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The Irish For... it's fun to drink uisce beatha in a síbín - but watch out for the poison drop

If the Irish phrase for a hangover doesn’t put you off drink nothing will – ‘braon nimhe sa ceann’ means ‘a poison drop to the head’, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy. 

NOVEMBER IS A month when some people in Ireland, unmoved by the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau or the hilarity of watching Movemberers attempt to drink a pint around their newly hairy upper lips, refrain from drinking alcohol.

While this practice may be rooted in religious abstinence, its enduring popularity seems to owe more to preparing for the hedonism of office party season.

After all, Christmas means an avalanche of social obligations and in Ireland, such organised fun demands to be lubricated by drink; some people decide to give their liver and wallet a bit of a rest before it kicks off.

Given the popularity of drinking here, could the practice of consuming alcoholic drinks possibly be reflected in the Irish language?

Póit: This word means an excessive amount of drink, more than one can handle (potus, as well as being an acronym for president of the united states, is a Latin adjective meaning drunken).

You might notice a similarity between it and poitín, the famous ersatz potato-based hard liquor. Historically, this has been illegal but recently some poitíns have been correctly taxed and available in shops. 

Síbín: This is another name for illicit hard liquor, and it can also mean the place where such alcohol is served; hence shebeen in English. The opposite is parlaimint, a lesser-used older word that means legally-distilled whiskey. But where does the word for whiskey come from?

Uisce Beatha: The word whiskey comes from this term, shared in Irish and Scots Gaelic, which means the water of life.

This is also the Irish title of the hit show Riverdance and the refrain repeated in its choral opening sequence – which does not mention rivers or dancing. Presumably naming the show “whiskey” in English wouldn’t have set the right tone.  

Aon Braiche: This is the Irish for single malt. It is a fairly recent entry to the language, but so is “single malt”, an expression unknown before the mid-1980s and one which aficionados won’t hesitate to tell you – whether you ask or not – is not a designation of quality.

Craorag: This is one of the terms in Irish for blood-red, and can also describe whiskey that’s served neat.

Asoilgi Laith Lochrúna: This is a proverb from old-Irish meaning “ale reveals dark secrets”. But what kind of dark secrets?

Maybe they involve the magical powers of the fada.  Leann means beer or ale, but when you add a fada, you get léann, which means learning.

Lagar means depression; add a fada and you get lagár means lager beer.

LGI: If you like IPAs, these are LGIs in Irish – Indian Pale Ale being Leann Gealbhuí Indiach. The colour of the ale is described as bright yellow (geal & buí) rather than merely pale.

The colours attributed to alcoholic drinks in English don’t always make sense and Irish doesn’t match them exactly either; a red ale is leann rua but a red wine is fíon dearg.

White wine is fíon geal… not to be confused with Fine Gael, a political party.

Fíontach: This urgently useful adjective describes a place with lots of wine or a person who is particularly keen on wine. Which leads us on to our final term,

Braon Nimhe: A nasty (or poison) drop. Used figuratively to refer to a hangover. As in braon nimhe sa ceann – a poison drop in the head.  

Darach’s new book, Craic Baby: Dispatches From A Rising Language is published by Head of Zeus and available in bookshops now.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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