Word of the Week

CORRGUINECHT

CORRGUINECHT is associated with satire, divination and other supernatural acts. It is associated also with an unusual physical stance. O'Davoren's Glossary defines CORRGUINECHT as 'being on one foot, one hand and one eye' while satirising. In the tale of Bruiden Da Choca also, a woman utters a prophecy while standing on one foot with one eye closed. And Togail Bruidne Da Derga describes how a seer woman chants thirty-two different names 'on one foot and in one breath'. Because of the emphasis on standing on one foot, scholars have sometimes wondered whether the first part of the word CORRGUINECHT might be CORR 'heron, stork'!

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16/06/2017
NECHTAR

NECHTAR means 'one of two, either'. NEMNECHTAR does not seem to occur in the early language, but NEMNECHTARDAE is found as an adjective meaning 'belonging to neither'. It is used to refer to the neuter gender in the Old-Irish glossary Sanas Cormaic (i.e. not belonging to either masculine or feminine), and it turns up again in Early Modern medical texts to describe old people (who are neither completely well nor ill) and people recovering from illness.

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09/06/2017
CONGANCHNES

CONGANCHNES means 'horn-skin'. It is so closely associated with the impenetrable layer of armour worn by Cú Chulainn's foster-brother, Fer Diad, that he is sometimes known as In Conganchnes (The Horn-Skin). In the Irish account of the destruction of Troy, though, Hector uses the word to refer to himself. Ultimately, of course, Cú Chulainn stabs Fer Diad in the heart 'dar brollach in chonganchnis' (over the chestpiece of the horn-skin) before finally killing him in what is perhaps the most tragic episode of early Irish literature.

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02/06/2017
SMIR

SMIR and SMÚAS seem to be early Irish words for components of bone marrow. They work together in well-attested expressions referring to inseparable things. In a verse attached to Amra Choluim Chille, for example, 'dedail smera ri smúais' (the separating of SMIR from SMÚAS) is mentioned along with the parting of a physician from his medical bag to convey a sense of the devastastion suffered by the people of Ireland and Scotland after the death of Colum Cille (Mann. & Cust. iii, 251; LU p. 22).

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26/05/2017
SRÓN

SRÓN 'nose' occurs in medieval Irish references to taxes, which were often specified as a certain amount in gold or silver 'for every nose'. The expression seems to be linked to Old Icelandic 'nef-gildi' (nose-tax). As every individual has one nose, a 'nose-tax' was a shorthand way of referring to a tax on every person. This system of reckoning by the nose probably came to Ireland with the Norse, but the concept was ill-understood by the time Leabhar Cloinne Aodha Buidhe was being written in Sligo in the 1680s, for the text claims: uinge d'ór ar gach aontsróin ... nó an tsrón do bhuain 'an ounce of gold for every nose ... or the nose to be struck off' (97.94)!

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19/05/2017
GRÁN

GRÁN CRUITHNECHTA 'wheat-grain' and GRÁN EÓRNA 'barley-grain' regularly occur in medieval Irish in agricultural and domestic references, but GRÁN could be used also in a military context. GRÁIN CHATHA, literally 'battle-grains', is still the accepted Modern Irish term for caltrops, the spiked devices which are strewn on the ground to slow the advance of men, horses and vehicles. In the Irish version of the 'Historia Britonum' of Nennius it is claimed that the Romans were hampered by iron caltrops (tres na grainib catha) placed in a ford in the River Thames (Todd Nenn. 60).

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12/05/2017
BÍAIL

BÍAIL 'an axe' is mentioned in medieval Irish sources as both a tool and a weapon. It is as a weapon that the word appears in a striking phrase from the Middle-Irish tale of the Battle of Mag Tuired. This tale tells us that the Dagda, leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, vowed that every oak tree would bear the mark of his weapon for ever and so fissures on these trees are known as LÁTHRACH BÉLA IN DAGDA 'the imprint of the Dagda's axe' (CMT2 48).

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05/05/2017
SÉN

SÉN is an omen or portent. To judge by the abundance of attestions in a wide range of texts, concerns about good and bad omens affected almost all areas of Irish life from earliest times. Literary references attach particular importance to the presence of good omens when a child is being born and there are accounts of mothers' attempts to delay birth, sometimes by sitting on a stone. It is claimed, for example, that Túathal Mael Garb or 'rough head' was so called from the lumps and hollows (luicc ┐cnuicc) caused by the stone that his head rested against while his mother waited for a good omen before giving birth to him!

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28/04/2017
GABUL

GABUL was used in early Irish for any structure which divided into two or more prongs or projecting parts − like a fork, the thighs of the body or a gibbet. It combined with RIND 'point' to give us GABULRIND 'a pair of compasses'. Compasses were clearly used in early Ireland to draw accurate circles in manuscripts. The effect can be seen in the the halo surrounding the head of an eagle in the 8th-century Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. Image © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

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21/04/2017
SÍNED

SÍNED LÁIME, literally 'stretching of or by hand', is used in Early Modern Irish medical texts to mean 'surgery'. The phrase seems to be based on the same idea as Ancient Greek χειρουργία, roughly 'hand-work' (from which Latin 'chirurgia' and ultimately English 'surgery' derive) − that is to say, the idea that surgery was treatment by physical manipulation of the body as opposed to treatment by herbal drinks and salves.

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06/04/2017
ORÁIT

ORÁIT means 'a prayer' and seems to have been used specifically of a ritual prayer rather than an extempore one. An interesting instance of the word can be found in the manuscript known as Lebor na hUidre. In 1359 this manuscript was paid as ransom for members of the Ó Dónaill family who had been taken prisoner by Cathal Óg Ó Conchobhair. A note on p. 37 commemorates its return to Donegal in 1470. It says: orait and so d'Aodh Ruadh... do tobach co foregnech an leabair so ar Chonnachtaib 'a prayer for Áed Rúad for rescuing this book by force from the Connachtmen' (RIA MS 23 E 25)

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30/03/2017
FÉTH

FÉTH FÍADA is not easily translated. It occurs in various spellings and in various texts from the medieval period and might be described best as a kind of cloaking device employed by the Túatha Dé Danann to ensure that they were not seen by mortals. In the tale Altram Tige Dá Medar, for example, Manannán mac Lir urges the defeated warriors of the Túatha to divide up and make use of the FÉTH FÍADA 'tar nach faici na flaithi' (through which the chiefs were not seen, Ériu xi 207).

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24/03/2017
CRÚACH

CRÚACH 'a stack or rick of corn' was used also of conical-shaped mountains or hills. In medieval Irish, Crúach as a proper name referred to the mountain now best known as Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. The association with Saint Patrick came from later traditions which held that the saint fasted there for 40 days and from there banished the snakes from Ireland. From 'rick', the English equivalent of 'crúach', the mountain acquired its common local name, The Reek.

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17/03/2017
FÁELAD

FÁELAD 'to become or behave like a wolf' occurs in the name Laignech Fáelad. Laignech and his descendants are associated with Ossory and are said to 'go in the shapes of wolves' (no theghedh fri faeladh) and 'kill livestock in the manner of wolves' (do mharbhdaís na hindile fó bés na mac tíre). Ossory is also the location for a separate, late twelfth-century, werewolf tale recounted by Gerald of Wales in his Topographia Hibernica, so it seems there was a more wide-spread tradition of werewolf-activity in this part of Ireland.

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10/03/2017
LUS

LUS frequently occurs in the names of plants, including LUS IN SPARÁIN or what is commonly known in English as 'Shepherd's Purse'. Although the Irish name translates as 'the plant of the purse', tradition nevertheless attests to its usefulness to shepherds. One Early Modern text in particular tells us: a cur fó bráighid na caerach ocus ní feicfi in mac tíri iat 'hang it around the necks of sheep and the wolf will not see them' (O'Gr. Cat. 227)

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02/03/2017
FÍANAMAIL

FÍANAMAIL is an adjective meaning 'fían-like', that is, like the warrior-bands often associated with Finn mac Cumaill. For some reason, this word was chosen by medieval Irish linguists to demonstrate polysyllabic words and so they created 'fíanamailcharad', 'fíanamailcharadard' and what is claimed as the longest word in Irish − octosyllabic 'fíanamailcharadardae'!

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24/02/2017
LETH

LETH can mean 'half' or 'one of two', when referring to things which are thought of as existing in pairs. The uses are poignantly illustrated in a 13th-century love poem which Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh composed on the death of his wife: leath mo shúl í, leath mo lámh ... dob é ceirtleath m'anma í 'she was one of my eyes, one of my hands ... she was the very half of my soul' (Irish Bardic Poetry, 101-3)

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16/02/2017
PÉCÓG

PÉCÓG 'peacock' is an English loanword (earlier Irish had GÉSECHTACH, seemingly 'one who screeches'). The earliest example we have come across of PÉCÓG is in a text on child-rearing, where it recommended that breast of peacock is given to an infant as part of the weaning process: tabuir feoil ochta én do, mar atait pecoga ┐pertrisi 'give it the breast-meat of birds like peacocks and partridges' (Irish Texts v 48.1)

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10/02/2017