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The Irish For: What’s the Irish word of the year?

Darach Ó Séaghdha says the pandemic has brought along the use of many new phrases and words, and he has one as Gaeilge for 2020.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

IN 2017 IT was youthquake – a word you might not have heard since. In 2018 it was toxic – a familiar word which, through recent use, had acquired a distinct additional meaning.

Every December the Oxford English dictionary announces its word of the year and in 2020, due to unprecedented events, it has taken the step of presenting multiple words.

It’s not just the OED either; other English language dictionaries around the world make similar announcements at the end of the year.

For example, the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English presents an official winner picked by a committee as well as a people’s choice, and while these decisions are informed by Australia’s slang, current affairs and diversity, they may still choose terms which reflect global English usage, such as “milkshake duck” or “cancel culture”.

The debates that often accompany such announcements highlight the fact that people feel strongly that words matter and the role of dictionaries in recording social change is both complex and necessary. With this in mind, what should the Irish language word of 2020 be?

New foclóir

As it happens, 2020 saw the publication of a new printed English-Irish Dictionary under the editorship of Pádraig Ó Mianáin.

The previous Foclóir Béarla-Gaeilge was published back in 1959 during De Valera’s final year as Taoiseach, when new-fangled entries like béarlagair teileagraf (telegraphese), Sícainilís (psychoanalysis) and X-ghathú (X-ray) caused a stir.

In the intervening years, social change has required Irish to add new terms like éicealaoch (eco-warrior), búrca (burka) and of course paindéim (pandemic).

Most searched words

While that last word had been used in print before and was available on the focloir.ie website prior to this year’s publication, it shot up in use since March.

Professor Kevin Scannell, who has done significant research on patterns of Irish use on the internet, recently identified the words whose use have most increased in 2020. Naturally, all of the top 23 words refer to the coronavirus and the global response to it.

These include:

Ráige         – outbreak

Cianobair    – remote working

Féinaonrú    – self isolation

New words

While some of the pandemic-related words have been in use before, others are brand new.

New additions have been made to the Bunachar Náisiúnta Téarmaíochta don Ghaeilge (the national terminology database for Irish) throughout the year, and not just relating to coróinvíreas: others include gnáthchóip (plain copy) and buanluach (permanent value). 

So should the word of 2020 be a brand new term or an existing one which has become relevant because of external forces?

For me, the word of the year is the one for the item you see outside every day which you did not see in 2019.

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You might even be wearing one now. Masc means mask but not just any old mask: while a mask worn for a Hallowe’en costume would be aghaidh fidil (fake face) and one used to disguise your identity would be púicín (like púca, a ghost), masc more specifically refers to those which cover the mouth and nose.

So while it sounds like the English word it is arguably more precise. Poetically, it sounds like meas, an Irish word with many meanings including respect we hold for another person – the very reason we continue to wear them. What could be more fitting?

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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