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The Irish For: How many colours can you remember?

Different languages across the world look at the spectrum and make different calls on where certain colours begin and end, 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.

YOU MAY HAVE forgotten the formula to calculate the surface area of a sphere and what an ox-bow lake is, but something I’m sure you remember from school is the word bándearg. It means pink, of course, and it translates literally as white-red.

It’s not always as straightforward as this, however. Although colours are among the first nouns we learn when we study another language, we are not always matching like with like.

Different languages across the world look at the spectrum and make different calls on where certain colours begin and end, which ones are important enough to have discrete names and what substance the hue is named after.

Let’s look at some examples of colours in Irish.

Flannbhuí: Article 7 of the Bunreacht na hÉireann describes the tricolour of Ireland as being uaine, bán, agus flannbhuí – green, white and orange.

More on uaine later, but let’s consider flannbhuí first. You might be more familiar with it being called oráiste from school.

The authors of the constitution decided to use the noble names of the colours for the flag: flann is a poetic term for blood red, buí means yellow. Like bándearg, it’s a compound.

The tricolour is sometimes described as green, white and gold. While some see this as the erasure of the flag’s multi-denominational intent, others see the interchangeability of gold and orange as innocent. But what colour is gold?

Deargór: There’s a line in Jeff Buckley’s rendition of the medieval Corpus Christi Carol that always sticks out: “And in that hall there was a bed/And it was hanged with gold so red.”

In many languages, the words for orange are more recent than the names of primary colours.

Oranges arrived in these islands from Spain (after that song was written) where their name naranja was misunderstood. So, ‘an orange’ really should have been ‘a norange’ and this mistake was, in turn, replicated in Irish with oráiste.

In keeping with the carol lyric, deargór means gold-red. It is not to be confused with deargár, which means a carnival of bloodshed.

Grian-bhuidhe: An obscure entry in Dinneen’s dictionary, this is defined as “the peculiar colour of sunset in summer”.

Corcra Dorcha: This is the colour aubergine in Irish, literally meaning dark purple. Fans of Myles na gCopaleen will recognise this as the setting of An Béal Bocht. Americans refer to the aubergine as an eggplant, which is the literal meaning of the Irish name: ubhthoradh.

Glas: The shade of green in the tricolour is called uaine. In English, we accept that green covers a wide range of shades from seawater to neon signs. Glas in Irish also covers a wide range of shades, just not the same range as the English word.

Specifically, glas covers those greens found in nature such as vegetation, but also living forms of grey – a grey squirrel is iora glas.

Gorm: Again, this is generally given as blue, but as this entry in the Dictionary of the Irish Language shows, at different points in history it has been used to describe shades of green, red and black also. 

Hair that was so black that it had a blue tinge was described as gorm, hence the girl’s name Gormflaith, dark-haired princess.

Speaking of hair, the small snail called the druchtín was once thought to have the power to predict the hair colour of a girl’s future husband – it would be the same as the colour of the shell of the first druchtín she found on a May morning.

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

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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