There are plenty of things we do know about the Irish: they live in a country full of sprawling green countryside, they’ve produced some of the world’s best writers, James Joyce among them, and they have a very lively way of telling stories, both in Irish and in English.
But one thing you might not know is that they’ve loaned English a word or two over the years (some might even say a slew). And with St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, there’s no time like the present to join the Gaelic etymological fun!
The Irish Language
Is buaine port ná glór na n-éan,
Is buaine focal ná toice an tsaoil.
A tune is more lasting than the song of the birds,
And a word more lasting than the wealth of the world.
Gaelic, also known as Irish or Irish Gaelic, is a Celtic language of the Goidelic branch. It is the oldest of the Celtic languages and can also famously lay claim to having Europe’s oldest literary works written in vernacular! While up until the mid 1500s it was widely spoken across the country, English involvement in Ireland, coupled with several famines, led to an ever dwindling amount of native speakers. Thankfully, today Ireland is making great efforts to promote the study of Irish as a second language and has even formed the Foras na Gaeilge charged with this cause.
Irish words in English
While it’s not uncommon for languages with such extensive contact as Irish and English to share words back and forth, much of the Irish in English is only spoken in Ireland. Nonetheless, who knew some of these widely used “English” gems were really Irish in origin!
“Candy, cakes and sweets galore!” Can you think of a more positive and exuberant determiner than galore? Today it is used in English after a noun to indicate that something can be found in abundance. But it turns out this word is no relation to glorious and instead comes from the Old Irish go leór meaning “enough,” “plenty” or “to sufficiency.”
“I have a slew of questions to ask you!” It may look similar to the past tense of the verb “to slay” but this English phrase meaning “a large number of” or “many” actually comes from the Irish sluagh meaning “multitude” which in turn came from the Old Irish slúag.
“What’s your company’s slogan?” While today this word has a more neutral tone, its original meaning is related to the Scottish Gaelic term for “battle cry” sluagh-ghairm. The Highland Tribes were the first to suggest the modern meaning but the word sluagh‘s roots can be tracedfurther back to the Irish Gaelic word for “army.” Thus sluagh-ghairm originally meant “army cry.” So next time you speak with your company’s marketing or public relations department, don’t forget to quiz them, as anyone who writes slogans should know where they come from!
“He’s a phony– don’t believe anything he says.” This word which generally means “fake,” “false,” or “not genuine” is related to the Irish word for “ring” fa´inne (the kind you wear on your finger). Can you guess why? It refers to a brass ring made to look gold which was used to swindle people in a “fawney rig” game. The Irish word fa´inne comes from the Old Irish ánne.
“Stay away from those hooligans –they’re up to no good!” Of course not everyone has been called a hooligan meaning “a youngster out to cause trouble,” but most of us have encountered a gang of hooligans at some time or another. There are two suggested origins for this word. The first has to do with an Irish family named Hooligan who were living in London in the 1800s and perhaps exhibiting the aforementioned behavior and another theory is that hooligan comes from Uillega´n which was an Irish nickname for William.
Of course no post on Irish Gaelic would be complete without a nod to these two:
“Look at the leprechaun guarding his pot of gold!” In Irish folklore leprechauns are tiny magical beings that make shoes, grant wishes if you catch them and generally cause mischief. Some say the name comes from leath bhrogan which is the Irish word for “half-shoe” as they are shoemakers who are typically depicted making only one shoe.Others suggest it comes from lupracan meaning “a very small body” or a “pygmy.”
“A four leaf-clover or shamrock brings good luck!” There is probably no symbol more commonly associated with the Irish than the shamrock. A sprig of clover, it was used by St. Patrick who compared it to the Holy Trinity. Naturally, shamrock is as Irish of a word as you can get. It comes from the term for clover, seamair, which in its diminutive form becomes seamróg or “little clover.”
Do you know of any other Irish words in English? Share them with us in the comments!