Word of the Week

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 '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 the halo surrounding the head of an eagle in the 8th-century Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. Image © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

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21/04/2017
SÍNED

SÍNED LÁIME, literally 'stretching of or by hand', is used in Early Modern Irish medical texts to mean 'surgery'. The phrase seems to be based on the same idea as Ancient Greek χειρουργία, roughly 'hand-work' (from which Latin 'chirurgia' and ultimately English 'surgery' derive) − that is to say, the idea that surgery was treatment by physical manipulation of the body as opposed to treatment by herbal drinks and salves.

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06/04/2017
ORÁIT

ORÁIT means 'a prayer' and seems to have been used specifically of a ritual prayer rather than an extempore one. An interesting instance of the word can be found in the manuscript known as Lebor na hUidre. In 1359 this manuscript was paid as ransom for members of the Ó Dónaill family who had been taken prisoner by Cathal Óg Ó Conchobhair. A note on p. 37 commemorates its return to Donegal in 1470. It says: orait and so d'Aodh Ruadh... do tobach co foregnech an leabair so ar Chonnachtaib 'a prayer for Áed Rúad for rescuing this book by force from the Connachtmen' (RIA MS 23 E 25)

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30/03/2017
FÉTH

FÉTH FÍADA is not easily translated. It occurs in various spellings and in various texts from the medieval period and might be described best as a kind of cloaking device employed by the Túatha Dé Danann to ensure that they were not seen by mortals. In the tale Altram Tige Dá Medar, for example, Manannán mac Lir urges the defeated warriors of the Túatha to divide up and make use of the FÉTH FÍADA 'tar nach faici na flaithi' (through which the chiefs were not seen, Ériu xi 207).

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24/03/2017
CRÚACH

CRÚACH 'a stack or rick of corn' was used also of conical-shaped mountains or hills. In medieval Irish, Crúach as a proper name referred to the mountain now best known as Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. The association with Saint Patrick came from later traditions which held that the saint fasted there for 40 days and from there banished the snakes from Ireland. From 'rick', the English equivalent of 'crúach', the mountain acquired its common local name, The Reek.

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17/03/2017
FÁELAD

FÁELAD 'to become or behave like a wolf' occurs in the name Laignech Fáelad. Laignech and his descendants are associated with Ossory and are said to 'go in the shapes of wolves' (no theghedh fri faeladh) and 'kill livestock in the manner of wolves' (do mharbhdaís na hindile fó bés na mac tíre). Ossory is also the location for a separate, late twelfth-century, werewolf tale recounted by Gerald of Wales in his Topographia Hibernica, so it seems there was a more wide-spread tradition of werewolf-activity in this part of Ireland.

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10/03/2017
LUS

LUS frequently occurs in the names of plants, including LUS IN SPARÁIN or what is commonly known in English as 'Shepherd's Purse'. Although the Irish name translates as 'the plant of the purse', tradition nevertheless attests to its usefulness to shepherds. One Early Modern text in particular tells us: a cur fó bráighid na caerach ocus ní feicfi in mac tíri iat 'hang it around the necks of sheep and the wolf will not see them' (O'Gr. Cat. 227)

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02/03/2017
FÍANAMAIL

FÍANAMAIL is an adjective meaning 'fían-like', that is, like the warrior-bands often associated with Finn mac Cumaill. For some reason, this word was chosen by medieval Irish linguists to demonstrate polysyllabic words and so they created 'fíanamailcharad', 'fíanamailcharadard' and what is claimed as the longest word in Irish − octosyllabic 'fíanamailcharadardae'!

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24/02/2017
LETH

LETH can mean 'half' or 'one of two', when referring to things which are thought of as existing in pairs. The uses are poignantly illustrated in a 13th-century love poem which Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh composed on the death of his wife: leath mo shúl í, leath mo lámh ... dob é ceirtleath m'anma í 'she was one of my eyes, one of my hands ... she was the very half of my soul' (Irish Bardic Poetry, 101-3)

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16/02/2017
PÉCÓG

PÉCÓG 'peacock' is an English loanword (earlier Irish had GÉSECHTACH, seemingly 'one who screeches'). The earliest example we have come across of PÉCÓG is in a text on child-rearing, where it recommended that breast of peacock is given to an infant as part of the weaning process: tabuir feoil ochta én do, mar atait pecoga ┐pertrisi 'give it the breast-meat of birds like peacocks and partridges' (Irish Texts v 48.1)

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10/02/2017
FÉITHLE

FÉITHLE was the name of an entwining plant like woodbine or ivy. Particularly in Classical Irish poetry, the term was used figuratively in references both to the act of uniting different peoples and to the person who brought them together. Thus, 16th-century poet Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn referred to Cú Chonnacht Óg Mag Uidhir (Maguire) of Fermanagh as 'rí is féithle ag finnfearaibh Fáil' (a leader who was a binding plant around the fine men of Ireland' (TD 9.52)

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02/02/2017
TUIGEN

TUIGEN, TUGAN was a cloak, particularly one worn by a poet. According to Cormac's Glossary, the part below the waist was made from the 'skins' (feathers?) of white and multicoloured birds while the upper part was made from the throats and crests of drakes. Given that the Glossary's purpose here is to suggest that the word TUIGEN derives from the phrase TUGAE ÉN (the covering of birds), however, we probably can't read too much into this.

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26/01/2017
DERMAT

DERMAT 'forgetting, forgetfulness' occurs in the genitive in the phrase INCHINN DERMAIT 'brain of forgetfulness'. Seemingly, this referred to the part of the brain which allowed one to forget information. According to medieval Irish tradition, in the course of the 7th-century Battle of Mag Rath, Cenn Fáelad mac Ailella had his 'brain of forgetfulness' dashed out and thereafter he demonstrated great capacity in learning and literature, becoming associated in particular with Auraicept na nÉces 'The Scholars' Primer'.

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20/01/2017
ETTE

ETTE can be the wing of a bird or the fin of a fish, but its most interesting application is in the phrase CENN FO ETTE 'head under wing'. This phrase refers to a symbol drawn in manuscripts to indicate that the words which follow are actually a continuation from the line below − i.e. these words have been tucked into an unused space so as not to waste valuable vellum just as a bird might tuck its head under its wing. The image below shows a 'cenn fo ette' from RIA MS 1225 (the Book of Uí Maine), fo. 3vb4.

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12/01/2017
DO-ESTA

DO-ESTA 'is lacking' was the verb used in what seems today a long-winded system of medieval Irish computation. In this system, a number was indicated by subtraction from a larger one. Thus, 'I am 58' could be 'inge acht dī óenbliadain ni thesta dom thrī fichtib', literally 'except for two years I am not lacking 60' (Arch. iii 312)!

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06/01/2017
SOINMIGE

SOINMIGE 'prosperity, affluence, happiness'. Like many other Irish words beginning with s-, SOINMIGE has its opposite in a word beginning with d-. DOINMIGE, then, is 'adversity, misfortune, misery'. The Old-Irish Milan Glosses neatly illustrate this pair of words in a quote which seems especially fitting as we move into 2017: cuingid techta a doinmigi hi soinmigi 'seeking to pass from adversity to prosperity' (Ml. 102c5) Happy New Year/Athbhliain Faoi Shéan 's Faoi Mhaise/Bliadhna Mhath Ùr to all our followers!

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31/12/2016
SLEMNÁN

SLEMNÁN 'a sleigh' seems to have been first used by Tadhg Ó Cianáin at the start of the seventeenth century to describe the mode of transport used by the Earls of Tyronne and Tyrconnell for crossing the Alps. In a now-famous passage, he wrote: doimh ... go slemhnānoibh i n-a ffoilenmhain ag treōrughadh gacha mēide nār uo hinaistir dhībh tar in imdhoraidh 'oxen ... with sleighs yoked to them bringing all of them that could not travel over the hard road' (Fl. Earls 88.15)

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21/12/2016
ÓL

ÓL is 'the act of drinking' and probably the same word as was used as a measure of capacity for liquids. Various different capacities are distinguished in medieval Irish legal texts, the most memorable being the ÓL PÁTRAIC or 'Patrick's measure'. This was equal to the full of 1728 hen's egg shells and was the allowance of liquor deemed sufficient for six laymen or twelve clerics!

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15/12/2016

BÚ is how the early Irish represented the sound made by a cow. GÓ was the honk of a goose and CÚ the call of the cuckoo. An astonishing array of sounds, including GRÁC, GROB, ERR, ÚR, CARNA, GRÁD and COIN, are attributed to the raven. Some of these are common nouns reflecting belief in the raven's ability to communicate information about unfolding events. COIN, for example, can mean 'wolves'; a raven making such a sound is said to be warning of wolves coming towards a sheep-fold.

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09/12/2016