Word of the Week

AIRTEM

AIRTEM was an early Irish word for a measure of length, seemingly equivalent to a man’s fist with the thumb extended. It is often used in medieval literature to express extraordinary physical size or bodily contortion. The nose, mouth and penis of Ulster hero Fergus mac Róich, for example, are all said to have measured seven AIRTIM and, in the Irish version of the Destruction of Troy, Troilus’ eyes extend an AITEM outside his head when he comes under attack from the Myrmidons.

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13/04/2021
PATU

PATU is one of several early Irish terms for 'hare'. Others include MÍL MAIGE 'creature of the plain' and GERRFÍAD 'short wild animal'. Medieval scholars sometimes claimed that PATU derived from the word TÓ 'silent' because the hare runs silently, having as much fur on the soles of its feet as it has on the top!

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05/04/2021
CUIT

CUIT (modern CUID) meant both 'a part' and 'love', just as English PARTIAL can be both 'not whole' and 'inclined to favour one thing'. The Irish word is used in the latter sense in medieval explanations of the name of MO CHUTU, patron saint of Rahan, Co. Offaly. Because he was so loved by God and men, the name MO CHUTU is said to have been applied to him, but he was expelled from the monastery of Rahan in the year 637, perhaps because of his views over the dating of Easter.

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27/03/2021
TÁL

TÁL is a word for an adze, a tool like an axe, and CEND is the early Irish word for 'head'. Together, as TÁLCEND 'adze-head', these were used as a name for St Patrick, seemingly in reference to the shape of his tonsure. An early description of Patrick suggests also that he wore 'a cloak with a hole for the head' (BRATT TOLLCHENN), and perhaps in recognition of this and/or as a play on TÁLCEND, Patrick’s followers are sometimes known in later literature as NA TOLLCHINN, literally 'the hole-heads'!

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17/03/2021
MÍL

MÍL meant 'creature' in Old Irish and MÍL MÓR, literally 'great creature' often referred to a whale. According to the Annals of Ulster, in the year 752, a MÍL MÓR washed ashore near the Mourne Mountains. Allegedly, it had three gold teeth, each weighing fifty ounces, and one of them was put on the altar at Bangor Monastery.

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11/03/2021
EÓLCHAIRE

EÓLCHAIRE is sometimes translated as 'homesickness'. It is probably based on the word EÓL 'what is known or familiar'. A set of medieval Irish glosses distinguishes EÓLCHAIRE from CUMA 'grief'. The former, it says, is a kind of sorrow concerned with territory or land; the latter is sorrow brought on by the loss of people.

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26/01/2021
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 'a 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 halo surrounding the head of an eagle in the 8th-century Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) which was produced in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary.

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17/01/2021
NENUFAR

NENUFAR 'water-lily'. When water-lilies first came to the attention of the Irish, around the fourteenth or fifteenth century, they were known either by a version of the Latin name, NENUFAR, or by the phrase BLÁTH UISCE, meaning 'water-blossom'. More recently, of course, the preferred term has been DUILLEOG BHÁITE, which translates literally as 'drowned leaf'!

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10/01/2021