Word of the Week

BRATÁN

BRATÁN is an early Irish term for a fish. The word has come down to us in Modern Irish as BRADÁN (Scottish Gaelic BRADAN) and it is generally used nowadays to refer to the salmon. In origin, though, BRATÁN is simply the diminutive of BRAT ‘a captive’, so it means literally ‘little captive’ and may have denoted other commonly caught fish before being restricted in meaning to the salmon.

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16/08/2019
BALLAIGID

BALLAIGID is a rare medieval Irish verb which derives from the noun BALL ‘a spot, mark or speckle’. In the tale ‘Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh’, it appears as part of a magnificent five-part compound in the statement DO GHEALNÚADDERGDATHBALLAIG IN GRÍAN A GNÚIS ‘the sun bright-fresh-red-colour-speckled its face’!

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09/08/2019
MESS

MESS is the medieval Irish term for ‘mast’, the nuts, seeds and fruit of trees and shrubs that are eaten mostly by wildlife. It often occurs with MUCC ‘pig’, so that MUCC MESSA is a ‘mast-fed pig’ and MUCC REMI-THUIT MESS is ‘a pig that falls before the mast’. The latter phrase is used of a person who has died prematurely. It appears in the Annals of the Four Masters in reference to Mael Seachlainn mac Murchada who was poisoned at the age of 30 in 1155 (FM ii 1114.13).

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02/08/2019
LEPAID

LEPAID is the early Irish word which gave us Modern Irish LEABA and Scottish Gaelic LEAPAIDH, both of which mean ‘bed’. In medieval times, however, the word was commonly used in a legal sense to refer to harbouring or offering shelter. If the person being harboured had committed some offence, then the host could incur FÍACH LEPTHA ‘the fine of harbourage’. That this was not confined to idea of supplying a bed can be seen from examples in which FÍACH LEPTHA is said to be due for providing a criminal with food!

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12/05/2019
TAÍDLECH

TAÍDLECH means ‘shining’ or ‘glittering’. The word appears as the epithet of a man named Eogan Taídlech who is said to have possessed a magnificent cloak. According to medieval Irish tradition, the garment was made for him by the daughter of the king of Spain and it consisted of multicoloured ‘wool’ collected from a salmon. Eogan returned to Ireland, resplendent and glittering in that cloak, and from then on he was known as Eogan Taídlech.

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06/05/2019
DEBUITH

DEBUITH ‘a difference of opinion’ occurs on several occasions in medieval Irish literature as part of what seems to be a proverbial saying. To express the idea that a dispute has no long-term implications for the relationship between the parties involved, Irish poets and story-tellers say: IS DEABUIDH MEIC REA MHÁTHAIR ‘it is [just] the disagreement of a son with his mother’ (Ériu iv 216).

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31/03/2019
NATHAIR

NATHAIR is the Irish for ‘snake’. Despite the often-repeated tradition that St Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland, it is now accepted that the country simply never had any native snakes - after the last ice age, surrounding seas prevented these reptiles from colonizing the island. Nevertheless, the word NATHAIR does occur in medieval Irish texts and, remarkably, can be intended as a compliment when applied to people. Saint Adamnán, abbot of Iona, for example, is described in the story of his life as ‘nathir ar tuaichle ┐ treabaire’ (a serpent on account of his cleverness and prudence).

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17/03/2019
NOTLAIC

NOTLAIC, the early Irish word for ‘Christmas’, gives us Modern Irish NOLLAIG ‘December’. Scottish Gaelic DÙBHLACHD ‘December’, on the other hand, seems to come from DUBLOCHT ‘wintry weather’, which is known from the fifteenth century. Particularly in religious and legal texts of the early medieval period, however, DEICIMBER (from the Latin for ‘tenth month’) was often used, while the phrases MÍ MARBDATAD (literally ‘the month of dormancy’) and MÍ MARB ('the dead or dormant month') are also recorded as means of referring to this time of year.

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10/03/2019
AIRSCE

AIRSCE is a word for which English has no direct equivalent. It refers to the stump of the neck that is left after someone’s head has been cut off. The word occurs in the tale of The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, when King Conaire Mór asks for a drink. Mac Cécht goes to fetch one but has to travel across Ireland as none of the rivers or lakes will give him water. By the time he returns, Conaire’s head has been cut off, so Mac Cécht pours the water into the stump of the neck (dortais Mac Cécht in chúach n-usce ina arsci) and the severed head expresses its appreciation!

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03/03/2019