Word of the Week

SCEOLA

SCEOLA is sometimes translated as ‘survivor’, but the word derives from SCÉL ‘a story’ and the sense is actually closer to ‘one who lives to tell the tale’. Several medieval Irish texts have variations on the saying Ní BI ORGAIN CEN OENSCIULA ‘there is no battle without a SCEOLA’ (Dinds. 52). This can be understood in different ways: it may be intended to mean ‘someone always survives’, but it seems more likely to imply ‘a battle will not be remembered unless someone lives to tell the tale’.

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20/10/2017
CUILEBAD

CUILEBAD is the early Irish word for a flabellum or fan used in religious ceremonies to keep insects away from the priest and from the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ. The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions stated that the purpose of such a fan was to ‘silently drive away the small animals that fly about’; the Irish perhaps had more sinister aims, for it has been proposed that the word CUILEBAD is made up of CUIL ‘fly’ and BATH ‘death’!

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13/10/2017
SLÍASAIT

SLÍASAIT ‘thigh’ is found in three fine early Irish phrases: (1) TARB SLÍASTA, the ‘bull’ of the thigh, is almost certainly the thickest part, (2) CAIRDES SLÍASTA ‘friendship of the thighs’ is clearly an allusion to sexual intercourse, and (3) ORBA CRUIB ┐ SLÍASTA ‘inheritance of hand and thigh’ seems to mean property which someone has acquired though his or her own efforts and which they can then give to a son or daughter at will. This phrase has attracted attention because it is specifically stated that such property could be passed on by a woman.

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06/10/2017
MIDACH

MIDACH 'physician', oddly enough, turns up in the name for one of the fingers. Legal texts tell us that three scruples must be paid in compensation for injury to or loss of a finger. The only exceptions are the long finger of the right hand and the ‘mér midaig’ of the left hand, each of which is worth nine scruples. ‘Mér midaig’ is obviously based on DIGITUS MEDICUS, the Latin name for the ‘ring-finger’. Why this finger was associated with physicians is not known for certain, but the 6th-/7th-century Archbishop Isidore of Seville claimed it was because physicians applied eye-salve with this finger!

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29/09/2017
SCÚAP

SCÚAP (Modern Irish SCUAB) is a brush or broom. It must have been the thought of a broom sweeping away everything in its path that led to the word being used to refer to a calamity which, it was feared, would befall Ireland at the end of the world. IN SCÚAP A FÁNAIT, the ‘broom’ from the Fanad Peninsula, in present-day Donegal, was predicted as a vengeance upon Ireland for the beheading of John the Baptist. This prediction seems to be linked to the tradition that it was an Irishman, Mug Ruith, who carried out the beheading.

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22/09/2017
ROTH

ROTH can be anything circular. In medieval texts, it is used of a potter’s wheel, torques and brooches, and even an instrument of torture! The most common use is with reference to the wheel of a vehicle, though – which in texts of our period generally meant the wheel of a chariot. In one piece of Early Irish wisdom, the word is used to counsel against taking on a challenge one cannot win. The message is NÍR IMTHIGE FRI ROTH ‘do not race against a wheel' (Tec. Corm. § 19)

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14/09/2017
UILG

UILG TUILG seems to have been a medieval Irish way of expressing a sound made in sorrow or defeat. It is one of a number of two-word phrases which were used with reference to noises or utterances. GIC GOC was meaningless chatter, GRICC GRÁICC the clanging of a bell, and HÚRLA HÁRLA probably indicated some kind of cheer. MINGUR GRINGUR, meanwhile, may well have been some sort of buzzing or humming sound made by an insect.

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08/09/2017
GÉN

GÉN 'ridicule, mockery' is best-known from the phrase BERRAD GEÓIN 'a shearing for ridicule'. This phrase seems to stem from an incident involving a dispute between Cú Chulainn and Cú Roí mac Dáire. In the end, Cú Roí drives Cú Chulainn into the ground up to his armpits, cuts off his hair and covers his head in cow-dung. In later literature, 'to give someone a BERRAD GEÓIN' serves as a reference to public humiliation. Michael O'Clery's 17th-century glossary even contains a cryptic allusion to 'the BERRAD GEÓIN Philip's wife gave him', but does not tell us who the couple in question were or whether the 'shearing' was literal or figurative!

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01/09/2017
CÉT

CÉT continues in Modern Irish as CÉAD, which means 'a hundred (100)'. In early Irish, though, the word could denote 120. In other medieval languages too, words which now refer to 100 were used to mean 120. In order to avoid confusion, English eventually adopted the terms 'long hundred' or 'twelfty' for 120, and in Ireland 120 became known as GALLCHÉT 'the foreign hundred'. There are, however, some legal references which show CÉT itself being used with this meaning, e.g. 'se fichit in gach ced' (six twenties in every 'cét'; 23Q6,51b43).

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25/08/2017
SECAL

SECAL 'rye' and TAES SECAIL 'rye dough' are mentioned often in medieval Irish texts, but the most remarkable references are not to rye as a crop or food-stuff but to people rubbing rye-dough on their skin in order to disguise themselves as lepers! One tale tells us that a character named Rón Cerr had calf's blood and rye-dough (fuil læig ┐ táes secail) rubbed on himself so that he might be mistaken for a leper (RC 13, 80). Another text says that Macha once rubbed rye dough and bog water (táes secail ┐ rota) on herself to achieve the same effect (Dinds. 161).

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18/08/2017
GOT

GOT 'stammering, lisping' had a particular use with regard to foreigners. It was applied to Norsemen and others, and in such instances seems to mean simply that their speech was intelligible. A medieval Irish tendency to dismiss other languages as meaningless babble is apparent also from a line of poetry in the Book of Rights. Using GOÍDELC 'Irish' in its wider sense of 'speech', the poem in question refers to 'deich ngoill can gaedelga', which seems to mean 'ten foreigners without [proper] speech' (BR2 591).

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11/08/2017
AINIMM

AINIMM survives as Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic ANAM 'soul'. Now, as in the past, the word is opposed to CORP 'body', and as a body without a soul is a lifeless one, so CO N-ANMAIN 'with a soul' was often used to mean 'alive'. In medieval Irish tales, ANMAIN I N-ANMAIN 'life for life' was an appeal for mercy. Usually, three wishes were granted in return for sparing the life of someone who said these words. A well-known instance occurs in Fled Bricrenn when Cú Chulainn defeats but does not kill a giant who cries 'anmain i n-anmain' and is granted, as one of his wishes, the Champion's Portion at the ensuing the feast.

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04/08/2017
DATH

DATH 'colour' crops up in medieval Irish accounts of the colours of the winds. According to Saltair na Rann, for example, each of the four chief winds has its own particular colour: purple from the east, white from the south, black from the north and dun from the west. Between these points are eight other winds of various hues. Such texts presumably inspired the description of wind-watching in Flann O'Brien's 1939 comic novel 'The Third Policeman': 'People in the old days had the power of perceiving these colours and could spend a day sitting quietly on a hillside watching the beauty of the winds, their fall and rise and changing hues, the magic of neighbouring winds when they are inter-weaved like ribbons at a wedding'.

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28/07/2017

CÚ 'dog, hound' is often found as a personal name; well-known examples include Cú Chulainn and Cú Roí. An unidentified individual, called simply Cú, turns up in the saying 'doringnis Cú ┐ Cethen dím' (You have made me into Cú and Cethen). According to the explanation found in the Book of Leinster, this Cú killed Cethen, a server in the house of Cormac mac Airt, and was himself killed immediately. It may be, then, that the saying means roughly 'you have placed me in a situation where there is no good outcome'.

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21/07/2017
CLÍATH

CLÍATH is a hurdle, a framework of branches woven together and used to make fences, gates, walls, doors, and so on. A particular sense pertains to the phrase CLÍATHA FIS 'hurdles of knowledge'. A number of (notably late) sources suggest that CLÍATHA FIS were beds on which druids would lie in order to access supernatural knowledge. One text imagines the process as follows: luidhset na druidh fora cliathaib fis ┐ rothoghairmset demhna ┐dei aerdha na n-docum 'the druids went on their "hurdles of knowledge", and summoned to them demons and aerial gods' (Marco P. 32).

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14/07/2017
CEPP

CEPP is a tree-stump and also a cut log or block. In the latter sense, it refers to the block on which an anvil sits. In the medieval period, a wooden log was often buried several feet into the ground to provide a sturdy base so that the anvil would not move when struck with a hammer. This provided medieval Irish poets with a metaphor for a stable place in which to live one's life. In an Old-Irish verse put into the mouth of Saint Ailbe, of Emly in Munster, resolving to remain in a monastery until death is likened to 'striking your anvil into a block' (t'indéin do béimim i cepp; Ériu iii 108).

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07/07/2017
LÁR

LÁR is often seen in Ireland today on signposts and buses, where the phrase AN LÁR indicates the town or city centre. The word, however, originally meant 'floor'. As medieval houses were usually round, crossing the floor meant going through the middle of the house, and this seems to explain why LÁR came to mean 'centre'. The latter is certainly the meaning when Jerusalem is described as 'lár na cruinne' (the centre of the world) and Carrickfergus deemed the centre of Uí Néill territory (lár a fhlaithemhnais)

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30/06/2017
BÉL

BÉL survives in Modern Irish as BÉAL 'mouth', but the original sense was 'lip' and the plural was used to mean 'mouth'. It is the plural which occurs in the medieval Irish legal phrase DERGMÍR I MBÉLAIB. Meaning literally 'a red morsel in the mouth', this phrase seems to have referred to property acquired illegally. One of the examples cited has to do with a church seizing the property of a monk who died there but who belonged to another church. The Laws state that the church in which he dies is entitled only to his burial-clothes, seven cakes and a funeral-feast (étach reilge ┐secht bairgen ┐fleg crólige, Laws v 432). Anything else would be considered a 'red morsel'.

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23/06/2017
CORRGUINECHT

CORRGUINECHT is associated with satire, divination and other supernatural acts. It is associated also with an unusual physical stance. O'Davoren's Glossary defines CORRGUINECHT as 'being on one foot, one hand and one eye' while satirising. In the tale of Bruiden Da Choca also, a woman utters a prophecy while standing on one foot with one eye closed. And Togail Bruidne Da Derga describes how a seer woman chants thirty-two different names 'on one foot and in one breath'. Because of the emphasis on standing on one foot, scholars have sometimes wondered whether the first part of the word CORRGUINECHT might be CORR 'heron, stork'!

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16/06/2017
NECHTAR

NECHTAR means 'one of two, either'. NEMNECHTAR does not seem to occur in the early language, but NEMNECHTARDAE is found as an adjective meaning 'belonging to neither'. It is used to refer to the neuter gender in the Old-Irish glossary Sanas Cormaic (i.e. not belonging to either masculine or feminine), and it turns up again in Early Modern medical texts to describe old people (who are neither completely well nor ill) and people recovering from illness.

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09/06/2017
CONGANCHNES

CONGANCHNES means 'horn-skin'. It is so closely associated with the impenetrable layer of armour worn by Cú Chulainn's foster-brother, Fer Diad, that he is sometimes known as In Conganchnes (The Horn-Skin). In the Irish account of the destruction of Troy, though, Hector uses the word to refer to himself. Ultimately, of course, Cú Chulainn stabs Fer Diad in the heart 'dar brollach in chonganchnis' (over the chestpiece of the horn-skin) before finally killing him in what is perhaps the most tragic episode of early Irish literature.

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02/06/2017