The spelling for the adjective derived from the name Shaw is Shavian and not Shawian. Similarly you can find Arrow → Arrovian and Harrow → Harrovian. This strikes me as odd.

First of all, I accept that the adjective for /ʃɔː/ is pronounced /ʃɔːvɪən/, so this is not about the word, just the spelling. Now, I see two possible rationales:

  • Shavian is phonemically closer since v usually represents /v/ in English orthography and w represents /w/.

  • Shawian is etymologically closer, without being too distant phonemically since /v/ and /w/ are pretty close.

What strikes me about this is that English orthography usually champions etymology over phonemics, in particular when it comes to proper names. Thus, my question is: Has phonemics just won for once, or is there any other argument for spelling these adjectives with a v?

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    Re: "English orthography usually champions etymology over phonemics, in particular when it comes to proper names": I think that's an oversimplification. Note that Aristotelian is not spelled like Aristotle, Neapolitan like Naples, Norwegian like Norway, Venetian like Venice, Welsh like Wales, etc. And given that "Shaw" is not pronounced with an actual /w/, it's not too strange to drop the "w" before adding "-vian", just as we regularly drop final vowel letters (cf. the dropped 'a' in Canadian, 'e' in Irish, 'i' in Kiribatese, 'o' in Mexican, and 'y' in Italian).
    – ruakh
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 16:13
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    As for the pronunciation, wiktionary says /ˈʃeɪvɪən/. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Shavian#Pronunciation
    – Rosie F
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 17:52
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    There is nothing "odd" about Harrovian, and it has no obvious connection with Shaw. The Latin name of the town Harrow was "Harrovia". Other place names follow a similar pattern, for example "Cantabrigian" from "Cambridge"
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 12, 2018 at 1:54
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    @alephzero: Actually, going by some of the existing answers, there does seem to be a connection: Etymology takes a detour via Latin.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 12, 2018 at 6:15

3 Answers 3


It is said that Shaw disliked the adjective "Shawian" (which does look and sound awkward) and proposed to invent a new one.

He Latinized (sort of) his surname, from Shaw to Shavius (there is no "w" in Latin, while "u" is spelled as "v").

Shavius naturally lends itself to Shavian.

At least that is the explanation given in the Dictionary of Eponyms by Martin Manser, which is available online in fragments (and also in its complete form for a fee).

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    Thank you for your answer. Can you elaborate to what extent this translates to other cases such as Arrow → Arrovian and Harrow → Harrovian?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 15:31
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    Well, I would imagine that they just follow the pattern set by Shaw. I mean, the fellow is sufficiently famous to be viewed as a trailblazer.
    – Ricky
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 15:32
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    @Ricky I think you mean trailblavian. Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 17:50
  • @DavidRicherby Thank you for pointing that out. I stand corrected: trailblavian, of course.
    – Ricky
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 23:51
  • Of course, there is no ‘sh’ in Latin either. If he’d really wanted to Latinise his surname, he would have gone for Scagian (since his name, Shaw, comes from the word meaning a copse or thicket, from Old English sceaga, itself from Proto-Germanic *skag(ōn)-, which would have been Latinised as *scaga). The lazy bastard. Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 9:40

Frank McNally in the Irish Times says it's a mystery, but he thinks it may because of rhoticity Shavian lather – An Irishman’s Diary on descriptive derivatives, while Morton S Freeman alleges that Shaw invented it himself, by 'Latinising' his surname. A New Dictionary of Eponyms


Just throwing another one into the pot..

According to 'the surname database' Shaw has several different modern-day versions:

the modern forms of the surname range from Shaw(e), Shay and Shay(e)s to Shave(s) and Shafe.

Accordingly Shave → Shavian would still be an etymological derivation as I understand it.

The article claims that Shaw derives from 'sceaga'.

As a topographical name, Shaw was used for someone who lived by a copse, wood, or thicket, derived from the Old English pre 7th Century "sceaga", copse, small wood. As a locational surname, Shaw is derived from any one of the numerous small places names Shaw, from the Old English "sceaga", such as those in Berkshire, Lancashire, and Wiltshire.

Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling

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    Ha ha... No the reason I googled this is because I thought it might be related to the Irish language where 'bh' is sometimes pronounced 'v' and sometimes 'w'. I was interested to see if it was originally 'Shabh' or the like.
    – S Conroy
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 15:25
  • @S Conroy As I mentioned earlier, you can't blame everything on the Irish.
    – Ricky
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 15:27
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    @Ricky. To be fair, if you're looking for someone to blame..., it was the English who turned Ireland into an English speaking country, which leads to confusion when the original Irish spelling perseveres. On the way to off-topic though.
    – S Conroy
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 15:37
  • Not a bad thought, actually. Had it been an Irish name, something like Seábh, there might have been something to it. Realistically, though, it would be hard to find a context where the final consonant of a surname is palatalised when deriving an adjective; it’s usually the other way around (e.g., surname Ó Domhnaill, with slender /Lʲ/ → adjectival Domhnallach with broad /Lˠ/). Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 9:45
  • That piece of pure speculation wasn't so much related to the patterns within the Irish language, more to the idea of variant anglicisations of an Irish name. Historically in Ireland the Irish language was supressed, and most Irish surnames and place names have been anglicised. So my would-be etymology was more on the lines of a potential (non existant as it turns out) original Irish name Shabh being anglicised with different versions and different pronunciations, e.g. Shaw and Shav.
    – S Conroy
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 23:10

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