Word of the Week

RÉ clearly denotes the moon when a late medieval astronomical text refers to ‘eclipsis an ré’ (an eclipse of the moon). But the word may be used for other heavenly bodies also, for the term SECHTARRÉ is used of the seven stars known as Ursa Major or the Great Bear. So far, the Irish name has been found in only two sources, including In Cath Catharda, an adaptation of Lucan’s account of the Roman civil war, which states that people who lived south of Mount Olympus did not feel the northerly wind and did not see the Great Bear (CCath. 3813).

View Entry »

16/12/2018
MUIRCHRECH

MUIRCHRECH seems to have been used in early Irish to indicate a certain distance out to sea. The word appears in references to how people who had committed crimes and children born of incest were placed in small boats a MUIRCHRECH out to sea and provided only with enough food for one night and a weapon to defend themselves. Should the prevailing wind and tide bring them to shore, they were accepted back into the community, living afterwards as individuals of low status. A MUIRCHRECH is often defined as the distance from which a white shield could be seen from the shore.

View Entry »

30/11/2018
SLIGE

SLIGE is the medieval Irish word that gave us Modern Irish SLÍ ‘a road’. The original sense of SLIGE, however, was ‘cutting down’ or ‘clearing’, and the early term was often used with reference to slaughtering people. From uses associated with felling trees and clearing land, the term came to be applied to ‘something that is cleared or cut-out’ and hence to ‘a road, a path’!

View Entry »

18/11/2018
ADAIG

ADAIG was the usual word for ‘night’ in early Irish. The standard Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic terms (OÍCHE and OIDHCHE respectively) actually arise from older AIDCHE, which could stand alone to mean specifically ‘in the night’. In Medieval Europe sunset was regard as the time when one day ended and another began. Thus, although LÚAN meant 'Monday' in the early language, ADAIG LÚAIN often corresponded to what we would now refer to as ‘Sunday night’!

View Entry »

09/11/2018
Ó

Ó is rather unusual in that it is a single-letter noun. Although entirely replaced by CLUAS in Modern Irish, Ó seems to have been a normal word for ‘ear’ in early Irish, when CLÚAS meant 'ear' and also ‘hearing’. The compound ÓDHERG ‘red-eared’ occurs frequently in medieval Irish literature, particularly with reference to white cows with red ears which were associated with the Otherworld. Today, it is generally accepted that these were inspired by real-life breeds, probably the ancestors of British White Cattle.

View Entry »

02/11/2018

LÁ ‘day’ often appears at or near the beginning of an early Irish story in phrases which are roughly equivalent to English ‘once upon a time’. Early versions include RO-BOÍ LÁ ‘there was a day…’ and LÁ N-ANN, literally ‘a day in it’, but later LÁ N-ÓEN ‘one day’ became more common. In the well-known ‘Voyage of Bran son of Febal’, for example, the narrative proper begins ‘is ed tossach in sceóil. Imluid Bran laa n-and a óinur i comocus dia dún, cocúala a ceól far íarna chúl…’ (this is the start of the story. Once, Bran went about alone near his fort and he heard music behind him…). The music, of course, lulls Bran to sleep – and so begins a series of interactions with the Otherworld.

View Entry »

26/10/2018
SINNACH

SINNACH is ‘a fox’ and NA SINNAIG ‘the Foxes’ is an offensive pseudonom associated with the men of Tethbha, Co. Meath. According to the Annals of Ulster, the name commemorates the killing of the poet Cúan úa Lothcháin in 1024. Supposedly, the men who killed Cúan became putrid within the hour as a result of a FIRT FILED, a poet’s spell, and because of the foul smell they emitted, their descendants were called NA SINNAIG ‘the Foxes’.

View Entry »

19/10/2018
GAILLIT

GAILLIT was used in early Irish laws to refer to a treasure or curiosity brought from overseas. It seems to have applied to three things in particular: a British mare, the horn of a wild ox and ‘an exquisite nut’ (CNÚ GNÓE). The phrase CNÚ GNÓE turns up again, in an eighth-century legal text which deals with items given as pledges from one person to another. According to this text, such nuts could be accepted only by kings, bishops and hermits. In light of the obvious value attached to the item, it has been suggested that CNÚ GNÓE refers to a tropical drift seed such as the Entada gigas, commonly known as a ‘sea bean’.

View Entry »

12/10/2018
SCAM

SCAM is found only in the plural, as SCAIM ‘lungs’. Outside of medical texts, the word occurs (sometimes alongside a word for the liver) in expressions which describe how people have opened their mouth so widely that their internal organs can be seen. During Cú Chulainn’s ‘warp spasm’, for example, we are told that ‘his lungs and his liver came fluttering into his mouth’ (tancatar a scoim ┐ a thromma co m-batar ar eittelaig ina bél). Another medieval tale tells how people once laughed so hard ‘that their lungs were almost visible’ (acht naptar ecnái a scaim)!

View Entry »

05/10/2018
ID

ID is used to refer to a number of hoop-shaped objects such as spancels and torques. In early Irish literature, it occurs also in the phrase ID MORAINN ‘the Collar of Morann’. According to tradition, Morann mac Maín, the owner of the item, was a judge and this collar used to tighten around his neck whenever he gave a false judgement and grow loose again when the judgement was true. Later writers expanded on this to claim that the collar could be put around the neck of someone giving evidence to ensure that they would tell the truth.

View Entry »

28/09/2018
NIN

NIN is the early Irish name of the letter N. Perhaps the best-known use of the word occurs in a description of the ‘Elegy for St Columba’, said to have been composed by Dallán Forgaill in the sixth century. This work starts with an N in the phrase ‘ní dísceóil’ (not without a story) and ends with an N in the phrase ‘ní dam úain’ (I have no time). For this reason, it is referred to as ‘the poem between two Ns’ (anamain eter dá nin). The image below is of first N in the Lebor na hUidre copy @ Royal Irish Academy MS 23 E 25 (p. 7).

View Entry »

22/09/2018
DERGNAT

DERGNAT ‘a flea’ makes an unexpected appearance in the early Irish laws. The text in question tells us that a client is expected to rise three times as a sign of homage to his lord but that it is not right to ask the client to be a DERGNAT AIRECHTA ‘an assembly-flea’. This phrase seems to refer to someone who jumps up continually in an excessive show of respect.

View Entry »

07/09/2018
BOLAD

BOLAD is usually a pleasant smell. Examples from Old Irish tales show the word used to refer to apple-trees, honey and wine, and in the 14th/15th centuries it occurred in the plant-name BOLAD CNEISE CON CULAINN ‘the smell of Cú Chulainn’s skin’ (NLI G 11 182b2). This has been taken as a reference to Lady’s Bedstraw, so-named in English because the plant is said to have a scent like that of freshly cut hay. It would seem, then, the people of late medieval Ireland imagined that the Ulster hero produced a similar smell!

View Entry »

31/08/2018