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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 21 May, 2019
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An essential tour of the Irish language in 9 fascinating words

Let’s celebrate turscar, léasar and craic!

HUGELY POPULAR TWITTER account @TheIrishFor spends its time curating fascinating and humorous insights into our native tongue.

Darach O’Séaghdha says he set up @TheIrishFor because:

It had occurred to me that there was an overlap between how Irish was perceived (cliquey, full of lunatics reinforcing their own views, ridiculed by outsiders) and how twitter was perceived (cliquey, full of lunatics reinforcing their own views, ridiculed by outsiders), and that I could shed some light on the wonderful possibilities of both.

So, on this day of days,  The Irish For is taking you on a tour of the Irish language on nine delightful words…

1.

ol Source: xymox vie flickr

Words, like people, move around for different reasons.

The Irish language was already packed with words when the Vikings came (the surname of our president, Higgins, comes from uiging, which means Viking), but with their knack for storage solutions they could fit in a vocabulary for trade- the Irish words for penny (pingin), shilling (scilling), market (margadh) and slave (tráill) all came directly from Norse.

Interestingly, the Norse word for beer, Ol, is the same as the Irish word for drink.

2.

cill Source: lima pix

Pity the druids. They set up their small, independent, boutique belief system only to have a bigger, better funded operation move in next door, steal their ideas and cause their beloved snakes to become locally extinct.

In order to expedite conversions, the early Church took over places of worship, appropriated Celtic gods and goddesses as saints and even got rid of mythology that didn’t suit them.

It’s been speculated that as a consequence of this takeover, the Irish word cill for church emerged from choill, a forest (and sacred place for druids).

It joins a long queue of intruiging religious puns in Irish: aifreann (Mass) vs. ifreann (Hell); ealga (church) vs. eagla (fear) and Bíobla (Bible) vs. bíobha (wrongdoer) to list but a few.

3.

cat

This word means outspoken in English. I’ve included it in the tour for two reasons. Firstly, the literal translation, “not mute”, is a masterpiece of West of Ireland dramatic understatement.

Secondly, all those consonants. Look at them.

To the twitching curtains of neighbouring cultures, spelling and pronounciation seem to have an open relationship in Irish. Some of this can be explained by the efforts to modernise the Irish alphabet – the letter H after a consonant was introduced to replace the ponc séimhithe, the dot that would previously sit atop a consonant.

Like Latin, Irish nouns have different forms depending on their position in a sentence, so the silent letters are intended as cues to the reader. For example,if bhí was spelt “vee”, you mightn’t recognise its relationship with bí, its present tense cousin. That’s right – all those letters have been left in to help you.

4.

smid Source: davetoaster

This term (for hot particles of metal cast aside from a smith’s hammer) is one of the most famous Irish words to find its way into the English language as smithereen.

What’s especially interesting is that the Irish word for a smith is ‘gabha’. In other words, an English word (smith) was adopted by Irish, grew up a bit (smidiríní) and then returned home (smithereen)… to find itself not quite different, but not quite the same.

5.

craic Source: Maryland govpics

Despite being one of the most famous Irish words out there, this appears to be of Scottish (or possibly Old English) origin.

Although the 1977 foclóir includes the word craic as meaining chat and conversation, upuntil the 1990′s the spelling “crack” was widely used to refer to this particular kind of mirth in English.

A change in global perceptions of Ireland following Italia 90 – as well as a need to differentiate good, clean fun from a dangerous new form of cocaine – led to this spelling gaining popularity.

Some people aren’t happy about this and see it as a cynical, tacky retrofitting- Roddy Doyle pointedly spells it “crack” in his novels, for example (he used to write novels before he got a Facebook page).

This is also one of those instances where a single fada can change things entirely – cráic means anus.

6.

feidir

Can we remember when Barack Obama visited Ireland and said “is féidir linn”? Yes, we can.

The words sa mhéid gur féidir é have found themselves in the centre of one of Ireland’s bitterest debates, due to a difference in the Irish and English versions of the section of the Bunreacht na hÉireann dealing with the rights of the unborn (gan breith).

In such circumstances, the Irish version takes precedence.

7.

laser Source: shivapat

Sometimes people take time out of their day to poke fun at Irish, and this inevitably leads to them identifying inelegant word borrowings from English, especially ones which refer to some recent invention or concept.

Léasar is the Irish word for laser, and it’s an instructive example of how not to do loanwords.

In English, laser is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. I’d take the view that you either translate the sentence and make a new acronym (SASAR, possibly), lift the English spelling as is, or come up with a new word entirely that conveys the meaning consistent with the flow of Irish.

Forcing the English word to dress up as an Irish one without regard for meaning seems to be the least wonderful option. Also, the Irish for a flame is lasair. A missed opportunity. 1/10

8.

apAN Source: Tomi Tapio K

This is the Irish word for (email) spam, and rocks in all the ways léasar cannot.

Instead of just saying spám or something, they found an old term for disgusting, dead seaweed that had been cast upon the shore by an uncaring sea- and used that as the Irish word for unwelcome emails.

With language, meaning can lead the way, and there’s no need for a new word when there’s a perfectly good one in the toolkit. 10/10.

9.

treasure Source: falashad

 I’ll finish the tour with the last word in Dinneen’s Dictionary, which means a treasure.

The language that you complained about being forced to do in school, that you associate with train and flight announcements or a tattoo you regret; it’s full of lost treasures waiting to be found again. You won’t regret reacquainting yourself.

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8 delightful Irish words and phrases that English could never match>

7 Irish words and phrases that English just can’t match>

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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