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The Irish For... How the Vikings influenced the Irish language

Darach Ó Séaghdha talks us through the meaning behind some words that get their origin from Medieval Ireland’s interaction with Scandanavia.

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.  

WORDS, LIKE THE people who say them, like to travel, and carry with them stories of where they have been. One such recent arrival on these shores is hygge, the Danish art of living in simple, cosy comfort. While the sound of this word is teasingly similar to the name of our current president, the facts of the matter are that the surname Higgins has a different Norse origin: Ó hUigínn comes from uigingeach, an Irish word for Viking.

Medieval Ireland had a fair bit of interaction (if that’s not too kind a word) with Scandinavian kingdoms. Did this interaction result in a plethora of interesting words? Reader, I thought you’d never ask.

Lochlannach: This is the Irish for a Viking or a Norseman. If you want to be more specific, a Dubh-Lochlannach (dark-haired Viking) is a Dane and a Fionn-Lochlannach (fair-haired Viking) is a Norwegian. Dark-haired foreigners are responsible for the introduction of one of Ireland’s most populous surnames: Doyle (dubh-gall).

Long: The Vikings arrived in Ireland by boat and their loanwords are representative of the work they did. Long (a ship), abúr (the hole for an oar to go through) and ancaire (anchor) are all examples of this.

Danartha: This adjective listed in O’Reilly’s 19th-century dictionary gives three possible English translations: “Danish, foreign, cruel”. If this seems a bit excessive, remember that Ireland declared war against Denmark in 1666 and this decision was only repealed in 2015.

Ispín: Certain Norse words entered the English and Irish languages at the same time (bád for a boat, from bát), and these could be mistaken by the untrained eye as borrowed from béarla. Others bear little relation to the English equivalent, such as the Irish for sausage – íspen in the old Norse. The humble ispín is a delight when fried or grilled, but some Norsemen preferred to boil it in a thin, pale broth that they called kadall.

Ól: Not all soundalikes represent etymological links. Öl – the Swedish/Danish/Norwegian word for beer – sounds tantalisingly like the Irish verb to drink. Could they be connected?

Pingin: As a maritime, trading people, the Vikings added many words pertaining to seafaring and commerce to Irish, such as the word for a penny. Other such borrowings include margadh (a market, from markadhr), punt (a pound of something) and tráill (a slave).

Melkorka: Speaking of slaves, the medieval Icelanders weren’t above stealing Irish women and children from our shores and bringing them back to their chilly northern lair. One such Irishwoman was Melkorka, virtually unknown in her homeland but a major character in the Icelandic saga Landnámabók.

Gotach: This adjective means indistinct of speech, lisping or stammering. This is derived from an earlier Irish word for unintelligible foreign language, specifically the language of the goths.

Luchter: We typically associate the Vikings with the elegant metropolises of Ireland’s east coast, but this Donegal Irish word for a handful is understood to come from the Norse lagthr, meaning a handful of wool.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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