With St. Patrick's Day soon upon us, it is cause to celebrate all things Irish. It also feels appropriate to remember what the Irish have given you and me, in fact all English speakers, by appreciating some of the English words that are derived from Irish and Gaelic.
There is some confusion over the difference between Irish and Gaelic, but essentially there is Irish Gaelic, and then there is Scots Gaelic, the latter spoken once upon a time in Scotland. Usually when people talk of Irish and Gaelic at the same time it is to contrast them, and they mean Scots Gaelic. In some corners though, Irish and Gaelic are synonymous and you have to specify Scots Gaelic when that's what you mean. For more on these issues, check out these two vocabulary lists: Words from Irish and Words from Gaelic.
Braving these confusions, I present a tour of what the Emerald Isle has left as a linguistic legacy to English. I could not launch such an endeavor without a word of warning from possibly the greatest Irish writer of them all, James Joyce. Stephen Dedalus, who first appears in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and is one of the central characters in Ulysses, too, says:
I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.
Trying to keep all of us from being too unhappy, let's examine some common words with Irish and Gaelic roots.
Some borrowings from Irish seem to describe things that most of us would immediately associate with Ireland itself. In English, a bog is a noun which means marsh and is often associated with cranberry cultivation. The word comes from bogach, which comes from the adjective bog meaning "soft and moist."
The symbol that has become synonymous with Ireland, the shamrock comes from Irish seamrog, which means "little clover". The McDonald's Shamrock Shake is a popular, kid-friendly beverage for celebrating St. Patrick's Day, and while it is green, it contains no shamrocks, as far as I know.
Speaking of beverages, of the decidedly not kid-friendly kind this time, many people associate the Irish with their drink of choice, whiskey. Our word whiskey comes from Gaelic uisge beatha which literally means "water of life".
keen, banshee and smithereens
The words above are stereotypically Irish, but the language has also provided some words not automatically associated with the "wearing of the green." English has two different words both pronounced "keen." One, the adjective, has Germanic roots and means "skillful, wise and strong." In recent times this keen has come to be a somewhat out-of fashion word for "cool", like "neat-o." The other keen, the verb, is from Irish and means "to wail with grief" or "scream in a shrill voice." This word comes to us from from Irish caoinim "I weep, wail, lament."
Words for two things that might perform the act of keening also come from Irish. A banshee is a spirit who would wail to warn of impending death, and is often used derogatorily for someone who likes to scream a lot. The Irish is bean sidhe "Female of the Elves," which breaks down to bean "female" and sith "fairy" or sid "fairy mound." Interestingly, the word banshee is an approximate spelling of how the pronunciation of the Irish sounds. Another keening supernatural spirit is the wraith, a word we got from Scottish. The origins of this word are uncertain, but one theory derives it from Gaelic arrach, "specter, apparition".
With their keening cries, these spirits are liable to destroy anything in their path, merely with their piercing screams. Although it may not be too much solace if this happens to you and you are stuck with a pile of rubble where your house used to be, the Irish have given us a great word for total destruction as well. Smithereens, a word most commonly preceded by "blown to," is a fantastic word for a less-than-fantastic situation. This word for the broken remains after a cataclysmic event comes from smiddereens, from smidirin, which is a form of smiodar, "fragment."
We associate St. Patrick's Day with abundance of all kinds, including throngs of people at various parades, so it is only fitting that two English synonyms for "a lot" have Irish beginnings. If you want to describe something great in number, you might say you have a slew of them. This word comes from sluagh, "a host, a crowd, a multitude." One of the few adjectives in English that comes after a noun, galore is also a word that means "many", as in "The store has 'kiss me I'm Irish' buttons galore! Take your pick." The Irish origin is go leor, which literally means "'til plenty." We have reasons galore to celebrate this St. Patrick's Day and one of the gifts the Irish gave us — the gift of words.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper