Word of the Week

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
CÁSC

CÁSC ‘Easter’ is sometimes used in the plural in early Irish texts. This is probably because the celebration was marked by two events: CÁSC MÓR, ‘great Easter’ or Easter Sunday, and MINCHÁSC, ‘little Easter’ or the Sunday following Easter Sunday. According to the Annals of Ulster, the TECH CÁSCA or ‘Easter house’ used by the king of Tara and his followers collapsed on Easter Sunday 1124. The reference may be to a building connected to a church which was set aside for the king during the Easter period.

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30/03/2018
LUCHORPÁN

LUCHORPÁN appears in medieval Irish texts to refer to a supernatural creature, which eventually became known in English as a ‘leprechaun’. LUCHORPÁN is often regarded as being made up of LÚ ‘something small’ and CORP ‘body’, but this word occurs in various different forms, including LUPRACÁN, LUCHRUPÁN and LUCHARBÁN. In early references, these creatures are sometimes identified as one of the ‘monstrous races’, descended from either Cain, son of Adam, or Cham, son of Noah. Indeed, one Old Irish text specifically names LUCHORPÁIN alongside ‘cach écosc dodelbda archena fil for doínib’ (every other misshapen form that is amongst humanity)!

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23/03/2018
CRIMMES

CRIMMES is a lovely word. Derived from CREM and FEIS, this was literally ‘a garlic feast’. The term seems to have referred to an annual event held before Easter, when wild garlic was plentiful. Surviving references suggest that the garlic was added to milk and curds or cheese. CRIMMES is sometimes mentioned alongside SAMFIT ‘summer food’ which is said to consist of curds, butter and milk.

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09/03/2018
RECONN

RECONN ‘forethought’ is a word that is not yet listed in the Dictionary of the Irish Language. It appears in a series of wise sayings, sometimes attributed to Flann Fína mac Ossu (Aldfrith son of Oswydd), an Irish-educated king of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria from c. 685 to 705. The saying in question reminds us: FERR RECONN ÍARCONN ‘forethought is better than afterthought’ (RC xlv 80 § 23)

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02/03/2018
CRANN

CRANN by itself means ‘tree’ or ‘wood’, and ECH CRAINN and ECH CRANNDA can both mean ‘wooden horse’. There are references to two distinct wooden horses in medieval Irish literature. One is the well-known Trojan horse, which appears in the Irish translation of The Aeneid as ECH CRANNDA. The other is a brief and intriguing allusion to a less-well-known wooden horse (ECH CRAINN) made by Fiacha Figente which is said to have been raced at the assembly of Óenach Colmáin!

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23/02/2018
DÍLECHTAE

DÍLECHTAE (Modern Irish DÍLLEACHTA) was a common medieval word for ‘an orphan’. In Early Modern Irish medical texts, it refers to the centre of the eye. This is in keeping with the use of Latin ‘pupilla’ and English ‘pupil’ to mean both ‘orphan’ and ‘the centre of the eye’, the latter sense deriving from the tiny image of ourselves – the orphan – that is reflected in the eye of the person looking at us.

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16/02/2018
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 § 18)

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09/02/2018
CÍN

CÍN ‘booklet, book’ forms part of the title of a now-lost medieval manscript, Cín Dromma Snechtai, which is associated with Drumsnaght, Co. Monaghan. It appears also in the phrase CÍN LAE 'diary', literally ‘book of the day’, and an account of the Eleven Years' War written by Tarlach Ó Mealláin in the 1640s is known today as Cín Lae Uí Mhealláin 'Ó Mealláin's Diary'. An alternative term, DIALANN (from DIA 'day'), is found in ‘Dialann Dúradáin’, the title under which the 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series was published in Irish in 2016!

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02/02/2018
BOLG

BOLG has many meanings. It can be a bag, a belly, a bubble, a blister or a berry. Actually, there are probably at least two separate words, but sometimes it is difficult to know which or what is intended. In an Old Irish text, the phrase CENN I MBOLG is used to sum up the condition of man after Creation when it was not known what the world looked like or who made it. Given that the phrase obviously refers to a state of ignorance, it seems to mean roughly ‘head in a bag’!

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19/01/2018