Word of the Week

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
CENNACH

CENNACH means ‘payment’ and ENECH means ‘generosity’. The two words are used together in the phrase ENECH CENNACH, written by Maghnus Ó Duibhdábhoireann (O’Davoren) in sixteenth-century Co. Clare. Maghnus expressed the hope that somewhere in Connacht a certain herb, presumably for a medical cure, could be got ‘enech cennach’. The implication seems to be that Maghnus hopes to get the herb by any means possible – whether someone gives it to him for free or he has to pay for it. In other words, this is roughly the medieval Irish equivalent of English ‘for love or money’.

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22/02/2019
CLOICTHECH

CLOICTHECH is the early Irish term for a round tower, one of the numerous wooden or stone towers that were constructed close to monasteries between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Although the first part of the word is CLOC ‘bell’, it is clear that other objects were stored in round towers, possibly for protection. The Annals of Ulster, for example, record that ‘books and precious things’ were lost when a tower burned in 1097. In literary sources, round towers make their mark on account of their great height; a Middle-Irish text even includes in a list of impossible things ‘jumping over a round tower’ (léim tar cloicthech)!

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16/02/2019
SPITÉL

SPITÉL is perhaps best-known today from An Spidéal, the name of a village in Galway Bay, which is anglicised as Spiddal. The word is actually a borrowing from Anglo-Norman, referring to a hospital, and in early examples it is often attached to Irish TECH ‘house’ to give TECH SPITÉL. Under the year 1245, for example, the Annals of Connacht record that the castle of Sligo was built using stones and lime from the ‘hospital-house’ of the Trinity (tech spitel na Trinnoite).

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10/02/2019
MÉITHE

MÉITHE was the name of a hill in Mag Mugna, according to a scribal note in the Book of Leinster, and CÉITHE was the name of another hill. Neither, it would seem, was very high, for the expression DE MÉITHE FOR CÉITHE appears in several texts and seems to refer to swapping a thing of little value or use for something equally insignificant. In an early glossary, going from MÉITHE to CÉITHE is compared to going ‘from a piglet to a lamb, i.e. from a small thing to a small thing’ (de urc for uan .i. de bec for bic).

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03/02/2019
DAIR

DAIR or DAUR is the name of the oak tree in early Irish and also the name of the letter D. In the latter sense, it appears in the ‘word’ DAURÚN in a medieval Irish collection of obscure glosses and linguistic puzzles. The text explains that DAURÚN is the same as DÚN ‘fort’ and we are left to work out for ourselves that the author has given the name of the letter D rather than just writing it. A comparable scenario in English would be to write ‘emum’ to represent the word ‘mum’!

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25/01/2019
BUIDE

BUIDE CHONNAILL is based on BUIDE ‘yellow’ and CONDALL ‘stalk; straw’. It might seem like an appealing phrase drawn from nature, but this was actually a disease which is said to have caused ‘mortalitas magna’ (great mortality) in Ireland in the early 550s. The name suggests that the disease in question was characterised by a yellow, straw-like colour and it is thought that BUIDE CHONNAILL referred to relapsing fever, which is spread by lice or ticks, and is often accompanied by jaundice.

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18/01/2019
DAMÁN

DAMÁN ALLAID (Modern Irish DAMHÁN ALLA) seems to translate literally as ‘wild little ox’ – which is very odd as this refers to a spider. In a 17th-century source, and still sometimes today, the first word is given as DUBHÁN ‘little black thing’, which is similar in pronunciation to DAMHÁN and makes a lot more sense! Despite Middle-Irish references to insects called CERNDUBÁN and SPECDUBÁN, however, there do not seem to be any early uses of this word to refer to a spider, and the form DAMÁN ALLAID is attested from the early 9th century onwards…

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06/01/2019
CITH

CITH and FRAS both mean ‘shower’ and were often used in medieval Ireland to refer to the falling of rain or snow. In the early 17th century, however, Tadhg Ó Cianáin used both in his attempt to find appropriate words for what seems to be the first description in Irish of fireworks. Of a display which he witnessed in Rome, Tadhg says: gur choimhlinatar meid airighthi don aer etaruas uassan gcaislen do na cethoibh ┐do na frossoibh teinntidhe ro leicset ‘they filled a portion of the atmosphere over the castle with the showers and fiery flames they sent forth’ (Fl. Earls 188). Happy New Year/Athbhliain Faoi Shéan 's Faoi Mhaise/Bliadhna Mhath Ùr to all our followers!

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31/12/2018