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The Irish For: Was Dracula's name inspired by Gaeilge? Probably not, but coincidence can be lovely

There are plenty of linguistic similarities between Irish and other languages.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THIS IS 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. 

Ford Madox Ford had a theory that when you’re deciding whether or not to buy a new book, the first page does not give an accurate reflection of the content because first pages are self-consciously trying to make a good impression and cannot be trusted.

Think of all the fabulous opening lines of books you haven’t finished. Instead, the prospective reader should turn to the 99th page to get a truly representative sample.

When I first heard this theory I tried it on two random books from my shelf: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

I was impressed to find that the much-celebrated history of Sesame Street begins on the 99th page of Gladwell’s book, and in my edition of the classic vampire novel, we are told on page 99 that the count has an aversion to daylight.

I’ve been a user of the theory ever since.

These are coincidences of course, but that’s the point. Sometimes a single, wilfully arbitrary rule can provide clarity in a world full of deception. I’ve heard of similarly capricious tests used in house-hunting and job interviews.

But serendipity can be just as deceiving as an inviting opening line to a bad book because people like stories, nice patterns and jumping to conclusions.

This is especially true in the business of identifying the origins of words.

Consider these three linguistic coincidences involving Irish to see what I mean.

Irish vampire 

First of all, let’s return to Dracula. There’s an enduring theory that Clontarf man Bram Stoker turned to Irish for inspiration when naming his vampire – specifically droch fola, meaning evil blood.

This is not supported by any of Stoker’s own research, and the man left copious letters and records. To his eternal shame, his notes do not reveal an interest in the Irish language.

New York, New York 

Second of all, the Irish for New York is Nua-Eabhrac, which sounds teasingly similar to Eabhrach, the Irish for Hebrew.

Could the Irish name for the Big Apple be a tribute to the achievements of that city’s celebrated Jewish community? The short answer is no.

Nua means new and Eabhrac is just the Irish name for the old English city of York, which does not have an especially large Jewish community, especially compared to neighbouring cities in Yorkshire.

Besides, Eabhrach is a word used in historical and biblical contexts rather than being suitable for describing a contemporary Jewish person.

Other people 

Thirdly, the Irish word for people, daoine, is pronounced exactly like the Navajo word for people, diné.

Could one have informed the other? In the absence of written records by the Navajo at the time when Irish people first arrived in the American southwest, can anyone really disprove it?

In a situation like this, the burden of proof would weigh entirely of the proponent of such a theory, who would have to explain why such an everyday word could have been absorbed on its own, with no other Irish words entering the language and no folklore about interacting with Irish people surviving.

Loanwords arrive in the first instance to refer to items and concepts that don’t exist in the receiving language (like wigwam, igloo or sushi) and only start to replace or substitute incumbent words when a relationship between the two cultures is established that attributes different values for the alternative words (saying ennui instead of boredom or verboten instead of forbidden, for example).

Daoine and diné are just two strangers who look like each other.

So should these coincidences be rejected completely? If you are doing academic research, then yes. But that’s only one part of life.

Droch Fola is very clever wordplay and should be enjoyed as such as long as it’s not presented as evidence.

Likewise, if a New Yorker of Irish and Jewish heritage wants to get a Nua-Eabhrach tattoo to celebrate their background and their city, I think they should go for it.

And if a poet is composing a poem about colonisation and finds use in the similarity of daoine and diné, I’d look forward to buying their book – only after checking the 99th page, of course.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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