Word of the Week

BEL

BEL seems to have been an old Irish word for 'a path' which survives only as part of Modern Irish BEALACH 'road, track' and perhaps IMEALL 'border, edge'. BEALACH itself appears in the phrase BEALACH NA BÓ FINNE 'the path of the white cow', an Irish name for the Milky Way. In Scottish Gaelic, meanwhile, the Milky Way is known as SLIGHE CHLOINN UISNICH 'the way of the sons of Uisneach'. The three sons of Uisneach are said to have been treacherously murdered after being lured back to Ireland after a period of exile in Scotland.

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19/04/2021
AIRTEM

AIRTEM was an early Irish word for a measure of length, seemingly equivalent to a man’s fist with the thumb extended. It is often used in medieval literature to express extraordinary physical size or bodily contortion. The nose, mouth and penis of Ulster hero Fergus mac Róich, for example, are all said to have measured seven AIRTIM and, in the Irish version of the Destruction of Troy, Troilus’ eyes extend an AITEM outside his head when he comes under attack from the Myrmidons.

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13/04/2021
PATU

PATU is one of several early Irish terms for 'hare'. Others include MÍL MAIGE 'creature of the plain' and GERRFÍAD 'short wild animal'. Medieval scholars sometimes claimed that PATU derived from the word TÓ 'silent' because the hare runs silently, having as much fur on the soles of its feet as it has on the top!

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05/04/2021
CUIT

CUIT (modern CUID) meant both 'a part' and 'love', just as English PARTIAL can be both 'not whole' and 'inclined to favour one thing'. The Irish word is used in the latter sense in medieval explanations of the name of MO CHUTU, patron saint of Rahan, Co. Offaly. Because he was so loved by God and men, the name MO CHUTU is said to have been applied to him, but he was expelled from the monastery of Rahan in the year 637, perhaps because of his views over the dating of Easter.

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27/03/2021
TÁL

TÁL is a word for an adze, a tool like an axe, and CEND is the early Irish word for 'head'. Together, as TÁLCEND 'adze-head', these were used as a name for St Patrick, seemingly in reference to the shape of his tonsure. An early description of Patrick suggests also that he wore 'a cloak with a hole for the head' (BRATT TOLLCHENN), and perhaps in recognition of this and/or as a play on TÁLCEND, Patrick’s followers are sometimes known in later literature as NA TOLLCHINN, literally 'the hole-heads'!

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17/03/2021
MÍL

MÍL meant 'creature' in Old Irish and MÍL MÓR, literally 'great creature' often referred to a whale. According to the Annals of Ulster, in the year 752, a MÍL MÓR washed ashore near the Mourne Mountains. Allegedly, it had three gold teeth, each weighing fifty ounces, and one of them was put on the altar at Bangor Monastery.

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11/03/2021
EÓLCHAIRE

EÓLCHAIRE is sometimes translated as 'homesickness'. It is probably based on the word EÓL 'what is known or familiar'. A set of medieval Irish glosses distinguishes EÓLCHAIRE from CUMA 'grief'. The former, it says, is a kind of sorrow concerned with territory or land; the latter is sorrow brought on by the loss of people.

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26/01/2021
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 'a 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 halo surrounding the head of an eagle in the 8th-century Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) which was produced in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary.

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17/01/2021