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The Irish For... Seal snot: The literal translations of sea creatures are brilliant

The Irish term for a jellyfish translates literally as seal snot. If this floats your boat you might also enjoy mathair shúigh – suckmother – for squid.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

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.

AFTER DECADES OF genuine and hard-won progress, relations between Ireland and Britain are in a bad place.

Not an all-time low, of course, but there’s not much comfort in that when you consider how bad the Famine was.

Then again, the British have a very different understanding of the Famine than we do. This often expresses itself in the question ‘if the potato crop was so bad, why didn’t the Irish just go fishing? They were on an island, weren’t they?’

In such instances, Karl Rove’s famous quip that ‘when you’re explaining, you’re losing’ applies.

Suffice it to say that the Irish were fishing, and were fluently acquainted with the mysterious creatures who swam in the briny waters surrounding their unhappy but resolute island. In fact, there is a cornucopia of Irish words for sea creatures to prove it.

Smugairle Róin: The Irish term for a jellyfish translates literally as seal snot. If this floats your boat you might also enjoy gráinneog thrá (beach hedgehog) for sea urchin and mathair shúigh (suckmother) for squid.

Gliomach: This is the Irish word for a lobster.

The seanfhocal ‘is fánach an áit a bhfaighfeá gliomach’ literally translates as ‘an odd place to find a lobster’.  The meaning is ‘it’s a small world’ or ‘fancy seeing you here’.

Gliomóg: Not a million miles from the word above, this means a small lobster. It is also delightfully close to liomóg, which means a pinch – something a gliomóg might give you.

Stadhan: This doesn’t have a direct equivalent word in English; it means a flock of birds hovering over a shoal of fish.

A shoal of fish could be referred to as a rath, just like the Gaelic fortressed dwellings that still give their names to Irish towns like Rathangan and Rathmines.

Friotáil: A stadhan might assemble above a friotáil – that’s another word without a direct match in English. It means the motion on the water’s surface caused by a shoal of fish underneath.

Liamhan: The English word shark sounds just like the Irish word searc, meaning romantic love, a darling or beloved.

Liamhán is the Irish for a shark; this shy, peaceful fish has been slandered by many Hollywood movies – the seanfhocal ‘chomh sámh le liamhán gréine’ means ‘as relaxed as a basking shark’.

Scudal: Father Dinneen described the scudal as ‘a useless fish… thought to be the ugliest fish in existence’.

If you think such personal remarks about animals are unbecoming of a lexicographer, I’m sorry to report that this isn’t an isolated incident. Bishop O’Brien’s entry for gamal describes a camel as ‘the most stupid of all beasts’.

Cíoch Farraige: The Irish for a sea anemone literally means rock boob. In Ireland this creature was named by fisherman rather than scientists. The Greek word anemone itself literally means daughter of the wind.

Bairís: As with anemone, phosphorescence is such a long and clumsy word in English, but the Irish term again, used by fishermen haunted by the slowing in the ocean at night, is short and snappy. 

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Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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