Word of the Week

FÍANAMAIL

FÍANAMAIL is an adjective meaning 'fían-like', that is, like the warrior-bands often associated with Finn mac Cumaill. For some reason, this word was chosen by medieval Irish linguists to demonstrate polysyllabic words and so they created 'fíanamailcharad', 'fíanamailcharadard' and what is claimed as the longest word in Irish − octosyllabic 'fíanamailcharadardae'!

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24/02/2017
LETH

LETH can mean 'half' or 'one of two', when referring to things which are thought of as existing in pairs. The uses are poignantly illustrated in a 13th-century love poem which Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh composed on the death of his wife: leath mo shúl í, leath mo lámh ... dob é ceirtleath m'anma í 'she was one of my eyes, one of my hands ... she was the very half of my soul' (Irish Bardic Poetry, 101-3)

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16/02/2017
PÉCÓG

PÉCÓG 'peacock' is an English loanword (earlier Irish had GÉSECHTACH, seemingly 'one who screeches'). The earliest example we have come across of PÉCÓG is in a text on child-rearing, where it recommended that breast of peacock is given to an infant as part of the weaning process: tabuir feoil ochta én do, mar atait pecoga ┐pertrisi 'give it the breast-meat of birds like peacocks and partridges' (Irish Texts v 48.1)

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10/02/2017
FÉITHLE

FÉITHLE was the name of an entwining plant like woodbine or ivy. Particularly in Classical Irish poetry, the term was used figuratively in references both to the act of uniting different peoples and to the person who brought them together. Thus, 16th-century poet Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn referred to Cú Chonnacht Óg Mag Uidhir (Maguire) of Fermanagh as 'rí is féithle ag finnfearaibh Fáil' (a leader who was a binding plant around the fine men of Ireland' (TD 9.52)

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02/02/2017
TUIGEN

TUIGEN, TUGAN was a cloak, particularly one worn by a poet. According to Cormac's Glossary, the part below the waist was made from the 'skins' (feathers?) of white and multicoloured birds while the upper part was made from the throats and crests of drakes. Given that the Glossary's purpose here is to suggest that the word TUIGEN derives from the phrase TUGAE ÉN (the covering of birds), however, we probably can't read too much into this.

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26/01/2017
DERMAT

DERMAT 'forgetting, forgetfulness' occurs in the genitive in the phrase INCHINN DERMAIT 'brain of forgetfulness'. Seemingly, this referred to the part of the brain which allowed one to forget information. According to medieval Irish tradition, in the course of the 7th-century Battle of Mag Rath, Cenn Fáelad mac Ailella had his 'brain of forgetfulness' dashed out and thereafter he demonstrated great capacity in learning and literature, becoming associated in particular with Auraicept na nÉces 'The Scholars' Primer'.

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20/01/2017
ETTE

ETTE can be the wing of a bird or the fin of a fish, but its most interesting application is in the phrase CENN FO ETTE 'head under wing'. This phrase refers to a symbol drawn in manuscripts to indicate that the words which follow are actually a continuation from the line below − i.e. these words have been tucked into an unused space so as not to waste valuable vellum just as a bird might tuck its head under its wing. The image below shows a 'cenn fo ette' from RIA MS 1225 (the Book of Uí Maine), fo. 3vb4.

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12/01/2017
DO-ESTA

DO-ESTA 'is lacking' was the verb used in what seems today a long-winded system of medieval Irish computation. In this system, a number was indicated by subtraction from a larger one. Thus, 'I am 58' could be 'inge acht dī óenbliadain ni thesta dom thrī fichtib', literally 'except for two years I am not lacking 60' (Arch. iii 312)!

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06/01/2017
SOINMIGE

SOINMIGE 'prosperity, affluence, happiness'. Like many other Irish words beginning with s-, SOINMIGE has its opposite in a word beginning with d-. DOINMIGE, then, is 'adversity, misfortune, misery'. The Old-Irish Milan Glosses neatly illustrate this pair of words in a quote which seems especially fitting as we move into 2017: cuingid techta a doinmigi hi soinmigi 'seeking to pass from adversity to prosperity' (Ml. 102c5) Happy New Year/Athbhliain Faoi Shéan 's Faoi Mhaise/Bliadhna Mhath Ùr to all our followers!

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31/12/2016
SLEMNÁN

SLEMNÁN 'a sleigh' seems to have been first used by Tadhg Ó Cianáin at the start of the seventeenth century to describe the mode of transport used by the Earls of Tyronne and Tyrconnell for crossing the Alps. In a now-famous passage, he wrote: doimh ... go slemhnānoibh i n-a ffoilenmhain ag treōrughadh gacha mēide nār uo hinaistir dhībh tar in imdhoraidh 'oxen ... with sleighs yoked to them bringing all of them that could not travel over the hard road' (Fl. Earls 88.15)

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21/12/2016
ÓL

ÓL is 'the act of drinking' and probably the same word as was used as a measure of capacity for liquids. Various different capacities are distinguished in medieval Irish legal texts, the most memorable being the ÓL PÁTRAIC or 'Patrick's measure'. This was equal to the full of 1728 hen's egg shells and was the allowance of liquor deemed sufficient for six laymen or twelve clerics!

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15/12/2016

BÚ is how the early Irish represented the sound made by a cow. GÓ was the honk of a goose and CÚ the call of the cuckoo. An astonishing array of sounds, including GRÁC, GROB, ERR, ÚR, CARNA, GRÁD and COIN, are attributed to the raven. Some of these are common nouns reflecting belief in the raven's ability to communicate information about unfolding events. COIN, for example, can mean 'wolves'; a raven making such a sound is said to be warning of wolves coming towards a sheep-fold.

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09/12/2016
FÁS

FÁS 'growth' appears in the name of a fungus 'fás na h-óenoidche'. Meaning 'one night's growth', the name was obviously inspired by the idea of springing up overnight. That the fungus in question was white is suggested by a reference, in King's Inns MS 15, to 'brat ar dath fáis na henoidchi no ail no cloichi sneachta (a cloak the colour of 'fás na h-óenoidche' or lime or hailstones).

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01/12/2016
FÍR

FÍR can be used as a noun meaning 'what is true or right'. FÍR FER is often translated 'fair play', a phrase which is still prevalent in Hiberno-English. FÍR FER was a guiding principle of medieval Irish society. It could refer to one-to-one combat but, as shown by its use in concluding agreements and non-violent negotiations, the phrase embodied a broad ethical concept of fairness and equal treatment.

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23/11/2016
DOÉL

DOÉL 'chafer, beetle' sometimes appears in personal names, like Dubthach Dóel Ulad 'Dubthach, Beetle of Ulster'. Such names were obviously intended to identify the bearer as a person to be feared and are perhaps linked to the tendency in Ireland to regard the beetle, like the worm, as an instrument of dissolution of the body after death. The passing of Aed mac Domnaill úa Néill, tenth-century king of Ailech, for example, is lamented in a poem which states: dursan mac Domnaill do dheól don daol 'alas that Domnall's son is being sucked by the beetle' (Arch. iii 304)!

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17/11/2016
COMMÓRTAS

COMMÓRTAS 'comparison, competition, rivalry' continues today in phrases such as Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, an annual Gaelic football competition. The word has a very specific use in the marginalia and notes preserved in medieval and later Irish manuscripts. Scribes and owners of manuscripts often wrote a line or two, attempting to imitiate the letter-forms on the page; an addition of this kind was termed 'commórtas'. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, MS C ii 3 [d] (fo. 21 v) has a nice example in what seems to be Seán Ó Maolchonaire’s hand. It says simply 'comortas lais an sgribhneoir' (an imitation of the writer).

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10/11/2016
SPONGC

SPONGC 'touchwood, tinder' appears in an unusual context in the tale of Dathí, king of Ireland. According to Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh, after Dathí's death in the Alps, the men of Ireland carried his body before them into battle and attributed numerous victories to that. To create the illusion that Dathí was still breathing they put lit tinder (sbongc re lasadh) in his mouth!

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02/11/2016
GOÍDELACH

GOÍDELACH 'Gaelic, Irish' is rarely found in the early language. Several of the examples we have noted are in the phrase CNÚ GOÍDELACH, an 'Irish nut' or hazelnut. The term stands in contrast to CNÚ FRANGCACH, a 'French nut' or walnut. English 'walnut', German 'Walnuß' and Dutch 'walnoot' all go back to Germanic wal- meaning 'foreign' and perhaps 'frangcach' is intended in a similar way here. In Modern Irish the corresponding forms are 'cnó gaelach' and 'cnó francach'.

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28/10/2016
ÍOTACH

ÍOTACH 'a thirsty person, a hard drinker' derives from Old Irish 'íttu' (thirst). We have no example of 'íotach' before the seventeeth century, but historian and priest Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn) uses the word in a wonderful example of Early Modern alliterating Irish − 'íotaigh na hAlban, súmairidhe na Saxon, agus potairidhe na bPleimeanach' (Eochairsg. 3.8), which translates roughly as 'the sozzled of Scotland, the inebriated of England and the hard drinkers of Holland'!!

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21/10/2016