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Word Nerd: Few Irish words in English? Put a kibosh on that load of malarkey!

Enhanced vision of Croghan Hill rising from the bog in Ireland. The word “bog” is a 16th-century adaptation of the Irish bogach.  (Photo: Sarah777)

Enhanced vision of Croghan Hill rising from the bog in Ireland. The word “bog” is a 16th-century adaptation of the Irish bogach. (Photo: Sarah777)

Tis claimed that on Saint Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish. While this may or may not be true, it is a fact that the original Brits were the Celts who arrived in Britain and Ireland by 500 BC.

After the Romans left Britain in the 5th century AD, the country was dominated by non-aligned Celtic chiefdoms. It didn’t take long for the isle’s neighbours to glean that Britain was ripe for invasion without Roman protection. In poured hordes of Jutes, Angles, Saxons and Danes who pushed the Celtic Britons to the isle’s periphery of Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria. Around the same time, the Celts also settled in Ireland.

As I mentioned in a Lexpert article two months ago, I believe many linguists have greatly understated the contributions of these Celtic people to English. The OED shows approximately 1,000 Celtic contributions to English, such as bard, bug (as in bugbear), caber, clan and glen, with the majority of them coming out of Ireland.

Other Celtic words filtered. The word “bog” is a 16th-century adaptation of the Irish bogach. Bog has the connotation of “soft” in the Celtic word bog-luachair, “bulrush.” Also coming into English in the 16th century are the pair of plaid from the Gaelic plaide and Irish ploid, “blanket,” and the word “slogan” from the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, “host-cry.” The word “galore” is a 17th-century rendering of the Irish go leór, “to sufficiency.” Whiskey” is an 18th-century cropping of “whiskybae,” and is a variation of the Gaelic uisgebeatha, “water of life.”

The term “Tory” has the distinction of not only being Irish in origin, but a rather nasty insult to boot. It is really an anglicized spelling of the Irish tóraidhe, “pursuer,” and originally denoted an Irish guerrilla who, to revenge being ousted from his land by the British, took to plundering Ireland’s occupiers.

The OED highlights this origin in its first definition of “Tory”: “In the seventeenth century, one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers.”

It quickly became a term to refer to any Irish Papist and by the middle of the 17th century the word was often used by British commentators as a synonym for “bandit,” as in this mid-17th-century reference found in Bulstrode Whitelocke’s Memorial of the English Affair: “Eight Officers … riding upon the Highway [in Ireland], were murder’d by those bloody Highway Rogues called the Tories.”

At the end of the 17th century the word was applied to a group of English politicians who had originally opposed the deposing of Roman Catholic James and his replacement with the Protestant duo, William and Mary. Eventually, this loose assortment of politicians became regarded as a political party, the Tories. Even later, however, we find the word used as a derogation of the Irish. Catharine Macaulay, in her The History of England, written in 1849, says, “The bogs of Ireland … afforded a refuge to Popish outlaws, much resembling those who were afterwards known as Whiteboys. These men were then called Tories.”

The aforementioned total of approximately 1,000 words of Celtic origin may be understated. Linguist Loreto Todd argues convincingly in the journal English Today that many other words might have an Irish lineage, These include:

Ass (animal) This word appears to be a modified form of the Irish term asal. The OED hypothesizes that the Irish word comes from the Latin asinus but is possible that the Latin term may have come from the Celtic one.

Bat (stick) Many etymologists see this word deriving from the Old French batte. However, according to the OED, “the supposed Old English bat is by some referred to a Celtic origin. Compare Irish and Gaelic bat, bata, staff, cudgel.”

Clock The OED states that “clock” does not appear to derive from any Germanic language and adds that it was “known since about the 8th century in Celtic Irish cloc, Gaelic clag, Cornish , cloch, … (but) not found in southern Romanic languages where campana is the word for “bell.”

Another word that may have an Irish origin is “kibosh.” Its first OED citation occurs in Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz written in 1836. The OED states: “Origin obscure; it has been stated to be Yiddish or Anglo-Hebraic.” Some etymologists believe that it derives from the Irish phrase cie bais, “cap of death.” The word bais is pronounced “bawsh” and cie is pronounced with a hard initial consonant, somewhat like “kai.”

Irish contributions to English may not be as sparse as generally supposed. They are to be found in considerable numbers, assuming one knows what shamrock to look under.

A happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.

Howard Richler’s latest book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) is being published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.

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