Word of the Week

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.

View Entry »

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).

View Entry »

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’.

View Entry »

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!

View Entry »

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).

View Entry »

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).

View Entry »

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)!

View Entry »

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.

View Entry »

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)!

View Entry »

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.

View Entry »

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)

View Entry »

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!

View Entry »

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.

View Entry »

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)

View Entry »

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!

View Entry »

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’!

View Entry »

19/01/2018
NASC

NASC ‘a fastening, a ring’ may have inspired Tolkien to use NAZG as the Black Speech word for ‘ring’ in The Lord of the Rings. Although the author once wrote that he had ‘no liking at all for Gaelic from Old Irish downwards’, he had studied the language and he himself admitted that Irish NASC may have become ‘lodged in some corner of my linguistic memory’ to be revived when he was constructing the language of Mordor. Interestingly, NASC is related to the Old Irish verb NAISCID ‘binds’.

View Entry »

12/01/2018
CÉILE

CÉILE ‘servant’ is best-known from the phrase CÉILE DÉ ‘servant of God’, a type of religious personage sometimes referred to in English as a ‘Culdee’. The same word, in the sense ‘companion’, lies behind medieval CÉILIDE ‘visiting’ and the Modern Irish word CÉILÍ (Scottish Gaelic CÈILIDH), which is used to denote a social gathering, often in winter. Traditionally, stories and poems were recited at such an event, but recently the term has been more closely associated with traditional music and dancing.

View Entry »

05/01/2018
GIÚS

GIÚS is a fir-tree or pine. Along with holly, oak and yew, this tree was considered one of the AIRIG FEDA ‘nobles of the wood’, as opposed to the ATHAIG FEDA ‘commoners of the wood’ such as beech and willow. Merry Christmas/Nollaig Shona/Nollaig Chridheil to all our followers!

View Entry »

24/12/2017
BOTH

BOTH DHÍAMHAIR ‘a secluded hut’ is sometimes mentioned in Early Modern Irish texts as a place in which poems were composed. Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh, who was active around 1600, actually railed against another poet for composing outdoors with a view of mountains, presumably implying that the other was breaching professional etiquette. And Martin Martin’s ‘Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’, which was published in 1695, gives a similar account of the process of poetic composition. He says: ‘they shut their doors and windows for a day’s time, and lie on their backs, with a stone on their belly … and indeed they furnish such a style from the dark cell as is understood by very few’.

View Entry »

15/12/2017
FULLA

FULLA on its own seems to have been an early term for a vagrant, for it is explained as a person ‘who travels from place to place’ (bis for sibal a hinad d'inad). What is, presumably, the same word turns up in a puzzling phrase, DLAÍ FULLA. The first word here means ‘a wisp’ or ‘a tuft’, and according to various medieval texts, a person on whom the DLAÍ FULLA is put becomes mad or restless. That some kind of supernatural ritual was involved is suggested by the fact that Núadu Fullón, a ‘druí’ (druid), is said to have been the first person ever to administer the DLAÍ FULLA.

View Entry »

08/12/2017
ÚATHACH

ÚATHACH ‘horrible’ is found as a name in a number of medieval Irish sources. Perhaps the most interesting individual to be so-called is Eithne Úathach. Her name is said to refer to the fact that, as a girl, she was given the flesh of children to eat so that she would grow faster. In the 17th century, Geoffrey Keating responded to Classical writers who claimed that there was cannibalism amongst the Irish in pre-Christian times, arguing that Eithne was an isolated case. He did not mention an entry in the Annals of Ulster for the year 1318, which comments that the during Robert the Bruce’s Irish campaign ‘people undoubtedly ate each other throughout Ireland’.

View Entry »

01/12/2017