Word of the Week

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’.

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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’.

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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)!

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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31/08/2018
GÁETH

GÁETH ‘wind’ (Modern Irish GAOTH) has appeared since Early Modern times in expressions indicating madness or frenzy. When, in the tale of the Battle of Ventry, for example, Oscar of the Fianna launches himself into battle on seeing his family oppressed by the king of France, the action is described as CO N-DEACHAIGH RE GAÍTH ┐ RE GEALTACHT ‘he went with the wind and with madness’. And the phrase MADRA GAÍTHE, used in medical and scientific texts to mean ‘a mad dog’, translates literally as ‘a dog of the wind’!

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27/08/2018
BODAR

BODAR (Modern Irish BODHAR) means ‘deaf’ but the word is used also to describe an indistinct or hollow sound and it is this latter sense which lies behind BODHRÁN, the name of a traditional Irish frame drum generally made of goatskin. The earliest mention of the BODHRÁN actually occurs in a medical text written in the 15th or 16th century, where it is claimed that one of the signs of tympanites (the swelling of the abdomen with air or gas) is that, on being struck, the belly makes a sound ‘mar bhodhrán’ (like a bodhrán)!

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17/08/2018
BIGIRECHT

BIGIRECHT and BUCLUAISC are just two of the games mentioned in medieval Irish tales about which we know nothing! The names of some other games are more revealing: COR CLOICHE, for example, means ‘throwing the stone’, CLUICHE PHUILL means ‘the game of the hole’ and CLUICHE LÚIBE IS LÍATHRÓITE means ‘the game of loop and ball’. It has been suggested that the last of these is an early reference to a hurling, the LÚB ‘loop’ denoting the bent willow which was used as a goal.

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10/08/2018
COS

COS could be ‘a foot’ or ‘a leg’ in medieval Irish, just as LÁM could be ‘a hand’ or ‘an arm’. The two could also be combined. A 14th-century account of the wars fought between two branches of the Uí Briain kings, for example, refers to CÚAL DO COSLÁMAIB, ‘a pile of leg-arms’, that is ‘a pile of legs and arms'. And the same text mentions also CENDCHOSLÁMA NA CATH ‘the head-leg-arms of the battles’, in other words, the heads and legs and arms that had been cut off in the battles!

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03/08/2018
NATHAIR

NATHAIR IMCHENN ‘a double-headed snake’ is an early Irish phrase used to designate a line of Ogam script that reads the same in both directions but has the starting-point of the word in the middle. The word is inscribed forwards in one direction and backwards in the other; by way of illustration, a text on Ogam preserved in the 14th-century Book of Ballymote tells us that, as a NATHAIR IMCHENN, the man’s name CELLACH would be: H C A L L E C E L L A C H. How this would be conveyed using Ogam letters can be seen at the bottom of the image below, which is an extract from the Book of Ballymote, fo. 169rb (© Royal Irish Academy 2003)

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27/07/2018
CLOCH

CLOCH ‘a stone’ appeared in a number of useful expressions in medieval Irish – CLOCH MUILINN, for example, was a mill-stone and CLOCH ISNA HÁIRNIB was a stone in the kidney. Two phrases stand out as particularly nicely constructed, though: CLOCH MEÓIR 'a finger-stone' seems to have been a pebble, a stone that could be picked up between the fingers, while CLOCH GLAICE ‘a hand-stone’ was a larger rock that had to be grasped by the whole hand.

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20/07/2018
DÉT

DÉT is one of several early Irish words for ‘a tooth’. This is the term selected to refer to the ‘tooth of wisdom’ (DÉT FISS) under which Finn mac Cumaill placed his thumb to access supernatural knowledge, but the tooth with which Aillill Ólom bit Mac Con in the cheek signalling that the latter would die within nine days is known in medieval Irish literature as the FÍACAIL FIDBA. FÍACAIL is the word for 'tooth' here; the meaning of FIDBA is not quite clear, but it seems likely to be some kind of bane or malevolent spell.

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06/07/2018
TERRIÉIN

TERRIÉIN and MUIR TORRIAN are often taken as medieval Irish terms for the Mediterranean Sea, but these actually come from the name of the Tyrrhenian Sea, a part of the Mediterranean off the western coast of Italy. In the seventeenth century, Geoffrey Keating used the phrase MUIR LÁRTHALMHAN, literally ‘the sea of middle-land’, for the Mediterranean. This was obviously based on Latin MEDITERRANEUS, which is made up of MEDIUS ‘middle’ and TERRA ‘land’. Today, the Mediterranean Sea is known in Irish as AN MHEÁNMHUIR and in Scottish Gaelic as AM MUIR MEADHANACH, both of which mean simply ‘the Middle Sea’.

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29/06/2018
APA

APA is a loanword which was used in a number of late medieval Irish texts to mean ‘ape’. In the fourteenth-century Irish account of the travels of Marco Polo, however, the word appears as NAPA. The initial n- probably arose from uses of the word with the definite article (i.e. IN APA ‘the ape’), when scribes were uncertain about how words were to be divided. This phenomenon occurs elsewhere; in grammatical terms, the accruing initial letter is known as a ‘prosthetic n’.

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22/06/2018
CÚLÁN

CÚLÁN was used in medieval Ireland to describe a way in which men wore their hair. A statute of 1297 banned Anglo-Normans from adopting the style, which seems to have been long at the back and partially shaved elsewhere. Given that it was sufficiently distinctive to form part of the name of Niall Cúlánach Ua Néill, who died in 1291, it has been argued that this style was not common amongst Irishmen, but associated in particular with outlaws.

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15/06/2018
SMIRAMMAIR

SMIRAMMAIR, literally ‘marrow-tub’, is defined in the Dictionary as ‘a bath of marrow from crushed bones used in the treatment of wounded warriors’. Although the SMIRAMMAIR features only in narrative tales, medical texts in Irish and other languages place some emphasis on the dangers attendant upon injuries which allow marrow to escape and on the role of marrow in strengthening bones. Such medical concepts may explain why marrow is presented as having particularly powerful healing properties in medieval Irish literature.

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08/06/2018
CÍRMAIRE

CÍRMAIRE was an early word for a comb-maker. There are signs that comb-makers were not held in very high regard in medieval Ireland. In the Life of St Colmán, for example, the saint proclaims that only shoe-makers and comb-makers will descend from anyone who turns against him. That said, in describing how the CÍRMAIRE acquired materials for this craft, an 8th-century legal text has an intriguing suggestion of supernatural powers. According this source, the CÍRMAIRE is to be found ‘chanting on a dunghill so that what there is below of horns and bones comes up’ (Celtica xxi 231)! Image: deer-antler comb, Co. Fermanagh (7th/8th-cent.)

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25/05/2018