‘Xavier,’ said a friend. ‘Where does it come from?’
At the back of my mind there was a recall of something I had read. ‘The Basque country,’ I said, ‘I think it means ‘new house.”
It was something I learned more than a decade ago from Mark Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World.
The world featured in the book is not the globe, but the Basque land, the provinces of northern Spain and south-west France where there is indubitably a sense of a distinct identity. Kurlansky writes,
‘A central concept in Basque identity is belonging, not only to the Basque people but to a house, known in the Basque language as etxea. Etxea or echea is one of the most common roots of Basque surnames. Etxeberria means “new house”, Etxazarra means “old house”, Etxaguren is “the far side of the house”, Etxarren means “stone house”. There are dozens of these last names referring to ancestral rural houses. The name Javier comes from Xavier or Xabier, short for Etxaberria’.
So ‘Xavier’ was not a second forename of Francis Xavier, it was instead the name of the castle in Navarre in which Francis had been born. The family home of the man who became a Jesuit saint was simply called ‘new house’.
It was astonishing to learn that all those ‘Javiers’ and ‘Xaviers’, and those whose names were contractions thereof, owed their name to a medieval building in the Basque country.
Years of assumptions can sometimes be swept aside in a moment. I had always thought that ‘Xavier’ was some allusion to ‘saviour’ (probably arising from the Irish pronunciation of it as Zavier). Its Basque etxeberria source came as a surprise.
Such unexpected moments can bring unanticipated illumination.
Attending a dinner in Dublin one evening, I met a Roman Catholic priest who was an Irish speaker.
‘Ah, Ian’, he said, ‘the special name’.
‘Doesn’t it mean John?’
‘It does, but in Irish there are two names for ‘John’, Sean and Eoin. Ian is the Scottish Gaelic version of Eoin – it’s the name of John the Apostle, the beloved disciple’.
Wishing to find out for myself, I discovered the explanation of the distinction made by the priest , that ‘Eoin’ was the Irish form of the Biblical name ‘John’ (it was Ioannes in Greek) and that ‘Sean’ was the Gaelicisation of the French ‘Jean’.
While it might have been a special name, it was not nearly as interesting as being called Etxeberria.