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The Irish For: Vegans, vegetarians and the battle of translating modern words

It’s easy to lose the wordplay on English words when translating into Irish.

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. 

THIS OCTOBER MARKS the 26th anniversary of the passing of promising actor River Phoenix, credited by many with bringing the term vegan into common usage.

This word was previously quite obscure. Early interviews with the star frequently included the word in inverted commas and offered a definition.

Prior to the actor’s breakthrough role in Stand By Me in 1986, the word vegan turned up more commonly in print as part of Las Vegan – the term used for a resident of Las Vegas in the US – than in reference to food choices.

Nowadays, many inhabitants of Sin City often settle for being referred to as just Nevadan to avoid confusion.

Phoenix didn’t invent the word vegan, of course. That duty fell to a Yorkshireman called Donald Watson, who coined the term in 1944.

This was two years before Bugsy Siegel took over the Flamingo Hotel and kickstarted the Vegas Strip, in case you’re wondering which kind of vegan can claim to be first.

Watson had become a vegetarian after being affected by what he saw during visits to farms. When he and some friends decided to exclude animal products completely, he wanted a new term to distinguish them from mere vegetarians.

He chose to include the initial and final letters of vegetarian because veganism begins with vegetarianism’s principles. 

Anxious that wordplay on the term might trivialise their objectives, he invited suggestions from fellow practitioners for a new name. Despite fancy submissions like benevore and beaumangeur, they eventually ran with Watson’s original name.

The principles of vegetarianism have ancient precedents globally, especially the concept of ahimsa (a respect for all living things and avoidance of violence) in Buddhism and other religions, but the English term is more recent.

The word is estimated to have originated in 1847. While Ireland was being ravaged by famine, the Vegetarian Society was formed in Ramsgate by English people.

Vegetarian itself was a replacement of an earlier term: anti-carnivorous. However, the movement promoting the removal of meat preferred a less animalistic title.

The -ian ending of the word vegetarian fitted the same respectable model as Christian, Episcopalian, Etonian and Newtonian.

The battle for minority languages

Knowing this linguistic history, how should we translate a word like vegan into Irish? The term veigeán tends to draw groans due to its closeness to the English word (as well as that déclassé letter v).

This takes us to the eternal loanword battle in minority languages – is it better to just acknowledge that the word has clearly come from English and replicate it in the phonetics of Irish, or should a suitably distinct and authentic-feeling term be chosen?

The word for vegetarian is feoilséantóir, which translates literally as meat denier. Should we take the first and last few letters of that?

It might be cleaner to go with fíorfheoilséantóir (true vegetarian/meat denier), which I have seen pop up a few times online.

You could certainly argue that a way of life which requires almost constant vigilance to not break its rules deserves a name picked with similar care.

This linguistic debate isn’t going anywhere, but in the case of the word vegan, the wordplay that gives it its meaning is sadly lost when transposed into Irish.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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