided to answer this question in long form because the issue of translating names can actually be complicated. Gaelic name translation raises larger issues about what can be translated, what could be translated but probably shouldn’t be, how we do translation, and why people want certain things translated.
The Short Answer: What’s the Gaelic for Wendy?
The short answer is, there is no Gaelic for Wendy.
The Long Answer: Translation Is Complicated
The long answer is that there is no Gaelic for Wendy because:
1) “Wendy” is a fundamentally English (as in Old English, as in Anglo-Saxon) name, which is linguistically Germanic and not Celtic. Both Germanic and Celtic are Indo-European languages, but four thousand years apart changes a relationship, and speakers of the two types of languages do not think about names in the same way.
2) “Wendy” is not a name from the Bible, nor is it a Christian saint’s name; therefore, equivalents (cognates) for Wendy were not created in other languages in the various linguistic areas where Christianity took hold (unlike the Hebrew and Greek names whose English cognates are Mary, Catherine, Peter, Andrew etc.).
The Etymology and Origin of Wendy
Let’s look at the name Wendy in more detail. No reliable research studies or primary sources (historical documents) have accurately pinpointed the origin of the name. But there are enough written documents out there to give us an idea of how Wendy became a widely-used woman’s name. Then we’ll consider whether it has any Celtic connections.
People love to know the meanings of names, and a lot of meanings are given for Wendy on baby name websites… but in this case they are wrong. The name “Wendy” is composed of two Old English elements, a root word (wend) and a suffix (-y).
The root: wend, is a remarkably conservative word. It preserves Proto-Indo-European *wendh nearly intact, with some of the original meanings of “turn, twist, wind.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) times (circa 450-1066 AD) it was a word with a whole range of meanings related to turning, changing, and going: to turn, to change position or direction, to twist, to turn something around, to twist something, to take a particular course, to take place (happen), to go, to proceed, to travel, to move, to run, or to flow, to go away, to leave, to depart, to die, and the like. The word is still in use today, although declining, and it also supplied the English past tense of “go”: went was originally a past tense of wend. (Score one for the Germanic languages: this particular Indo-European root was not preserved in the Celtic languages.)
The other main meaning of Wend is an ethnonym for the Sorbian people. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its first appearance in print as 1786 and defines it “A member of the Slavonic race now inhabiting Lusatia in the east of Saxony, but formerly extending over Northern Germany; a Sorb.”
This form also dates back to Old English (in the plural, the Winedas, who hail from Weonodland). There have been many attempts to explain the name “Wend,” including Celtic derivations. Kemp Malone rejected the Celtic theory in “The Name of the Wends,” (Modern Language Notes 62:8 (December, 1947), pp. 556–557), but his own theory of “inhabitants of a watery district” isn’t any stronger. In any case, all of the discussions of Wends relate to eastern Germany.
1. It is added to nouns and adjectives to form adjectives meaning “having the quality of”.
mess → messy
mouse → mousey, mousy
2. It is added to verbs to form adjectives meaning “inclined to”.
run → runny
stick → sticky
3. Variation of -ie added to nouns, adjectives and names to form terms of affection.
cute → cutey
pup → puppy
How did Wendy go from plain old word to girl’s name? We can speculate that the verb “wend” may have formed the basis for some nickname or byname for a man, with the -y making it an adjective indicating that the individual’s body or habits, place of residence, or other personal circumstances had the quality or tendency of one of the many meanings of wend. It is also possible that a Wendish ancestor emigrated to the Essex area of England and took or was given the byname or surname, which was then passed down through generations. We may never know for sure.
The transformation from verb or adjective to byname to name had taken place at least by the mid-1600s in England. We find a Captain Wendy Oxford listed in a journal entry from 20 June 1651 in the Journals of the House of Commons, Vol. 6, published in 1803, and a Sir Thomas Wendy is among a group of 68 men who were made Knights of the Bath at the Coronation of Charles II on 23 April 1661 (A Chronicle of the Late Intestine War in the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, by James Heath, 1676, London, p. 480).
Wendy in the Census Records
British census records demonstrate what happened once it had become a surname (= last name or family name): people started to use it as a middle name and first name for males.
The 1841 census of England, Wales, and Scotland, the earliest UK census for which complete data are available, records the use of Wendy as both a surname and a middle name. Images for the Scottish census are unavailable, and many a “Wendy” from the English census turned out, upon closer inspection, to be a Henry. Nevertheless, the census lists one man with the middle name born Wendy in Banffshire, Scotland, and eight men and women with the surname Wendy born in England, seven in Essex and one in Middlesex. The oldest was a Joseph Wendy born in 1774, a little over a century after the first recorded Wendys mentioned above. No one is listed with the first name Wendy.
The 1851 census recorded twenty people with the surname Wendy, several of whom were also listed in the 1841 census. Eighteen were born in Essex and two in Middlesex. For the first time, this census also recorded two males with the first name (given name) Wendy: a Wendy Oxford in Devonshire, born 1789, and a Wendy Munro in Belly, Elginshire, Scotland. The Devonshire Wendy is listed as William in other records, suggesting that Wendy could have been a nickname.
Meanwhile, the 1850 US census, the first one to record names of all members of the household, listed one male first-name Wendy and seven female first-name Wendys (one born in England and the rest born in the US). These appear to be the first recorded females named Wendy. The original handwritten census records have not been visually inspected, however, and it is possible that some different handwritten names were misread as “Wendy” by transcribers, as we found to be the case with the UK census data.
The 1861 UK census listed 23 people with the surname Wendy, mostly connected with the town of Finchingfield, Essex. What appears to be a single family, spreading out from Finchingfield to Kent and London, accounts for the bulk of the Wendy family surnames in British records. Three of them reappear in the 1871 census. In 1891, we can actually see the surname make the leap to a man’s middle name: John Wendy Claydon Humphrey, born in Finchingfield in 1883, is the son of Ellen Humphrey, née Ellen Wendy, who married Alfred Humphreys in the summer of 1887. Young John, as an illegitimate Victorian child, might have been given his mother’s name as a surname at first, but by the 1891 census it was a middle name.
In 1904, J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was staged for the first time in London. The play of course featured the first famous Wendy, the fictional character Wendy Moira Angela Darling.
In the next census after the play, the 1911 Census of England and Wales, Wendy made the definitive jump from surname and male middle name to female first name in the UK (the US census give evidence of female Wendys in 1850, as already mentioned). The 1911 census lists eight women with Wendy as a first name, seven women with Wendy as a middle name, and still two men with Wendy as a first name, and two men with Wendy as a middle name. One of the females named Wendy was very clearly influenced by J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan play — a girl baby born in 1910 in London, who lived in Walton upon Thames, Surrey, was named Wendy Moira Angela Snow.
Isn’t Wendy Originally a Welsh Name?
Baby name websites and books claim that “Wendy” is related to the name “Gwendolyn” but they offer no evidence for this claim. For example:
“However, the name [Wendy] was used prior to the [Peter Pan] play (rarely), in which case it could be related to the Welsh name GWENDOLEN and other names beginning with the element gwen meaning “white, fair, blessed” (behindthename.com.)
This is false logic: if English people occasionally used “Wendy” before 1904, this does not entail that the name Wendy could be related to a Welsh name.
As well as being unrelated to Wendy, “Gwendolyn” is itself not a traditional Welsh-language name. Rather, it is an Anglo-Welsh hybrid originally created from a medieval English misreading of a male Welsh name, and popularized by the English in English-language literature:
“The name [Gwendolen] debuted in the form Gwendoloena in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, Historia Regum Britanniae [“The History of the Kings of Britain”] (c.1135). Geoffrey appears to have misread an Old Welsh masculine name Guendoleu as Guendolen, and then Latinized it, perhaps to make it sound more feminine to his readers.” (Jodi McMaster, “Concerning the Name Gwendolyn, Gwendolen, or Gwendoline”)
The name “Guendoleu” (“Gwenddolau” in Modern Welsh spelling) comes from gwen, “white,” and probably dolau, which means “meadows,” specifically “holms,” flat spaces of land formed by a loop or bend in the river. The form is somewhat odd, though, as “gwen” is only used with singuar feminine nouns, and “dolau” is the plual of dôl. The diminutive of dôl, however, is dolen, “link” or “ring,” and Guendolen is a perfectly possible name. It would be accented on the middle syllable, which is pronounced like English though: gwen·THOUGH·len (Modern Welsh spelling Gwenddolen).
The name appears half a dozen times in a short passage in Book II of Geoffrey’s History. Gwendolen, spelled variously in the manuscripts but mostly Gwendolena or Guendolena, is a princess in a bad marriage. Her husband, Locrinus, has been secretly keeping his first wife, Estrildis, underground. Eventually, the truth comes out, and Gwendolen raises an army and manages to kil Locrinus, Estrildis, and the daughter they had together. Later, Geoffrey reused the name for the wife of Merlin in his poem Vita Merlini (“The Life of Merlin,” c. 1150).
Although Geoffrey must have been working with some sources in Welsh tradition, he appears to have been working from a text that he understood only poorly. The figure of Gwenddolau is Merlin’s own lord, “fy arglwydd Gwenddoleu,” in the poem Afallennau Myrddin in the Black Book of Carmarthen, rather than his enemy as in Vita Merlini. Geoffrey seems to have confused both his minims and his genders, creating Merlin’s wife, Gwendolen, by having read the final [u] as an [n]. (No wonder Merlin went insane.)
The Anglo-Welsh name Gwendolen was popularized in Victorian English literature:
“The first instance we have found of Gwendolen being used as a Welsh feminine name by a real person, rather than by a literary character, dates only to the 19th century. Gwendoline was in use in England in the 1860s, and Gwendolen appeared in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, published in serialized form 1874-6. The spelling <-lyn> is an even more recent development.” (Jodi McMaster, “Concerning the Name Gwendolyn, Gwendolen, or Gwendoline”)
The Welsh-looking spelling originated from English speakers; in Welsh, -yn is a masculine suffix, while -en is feminine.
It is also highly unlikely that Wendy was ever a nickname for Gwendolen. Apart from the lack of any written evidence of the form Gwendy, an observation from Victorian literature may support this conclusion: there was a character named Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Although the character of Gwendolen makes a significant statement about the meaning of names, and two central characters in the play are nicknamed (Algernon is “Algy” and John is “Jack”), Gwendolen is not nicknamed at all, not even as Gwen or Gwennie, much less as Gwendy.
We do seem to have found a single example from the U.K. census of Wendy being used as a nickname for Winnifred. Wendy Amy L. Mence of the 1881 census, born in Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire in 1875, is listed in 1891 as Winnifred A. L. Mence (with the same identifying details). This is the only such example that we can identify, which suggests that this Wendy was a nonce formation (used only for this individual, and possibly in other isolated cases).
To sum up, baby name websites try to “Celticize” the Anglo-Saxon name Wendy by giving it a faux Welsh origin. But apart from the significance of J. M. Barrie’s character Wendy Darling, the meanings that are listed for “Wendy” on baby name website have no basis in historical reality. Like most baby-name lists, they are copied from one book or website to another without research or evidence.
Fine, It’s Not Really Celtic, Just Tell Me How to Translate It
All that being said, how do you translate the fundamentally English name “Wendy” into Gaelic? We have identified six options:
1) Just don’t:
For the reasons explained above, Wendy is not directly translatable into Gaelic. Wendy is Wendy is Wendy. If you translate it, it becomes a totally different name. But don’t worry, Gaelic is as Gaelic does, and there are Gaelic-speaking Wendys in the world already (see conclusion below).
2) “Translate” the sounds but not the meaning:
Strictly speaking this isn’t translation, but transliteration or transcription from an English spelling and pronunciation to a Gaelic spelling and pronunciation.
Transliteration usually ends up sounding strange in the target language. For example, if you translate the name Michael to Japanese, you get マイケル which is pronounced something like “Ma-i-ke-ru” — the closest sounding thing to “Michael” in the Japanese sound system. It sounds a little silly in Japanese, but everyone recognizes that it’s just a foreign name (and everyone thinks that foreign names are weird anyway).
Transliteration is always imperfect by definition — in this case you shoehorn the English pronunciation of the name into the Gaelic sound system and spelling system, and end up with Uendidh. It looks weird in English, because Gaelic has no “w” and no “y” in its alphabet. There is no English “w” sound in the Gaelic sound system; there is something close to an English “y” sound but it’s written with either “(a)idh” or “(a)igh” depending on the origin of the word.
Although spelled correctly, Uendidh still looks foreign and un-Gaelic in Gaelic, because “ue” is not a letter combination or sound combination used in any Gaelic words.
However, Uendidh can still work for Gaelic activities like classes and immersion sessions if it helps you to get into the mindset of being a Gaelic speaker, of developing your persona in your new language. It can also be a public signal of your Gaelic persona and language learning on Facebook (although Facebook has shut down a user account with a Gaelic name without any warning, citing its “real names policy“). Gaelic student and teacher Wendy McInnis of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, recalls preparing for classes several years ago:
“Although my name (Wendy) is English, and not Gaelic at all, I wanted to put a Gaelic spin on it and use it when I was engaging in Gaelic study. So I asked someone how I could do that and they came up with Uendidh!”
Transliterating is also a good way to start understanding the Gaelic sound system and spelling. It helps you to start really hearing and recognizing the sounds of the Gaelic language on their own terms, instead of through the filter of English.
3) Translate the meaning but not the sounds:
For a Japanese example, say a woman is named 秋. If she wants to translate her name to English, she could either transliterate the sound but not the meaning, which would be “Aki,” or she could translate the meaning but not the sounds, which would be “Autumn.”
So in that spirit, translating the meaning, you could pick either one of the real Anglo-Saxon meanings of wend/Wend, or the meaning of an unrelated Welsh name which sounds a bit like Wendy, and you could try to translate that into Gaelic.
In this particular case we don’t recommend translating “wend” or its adjectival forms into Gaelic because none of them sound like names in Gaelic at all, nor do they sound all that nice to English ears. Just don’t go there. (Although this could work just fine for a name like Crystal, Summer, or Zoe; see below.)
You would have more luck with the invented Welsh connection. Folklorist Dr. Leslie Ellen Jones offers the Welsh names that sound the closest to Wendy:
“Gwendolyn and Guinevere are etymologically related in that they are both Welsh names beginning with the element “gwen-” which means “white/dazzling/holy” and is a *very* popular and productive name element for both female and male names. (The Welsh form of Guinevere is Gwenhwyfar, “white phantom/shadow”, which is an exact cognate of the Irish name Finnabhair, the name of the daughter of Medb and Aillill of Connacht, in the Ulster cycle). Personally, if Wendy is derived from a Welsh name [and Dr. Jones is not saying that it is, only offering a hypothetical opinion], my candidate would be Gwendydd (pronounced Gwen-deethe, “white day”), which was the name of Myrddin (Merlin)’s sister (as in the poem Ymddiddan Myrddin a Gwendydd ei Chwaer, the Conversation of Merlin and Gwendydd his Sister).”
Translating these Welsh names to Irish or Scottish Gaelic, you get the following:
English: “white day”
Gaelic: Fionnlò or Fionnlatha (Not a real Gaelic name; sounds odd. Not recommended.)
English: white phantom/shadow
Irish: Fionnabhair (A real Irish name.)
Welsh: Gwendolyn (Name is Anglo-Welsh, see above)
English: white ring
Gaelic: Fionnfhàinne (Not a real Gaelic name; sounds odd. Could use Fàinne (which means “ring” and also sounds odd – but see #5 below).
Fionn means “white” or “fair-haired” in Irish. Norah Burch at NameNerds.com suggests a number of other Irish Fionn- names to substitute for Wendy, although I cannot vouch for their accuracy (again, these are not translations of Wendy; see #5 below). The anglicized form of Fionn is becoming popular as a boy name among English speakers; in the USA, Finn has been in the top 1000 male baby names for 15 years and was the 234th most popular boy baby name in 2014.
Note that these Fionn names are Irish rather than Scottish Gaelic. Most Scottish Gaelic speakers may only be familiar with the name Fionnuala (white shoulder) unless they have also studied Irish or lived in Ireland.
4) Pick a real Gaelic name:
You could try choosing a Gaelic name that contains some similar sounds to Wendy. (Alternatively you could choose the name of a female ancestor, or another name you like, which has an easy Gaelic equivalent.)
This Wikipedia article offers a list of widely-used Gaelic women’s and men’s first names. The names listed here were compiled from multiple sources, including reputable Gaelic dictionaries.
For pronunciations, try looking up Gaelic name in the online dictionary at learngaelic.net. The most common Gaelic names have entries with audio files to demonstrate pronunciation.
A number of Gaelic and English name translations that are now considered standard were actually done this way. A pair of names are eytmologically unrelated, but were simply designated as equivalent due to sharing a few sounds, and then established as “convention.” These include Dìorbhail for Dorothy, Ùna for Agnes, Gilleasbaig for Archibald, and Uisdean for Hugh.
This article about names that can’t be translated into Irish provides insight into the Wendy translation problem (not to mention Alyssa, Crystal, and Zoe translation problems) from an Irish-language perspective. It provides some traditional Irish-language alternatives to Wendy that I haven’t listed here. The names are definitely Irish rather than Scottish Gaelic, I can’t personally assess their accuracy or cultural connotations, and pronunciations in Scottish Gaelic would be different (check with a Gaelic language teacher), but if you are a Wendy of Irish heritage you might enjoy them, and they are culturally and linguistically pan-Gaelic and Celtic.
5) Translate the English word that sounds the closest to “Wendy”
It’s a little off the wall, but you could pick the other English word/name that sounds closest to Wendy – Windy – and translate that into Gaelic: Gaothach. Find the pronunciation in this online Gaelic dictionary.
This sounds odd as a Gaelic name, more odd than Windy does in English. And “windy” could have connotations of talking too much, or farting… Having said that, almost all Gaelic speakers over the age of 3 are bilingual in English these days, and it’s a huge trend for English speakers to create baby names from ordinary English nouns (for example, Apple, Sailor, Haven, Holiday, Lyric, Paisley, Story).
6) Get a Gaelic nickname instead
Given names are important of course, but many Gaelic speakers identify people in everyday life with nicknames and bynames. Gaelic nicknaming and bynaming practices have been analyzed in detail by linguists and anthropologists.
The tricky thing is that you can’t really give yourself a nickname – it’s a bit like calling yourself a “tradition-bearer”! Rightly speaking, that’s something you should wait for other people to bestow upon you. So, to get a nickname, you’ll have to participate in Gaelic-language activities and wait for a Gaelic speaker to give you one. You might also want to be on your best behavior lest you earn an unfortunate nickname!
Depending on individual circumstances, your nickname could be Gaelic, could include both English and Gaelic elements, or it could sound like English, but it will have been generated out of a Gaelic cultural practice.
This Wikipedia article on the Scottish Gaelic naming system explains Gaelic nicknames and patronymics, which were traditionally used to identify people even more than their personal/given name or family name. (The article also goes into more detail on how various traditional Gaelic names are derived from ancient Gaelic, Norse, Anglo-Norman, Scots, and Latin sources.)
As an afterword, we note that the strategies mentioned above can also be applied to other non-Gaelic names that lack a direct Gaelic equivalent.
Conclusions: What’s in a name?
Names are fun, and important to us on many levels, but they are aspirational at best – not indicators of your inner authenticity. In other words, you don’t need to have a traditional Gaelic name to learn Gaelic, speak Gaelic, or be Gaelic. Gaelic is as Gaelic does.
To give you further reassurance, I talked with two “Gaelic Wendys”: Scottish musician and educator Anna-Wendy Stevenson in the Isle of Benbecula in the Western Isles, and Canadian musician Wendy MacIsaac in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Anna-Wendy Stevenson is a fiddler, composer, and lecturer; she is a very busy woman indeed furthering Scottish and Gaelic musical traditions through her discography and her work in further and higher education:
“I am the programme leader for the BA Applied Music [degree] with the University of the Highlands and Islands. This is a blended learning networked degree and I am based at the Lews Castle College campus on Benbecula in the Uists. From there I teach on the Master Music and the Environment, the applied music degree and the Higher National Certificate music qualifications in traditional music which provides focus on the traditional music of Scotland and the Gaelic music of the Highlands and Islands. Students studying with us also have the opportunity to learn Gaelic at the college and living in the Uists students are located in a strong Gaelic-speaking community.
Anna-Wendy explained how her parents decided on her name:
“My name Anna-Wendy – my parents simply decided on these two names because they liked them and joined them together! Double barrelled names are common in the Hebrides – but I was originally brought up in Edinburgh and it was less common to come across people when I was at school with double-barrelled names – in fact I didn’t come across anyone else who had one in my school.
I also asked how Anna-Wendy felt about her name perhaps not being traditionally Gaelic:
“I feel fine about my name not being a traditional Gaelic name – it’s original though the individual names are not uncommon – and I feel connected to the world! I love Gaelic names and I love names from all over the world. To me who you are is important. You can’t help where you were born or what name you were given but your name can become powerful by your actions for better or for worse! Gaelic names often have a familial connection – I don’t have that but appreciate the beauty of being able to trace your heritage through your first name!”
Wendy MacIsaac is also a professional musician, a well-known Nova Scotian fiddler, piano accompanist, and stepdancer:
I play Cape Breton Style fiddle and piano. I also duo with Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamondtour with Mary Jane Lamond who sings in Scottish Gaelic. I play music that has been both brought over from Scotland a few hundred years ago with our ancestors and also composed by musicians from Nova Scotia. With a good mix of Irish tunes as well.
Wendy explained how her name was chosen:
When my mom was in the hospital to have me, she had a nurse whose name was Wendy. She was a very lovely lady and mom liked the name. So that’s where it came from for me.
We asked Wendy how she felt about her name:
I have never thought twice about having a name that didn’t have a Gaelic translation. Both of my boys have Scottish names, Angus and Calum, but we picked then because we liked the names and we both had realities with one of the names.
Wendy has an extensive discography; here is a 2013 performance in Toronto that gives a great idea of her style:
These two accomplished “Gaelic Wendys,” Scottish and Nova Scotian, provide great inspiration – not to mention a soundtrack – for anyone with any name who participates in Scottish Gaelic language and culture.