Word of the Week

BOTH

BOTH DHÍAMHAIR ‘a secluded hut’ is sometimes mentioned in Early Modern Irish texts as a place in which poems were composed. Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh, who was active around 1600, actually railed against another poet for composing outdoors with a view of mountains, presumably implying that the other was breaching professional etiquette. And Martin Martin’s ‘Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’, which was published in 1695, gives a similar account of the process of poetic composition. He says: ‘they shut their doors and windows for a day’s time, and lie on their backs, with a stone on their belly … and indeed they furnish such a style from the dark cell as is understood by very few’.

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15/12/2017
FULLA

FULLA on its own seems to have been an early term for a vagrant, for it is explained as a person ‘who travels from place to place’ (bis for sibal a hinad d'inad). What is, presumably, the same word turns up in a puzzling phrase, DLAÍ FULLA. The first word here means ‘a wisp’ or ‘a tuft’, and according to various medieval texts, a person on whom the DLAÍ FULLA is put becomes mad or restless. That some kind of supernatural ritual was involved is suggested by the fact that Núadu Fullón, a ‘druí’ (druid), is said to have been the first person ever to administer the DLAÍ FULLA.

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08/12/2017
ÚATHACH

ÚATHACH ‘horrible’ is found as a name in a number of medieval Irish sources. Perhaps the most interesting individual to be so-called is Eithne Úathach. Her name is said to refer to the fact that, as a girl, she was given the flesh of children to eat so that she would grow faster. In the 17th century, Geoffrey Keating responded to Classical writers who claimed that there was cannibalism amongst the Irish in pre-Christian times, arguing that Eithne was an isolated case. He did not mention an entry in the Annals of Ulster for the year 1318, which comments that the during Robert the Bruce’s Irish campaign ‘people undoubtedly ate each other throughout Ireland’.

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01/12/2017
DAMSA

DAMSA ‘dancing’ does not seem to be attested before the sixteenth century and the first example we have of RINCE ‘dancing, a dance’ is from the seventeenth century. In Irish texts from earlier periods, LINGID ‘leaps’ and LÉIM ‘a leap’ are used to refer to dancing. Some of the clearest instances occur with reference to the dance Salome performed for Herod and for which she demanded the head of John the Baptist.

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24/11/2017

DÉ ‘smoke’ could be used of the smoke from a campfire, a volcano or a gun, but it was most common as a word for the smoke from a fire within a house. A number of medieval Irish tales claim that individuals, including Fíngin Fathliaig, Conchobar’s physician, could tell from the smoke rising from a hearth how many people in that house were suffering from illness and what types of illness were to be found there.

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17/11/2017
IRÚATH

IRÚATH is used to medieval Irish to indicate some kind of legendary giant bird. It has been suggested that the word is based on Latin ‘herodius’, which is a stork or similar bird, but it seems unlikely that the Irish had any real bird in mind. One text tells us that this creature came from India but otherwise it is identified only by its remarkable size and is used as shorthand way of expressing something that has no equal. Presumably, in earlier times any Irish person would have been flattered to be told: tú an ioruaidh ós gach ealta ‘you are the IRÚATH above all birds’ (3 C 13, 752.7).

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10/11/2017
AITHBEÓAIGID

AITHBEÓAIGID is an early Irish verb meaning ‘comes back to life’. There is an example of the past tense in the tale of Cairpre mac Feradaig. According to this, Cairpre was killed and his head was cut off, but a cleric, Ciarán of Clonmacnoise, reunited his head with his body ‘co roaithbeōaig Cairbri ō marbaib’ (and so Cairpre came back to life from the dead). The process was not a complete success, however, for Cairpre's neck remained crooked, and afterwards he was known as Cairpre Crom ‘Bent Cairpre’.

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03/11/2017
PELL

PELL ‘a horse’ seems to have been an extremely rare word. Most of the examples we have occur in the phrase DÁ N-Ó PILL ‘two ears of a horse’. This phrase is uttered by a harp in order to expose a disfigurement affecting the character known in Irish tales and pseudo-history as Labraid Lorc or Labraid Loingsech. Before the harp betrayed his secret, Labraid put to death everyone who cut his hair and saw the ears. Although we are never told how Labraid came to have this deformity, his story was perhaps influenced by the legend of the Greek king Midas.

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27/10/2017
SCEOLA

SCEOLA is sometimes translated as ‘survivor’, but the word derives from SCÉL ‘a story’ and the sense is actually closer to ‘one who lives to tell the tale’. Several medieval Irish texts have variations on the saying Ní BI ORGAIN CEN OENSCIULA ‘there is no battle without a SCEOLA’ (Dinds. 52). This can be understood in different ways: it may be intended to mean ‘someone always survives’, but it seems more likely to imply ‘a battle will not be remembered unless someone lives to tell the tale’.

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20/10/2017
CUILEBAD

CUILEBAD is the early Irish word for a flabellum or fan used in religious ceremonies to keep insects away from the priest and from the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ. The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions stated that the purpose of such a fan was to ‘silently drive away the small animals that fly about’; the Irish perhaps had more sinister aims, for it has been proposed that the word CUILEBAD is made up of CUIL ‘fly’ and BATH ‘death’!

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13/10/2017
SLÍASAIT

SLÍASAIT ‘thigh’ is found in three fine early Irish phrases: (1) TARB SLÍASTA, the ‘bull’ of the thigh, is almost certainly the thickest part, (2) CAIRDES SLÍASTA ‘friendship of the thighs’ is clearly an allusion to sexual intercourse, and (3) ORBA CRUIB ┐ SLÍASTA ‘inheritance of hand and thigh’ seems to mean property which someone has acquired though his or her own efforts and which they can then give to a son or daughter at will. This phrase has attracted attention because it is specifically stated that such property could be passed on by a woman.

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06/10/2017
MIDACH

MIDACH 'physician', oddly enough, turns up in the name for one of the fingers. Legal texts tell us that three scruples must be paid in compensation for injury to or loss of a finger. The only exceptions are the long finger of the right hand and the ‘mér midaig’ of the left hand, each of which is worth nine scruples. ‘Mér midaig’ is obviously based on DIGITUS MEDICUS, the Latin name for the ‘ring-finger’. Why this finger was associated with physicians is not known for certain, but the 6th-/7th-century Archbishop Isidore of Seville claimed it was because physicians applied eye-salve with this finger!

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29/09/2017
SCÚAP

SCÚAP (Modern Irish SCUAB) is a brush or broom. It must have been the thought of a broom sweeping away everything in its path that led to the word being used to refer to a calamity which, it was feared, would befall Ireland at the end of the world. IN SCÚAP A FÁNAIT, the ‘broom’ from the Fanad Peninsula, in present-day Donegal, was predicted as a vengeance upon Ireland for the beheading of John the Baptist. This prediction seems to be linked to the tradition that it was an Irishman, Mug Ruith, who carried out the beheading.

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22/09/2017
ROTH

ROTH can be anything circular. In medieval texts, it is used of a potter’s wheel, torques and brooches, and even an instrument of torture! The most common use is with reference to the wheel of a vehicle, though – which in texts of our period generally meant the wheel of a chariot. In one piece of Early Irish wisdom, the word is used to counsel against taking on a challenge one cannot win. The message is NÍR IMTHIGE FRI ROTH ‘do not race against a wheel' (Tec. Corm. § 19)

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14/09/2017
UILG

UILG TUILG seems to have been a medieval Irish way of expressing a sound made in sorrow or defeat. It is one of a number of two-word phrases which were used with reference to noises or utterances. GIC GOC was meaningless chatter, GRICC GRÁICC the clanging of a bell, and HÚRLA HÁRLA probably indicated some kind of cheer. MINGUR GRINGUR, meanwhile, may well have been some sort of buzzing or humming sound made by an insect.

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08/09/2017
GÉN

GÉN 'ridicule, mockery' is best-known from the phrase BERRAD GEÓIN 'a shearing for ridicule'. This phrase seems to stem from an incident involving a dispute between Cú Chulainn and Cú Roí mac Dáire. In the end, Cú Roí drives Cú Chulainn into the ground up to his armpits, cuts off his hair and covers his head in cow-dung. In later literature, 'to give someone a BERRAD GEÓIN' serves as a reference to public humiliation. Michael O'Clery's 17th-century glossary even contains a cryptic allusion to 'the BERRAD GEÓIN Philip's wife gave him', but does not tell us who the couple in question were or whether the 'shearing' was literal or figurative!

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01/09/2017
CÉT

CÉT continues in Modern Irish as CÉAD, which means 'a hundred (100)'. In early Irish, though, the word could denote 120. In other medieval languages too, words which now refer to 100 were used to mean 120. In order to avoid confusion, English eventually adopted the terms 'long hundred' or 'twelfty' for 120, and in Ireland 120 became known as GALLCHÉT 'the foreign hundred'. There are, however, some legal references which show CÉT itself being used with this meaning, e.g. 'se fichit in gach ced' (six twenties in every 'cét'; 23Q6,51b43).

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25/08/2017
SECAL

SECAL 'rye' and TAES SECAIL 'rye dough' are mentioned often in medieval Irish texts, but the most remarkable references are not to rye as a crop or food-stuff but to people rubbing rye-dough on their skin in order to disguise themselves as lepers! One tale tells us that a character named Rón Cerr had calf's blood and rye-dough (fuil læig ┐ táes secail) rubbed on himself so that he might be mistaken for a leper (RC 13, 80). Another text says that Macha once rubbed rye dough and bog water (táes secail ┐ rota) on herself to achieve the same effect (Dinds. 161).

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18/08/2017
GOT

GOT 'stammering, lisping' had a particular use with regard to foreigners. It was applied to Norsemen and others, and in such instances seems to mean simply that their speech was intelligible. A medieval Irish tendency to dismiss other languages as meaningless babble is apparent also from a line of poetry in the Book of Rights. Using GOÍDELC 'Irish' in its wider sense of 'speech', the poem in question refers to 'deich ngoill can gaedelga', which seems to mean 'ten foreigners without [proper] speech' (BR2 591).

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11/08/2017
AINIMM

AINIMM survives as Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic ANAM 'soul'. Now, as in the past, the word is opposed to CORP 'body', and as a body without a soul is a lifeless one, so CO N-ANMAIN 'with a soul' was often used to mean 'alive'. In medieval Irish tales, ANMAIN I N-ANMAIN 'life for life' was an appeal for mercy. Usually, three wishes were granted in return for sparing the life of someone who said these words. A well-known instance occurs in Fled Bricrenn when Cú Chulainn defeats but does not kill a giant who cries 'anmain i n-anmain' and is granted, as one of his wishes, the Champion's Portion at the ensuing the feast.

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04/08/2017