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Dublin: 3°C Wednesday 14 April 2021

The Irish For: Some older words don't exist in English - clochscríbhinn means an inscription on stone

George Orwell said that history was a palimpsest – a chalkboard which could be scraped clean and reinscribed, exactly as often as necessary, 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.

A FEW WEEKS ago, celebrated scientist (and uncelebrated non-linguist) Neil DeGrasse Tyson observed that “Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers; so worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish as Italian”.

To paraphrase another celebrated scientist, Wolfgang Pauli, this theory is not even wrong.

Spain is heaving with cathedrals and still building one in Barcelona, Italy was not a unified country with a single language during the age of European global conquest, and the tenacity of Spanish as a spoken language in South America owes much to factors other than a secular, scientific love of exploration.

Throughout history, communities with different languages have come into contact with each other and, for better or for worse, some words have scurried from one tongue to the other.

However, it’s rare enough for those two languages to approach each other with the same amount of agency, and the kinds of words exchanged tends to reflect this.

Consider in English where the animal has an Anglo-Saxon name (pig, sheep, cow) but the meat name comes from French (pork, mutton, beef) – the poor people who looked after the animals spoke a different language to the rich people who would eat it.

I think of this phenomenon sometimes when people mock certain Irish words for being too close to English ones, like róbat for robot, goraille for gorilla.

The vocabulary of the Irish language has evolved with terms that reflect everyday life in Ireland for centuries, and in many cases suggest practices and traditions which are no longer in use.

Here are some words for practical objects, tools or activities which do not have a direct English equivalent.

Gairtéar:  This is a string used to tie a bag closed, not to be confused with a fuathlainn, a thread used to secure bait to hook.

Sacshrathair: This means a stuffed sack.

Such an object can have many uses, such as propping a door open. A similar object would be a scrathóg which is an inflated bladder to be used as a vessel, ball, prop etc. Appropriately enough, a scrathóg can also mean a windbag.

Briogadán: It probably wouldn’t pass health and safety regulations today, but a briogadán is a stick with a burning tip that was used in a children’s game from years ago.

Other stick words include a pasúr - a pounding-stick used in clothes-washing and a cipín – a little stick or the clamps used when performing a castration.

Croisínteacht: If you were gathering seaweed with a pole having a hook and crosspiece, you would be ag croisínteacht. If you used a different seaweed gathering technique, you would have to find a different word.

Gabhad:  Whether you carry it on a pitchfork or in your hand, this is a burning sod carried as a torch.

You might retrieve such a sod from a lagpholl, a hollow in a recently cut bog. A gabhad might be lit with an athghual, which is a lump of burnt coal or cinder used for rekindling fires.

Corpfhiacha: Corp means body and fiach means debt (it also means tooth or a raven), so this compound word refers to those debts incurred for personal services.

Certain seaweeds were deemed to have peculiar qualities; breachtraíocht means using herbs to make charms, cures or spells.

Beiltí: These are ground oats for malting; regular oats are coirce (not to be confused with corcra, purple).

Speaking of colours and food, cróchadh describes the practice of colouring foods or fabrics with saffron.

Clochscríbhinn: Finally, this word means an inscription on stone.

The last word got me thinking about what George Orwell said – that history was a palimpsest. That is a chalkboard which can be scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

In these Orwellian times, it is more important than ever to record our heritage as though it was carved in stone.

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.

About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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