Fan of Shania Twain? Here's the story behind her adopted name

Omaha World-Herald
By Cleveland Evans
May 8, 2018

Are you going to see Shania?

Shania Twain, the best-selling female artist in the history of country music, performs at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center on May 18.

Twain has had an amazing rags-to-riches life. Born in Canada in 1965 as Eilleen Regina Edwards, her divorced mother, Sharon, took her three daughters to Timmins, Ontario, in 1968. There Sharon married Jerry Twain, an Ojibwe Native American who adopted her girls. At age 8 Eilleen began singing in bars to support her impoverished family.

Twain’s budding career was delayed when her parents died in a car wreck in 1987 and she had to raise her siblings. When her career resumed around 1993, she adopted “Shania” as her stage name, saying it meant “on my way” in Ojibwe. Recently she’s said she got it from a woman at Ontario’s Deerhurst Resort.

That explanation is controversial. Biographer Robin Eggar claims “There is no mispronounced or misheard phrase in Ojibwe that comes close to meaning ‘on my way.’?”

Eggar’s wrong. The online Ojibwe People’s Dictionary shows “ani” means “going away; on the way,” while “aya’aa” is “an animate being.” “Ani aya’aa,” pronounced “Ah-nih Eye-uh-ah,” is “someone on the way.”

“Niin” is Ojibwe “I,” and “wiin” is Ojibwe “he/she.” So where does the “Sh-” in Shania come from?

I think it’s from English “she.” Precisely because Ojibwe has no gender in its third person pronoun, an English speaker who knew some Ojibwe and wanted to designate gender might put “she” in front of the phrase, just as those who don’t know “sow” means “female bear” will use “she-bear.”

Shania’s not a traditional Ojibwe name or word. But someone who spoke a little broken Ojibwe could easily come up with Shania for “she’s on the way.” I think Twain misremembers that as “on my way” because it inspired her to restart her career after hard times.

Ojibwe “ani” probably doesn’t imply “headed for success” like English “on the way.” But Twain’s career brought the name its own success.

American girls were named Shania before Twain. Like Shanice and Shaniqua, it was created as an African-American name blending fashionable sounds in the 1970s, usually pronounced “Sha-NEE-uh.” However, there were never more than 86 born in one year, and it never made the top thousand names.

Twain’s hit album “The Woman in Me” debuted in February 1995. That year there were 576 Shanias born, and in 1996 there were 1,835. Shania ranked 171 in 1996, its highest point ever. The name’s other peak years, 1998 and 2003, coincided with Twain’s November 1997 album “Come On Over” (the highest-selling album by a female singer ever), and one of her biggest hit singles, “Forever and for Always,” released in April 2003.

An alternative spelling, Shaniya, reached the top thousand in 1999. Both spellings dropped out of the top thousand in 2012.

The best-known Shania besides Twain is probably 9-year-old Shania Clemmons (played by Bebe Wood), Goldie’s daughter on 2013’s one-season sitcom “The New Normal.” Omaha-born-and-raised Andrew Rannells played half of a gay couple who hired Goldie as a surrogate. That both Shania and Goldie had flash-in-the-pan celebrity-inspired names was one of the show’s jokes.

The oldest real girls named after Twain are turning 23 this year and perhaps haven’t yet had time to become famous. Some of them, though, are surely on their way.