Word of the Week

DERGNAT

DERGNAT ‘a flea’ makes an unexpected appearance in the early Irish laws. The text in question tells us that a client is expected to rise three times as a sign of homage to his lord but that it is not right to ask the client to be a DERGNAT AIRECHTA ‘an assembly-flea’. This phrase seems to refer to someone who jumps up continually in an excessive show of respect.

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07/09/2018
BOLAD

BOLAD is usually a pleasant smell. Examples from Old Irish tales show the word used to refer to apple-trees, honey and wine, and in the 14th/15th centuries it occurred in the plant-name BOLAD CNEISE CON CULAINN ‘the smell of Cú Chulainn’s skin’ (NLI G 11 182b2). This has been taken as a reference to Lady’s Bedstraw, so-named in English because the plant is said to have a scent like that of freshly cut hay. It would seem, then, the people of late medieval Ireland imagined that the Ulster hero produced a similar smell!

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31/08/2018
GÁETH

GÁETH ‘wind’ (Modern Irish GAOTH) has appeared since Early Modern times in expressions indicating madness or frenzy. When, in the tale of the Battle of Ventry, for example, Oscar of the Fianna launches himself into battle on seeing his family oppressed by the king of France, the action is described as CO N-DEACHAIGH RE GAÍTH ┐ RE GEALTACHT ‘he went with the wind and with madness’. And the phrase MADRA GAÍTHE, used in medical and scientific texts to mean ‘a mad dog’, translates literally as ‘a dog of the wind’!

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27/08/2018
BODAR

BODAR (Modern Irish BODHAR) means ‘deaf’ but the word is used also to describe an indistinct or hollow sound and it is this latter sense which lies behind BODHRÁN, the name of a traditional Irish frame drum generally made of goatskin. The earliest mention of the BODHRÁN actually occurs in a medical text written in the 15th or 16th century, where it is claimed that one of the signs of tympanites (the swelling of the abdomen with air or gas) is that, on being struck, the belly makes a sound ‘mar bhodhrán’ (like a bodhrán)!

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17/08/2018
BIGIRECHT

BIGIRECHT and BUCLUAISC are just two of the games mentioned in medieval Irish tales about which we know nothing! The names of some other games are more revealing: COR CLOICHE, for example, means ‘throwing the stone’, CLUICHE PHUILL means ‘the game of the hole’ and CLUICHE LÚIBE IS LÍATHRÓITE means ‘the game of loop and ball’. It has been suggested that the last of these is an early reference to a hurling, the LÚB ‘loop’ denoting the bent willow which was used as a goal.

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10/08/2018
COS

COS could be ‘a foot’ or ‘a leg’ in medieval Irish, just as LÁM could be ‘a hand’ or ‘an arm’. The two could also be combined. A 14th-century account of the wars fought between two branches of the Uí Briain kings, for example, refers to CÚAL DO COSLÁMAIB, ‘a pile of leg-arms’, that is ‘a pile of legs and arms'. And the same text mentions also CENDCHOSLÁMA NA CATH ‘the head-leg-arms of the battles’, in other words, the heads and legs and arms that had been cut off in the battles!

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03/08/2018
NATHAIR

NATHAIR IMCHENN ‘a double-headed snake’ is an early Irish phrase used to designate a line of Ogam script that reads the same in both directions but has the starting-point of the word in the middle. The word is inscribed forwards in one direction and backwards in the other; by way of illustration, a text on Ogam preserved in the 14th-century Book of Ballymote tells us that, as a NATHAIR IMCHENN, the man’s name CELLACH would be: H C A L L E C E L L A C H. How this would be conveyed using Ogam letters can be seen at the bottom of the image below, which is an extract from the Book of Ballymote, fo. 169rb (© Royal Irish Academy 2003)

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27/07/2018
CLOCH

CLOCH ‘a stone’ appeared in a number of useful expressions in medieval Irish – CLOCH MUILINN, for example, was a mill-stone and CLOCH ISNA HÁIRNIB was a stone in the kidney. Two phrases stand out as particularly nicely constructed, though: CLOCH MEÓIR 'a finger-stone' seems to have been a pebble, a stone that could be picked up between the fingers, while CLOCH GLAICE ‘a hand-stone’ was a larger rock that had to be grasped by the whole hand.

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20/07/2018
DÉT

DÉT is one of several early Irish words for ‘a tooth’. This is the term selected to refer to the ‘tooth of wisdom’ (DÉT FISS) under which Finn mac Cumaill placed his thumb to access supernatural knowledge, but the tooth with which Aillill Ólom bit Mac Con in the cheek signalling that the latter would die within nine days is known in medieval Irish literature as the FÍACAIL FIDBA. FÍACAIL is the word for 'tooth' here; the meaning of FIDBA is not quite clear, but it seems likely to be some kind of bane or malevolent spell.

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06/07/2018
TERRIÉIN

TERRIÉIN and MUIR TORRIAN are often taken as medieval Irish terms for the Mediterranean Sea, but these actually come from the name of the Tyrrhenian Sea, a part of the Mediterranean off the western coast of Italy. In the seventeenth century, Geoffrey Keating used the phrase MUIR LÁRTHALMHAN, literally ‘the sea of middle-land’, for the Mediterranean. This was obviously based on Latin MEDITERRANEUS, which is made up of MEDIUS ‘middle’ and TERRA ‘land’. Today, the Mediterranean Sea is known in Irish as AN MHEÁNMHUIR and in Scottish Gaelic as AM MUIR MEADHANACH, both of which mean simply ‘the Middle Sea’.

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29/06/2018
APA

APA is a loanword which was used in a number of late medieval Irish texts to mean ‘ape’. In the fourteenth-century Irish account of the travels of Marco Polo, however, the word appears as NAPA. The initial n- probably arose from uses of the word with the definite article (i.e. IN APA ‘the ape’), when scribes were uncertain about how words were to be divided. This phenomenon occurs elsewhere; in grammatical terms, the accruing initial letter is known as a ‘prosthetic n’.

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22/06/2018
CÚLÁN

CÚLÁN was used in medieval Ireland to describe a way in which men wore their hair. A statute of 1297 banned Anglo-Normans from adopting the style, which seems to have been long at the back and partially shaved elsewhere. Given that it was sufficiently distinctive to form part of the name of Niall Cúlánach Ua Néill, who died in 1291, it has been argued that this style was not common amongst Irishmen, but associated in particular with outlaws.

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15/06/2018
SMIRAMMAIR

SMIRAMMAIR, literally ‘marrow-tub’, is defined in the Dictionary as ‘a bath of marrow from crushed bones used in the treatment of wounded warriors’. Although the SMIRAMMAIR features only in narrative tales, medical texts in Irish and other languages place some emphasis on the dangers attendant upon injuries which allow marrow to escape and on the role of marrow in strengthening bones. Such medical concepts may explain why marrow is presented as having particularly powerful healing properties in medieval Irish literature.

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08/06/2018
CÍRMAIRE

CÍRMAIRE was an early word for a comb-maker. There are signs that comb-makers were not held in very high regard in medieval Ireland. In the Life of St Colmán, for example, the saint proclaims that only shoe-makers and comb-makers will descend from anyone who turns against him. That said, in describing how the CÍRMAIRE acquired materials for this craft, an 8th-century legal text has an intriguing suggestion of supernatural powers. According this source, the CÍRMAIRE is to be found ‘chanting on a dunghill so that what there is below of horns and bones comes up’ (Celtica xxi 231)! Image: deer-antler comb, Co. Fermanagh (7th/8th-cent.)

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25/05/2018
DUINETÁIDE

DUINETÁIDE is made up of DUINE ‘person’ and TÁIDE ‘concealment’. The term is sometimes mentioned alongside FINGAL ‘the killing of a relative’ and DUINEORGUN ‘person-slaying’, and the Annals of Ulster tell us how, in 1349, Donnchadh Riabhach was taken prisoner and killed I NDUINETÁIDE. In view of the contexts in which the word appears, it has suggested that it refers to murder followed by concealment of the body.

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18/05/2018
SECHT

SECHT ‘seven’ was often associated with significant or unusual people and events in medieval Ireland. Cú Chulainn is portrayed as having seven pupils in each eye, seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot. And the hostel in which the ‘boasting contest’ takes place in the ‘Story of Mac Dathó's Pig’ is said to have seven paths through it, seven doors, seven hearths and seven cauldrons. Even in religious texts, seven seems to be a meaningful number, and we are told, for example, that a priest breathed ‘seven breaths of God’ (secht n-anāla Dē) on St Fursa’s back in what seems to be a gesture of appeasement (BColm. 96).

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11/05/2018
PINGINN

PINGINN originally meant ‘a pennyweight’, the weight of a piece of metal, and had different values at different times. Later the term came to refer to a unit of monetary value, ‘a penny’. We know that silver pennies were first minted in Dublin at the end of the tenth century under the authority of Sitric III, the Norse king of Dublin. In the seventeenth century, though, Geoffrey Keating used PINGINN anachronistically when he claimed that anyone wishing to be baptised in Munster in the time of St Patrick – several centuries before the introduction of the penny – had to pay 'Patrick's baptismal fee' of TRÍ PINGINNE ‘three pennies’.

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04/05/2018
CRÓNÁN

CRÓNÁN was used in medieval Irish to refer to the purring of a cat. MEIGEL was the bleating of a sheep or the mewing of a cat. A number of different types of cat are distinguished in legal texts of the period: a cat that purrs is said to be called BREOINNE, a cat which mews was known as MEOINNE, and a cat which women allow to lie on a cushion all day (bis for cerchaill oc mnaib caidche) falls into the category of BAIRCNE!

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29/04/2018
BROTHAD

BROTHAD is defined in the Dictionary as ‘a small division of time; vaguely, a short space of time, a moment’. In the Middle Ages, though, a ‘moment’ was actually considered to be around 90 seconds, there being 40 moments in a solar hour, which varied according to the season. Some of the examples we have of BROTHAD suggest that this Irish word was similarly understood. For example, one text specifies that there were 990 ‘BRATA’ in a day: tri xxit brata ar .ix. c.aib hi llaithiu (Ériu xxi 131).

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20/04/2018
DRÚTH

DRÚTH, when used in early Irish narrative literature, refers to a professional entertainer, perhaps some kind of jester or buffoon. There are references in legal texts, however, which suggest that the word could be used also of someone suffering from mental illness. One Early Modern glossary claims that DRÚITH have a lump on their foreheads called the CORR CRECHDA. No further details are given but scholars have wondered whether this may reflect the tradition of the ‘Mark of Cain’ or may derive from medieval belief in an actual ‘stone of folly’, commonly thought to be located in the head. Attempts to extract this ‘stone’ are depicted in a number of art works, including a fifteenth-century painting by Hieronymus Bosch (below).

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13/04/2018
CRÓ

CRÓ is still used today to refer to an enclosure for animals; in Modern Irish a dog-kennel is CRÓ MADRA and a rabbit-hutch CRÓ COINNÍN. This is the earliest attested meaning of the word, though the animals in question in medieval references are generally farmyard creatures – early Irish farmers kept their sheep in a pen (CRÓ CAORACH) and their pigs in a sty (CRÓ MUICE). A line of poetry in Early Modern Irish also preserves for us a lovely phrase for something which is in the wrong place: ‘arc a ccró chomhoidheach’ (a pig in the neighbour's sty)!

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06/04/2018