Writer and broadcaster who lived for words

Diarmaid Ó Muirithe: November 11th, 1935 - July 11th, 2014

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:00

“Language . . . isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place,” observed novelist Jeanette Winterson. It was the great gift of lexicographer Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, who has died aged 78, that he could rummage around in two principal languages and countless dialects, holding up words and phrases and teasing out what they mean to us.

He knew that the study of words was far too important to leave to academics. So Ó Muirithe, a distinguished lexicographer and etymologist, took the discussion to the people and conducted it with them over more than 20 years through a weekly column in The Irish Times.

This was a conversation, not a lecture. A trade unionist asked how some workers get the sack, while others are fired. Answer: In medieval times a tradesman carried his tools around in a sack. At the end of the job, he was handed his pay and his tools. If he misbehaved, he was given the sack. If he misbehaved badly he was dismissed and his tools burned. Hence fired.

Another reader drew his attention to a woman who described her husband as a craicealaí (cracked or mad) and reminded us of the child “with a smut on her face”, meaning a sulky, protruding lower lip. In Donegal, the phrase Domnach na Smut, the first Sunday of Lent, recalled the sulky expressions of women without men.

Passion for words Ó Muirithe met actress Joanna Lumley at a lunch for contributors to the Oldie, a British magazine, and they discovered a shared passion for words. Together they challenged the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary, who said the word “fad” was of unknown origin. She, a child of the British Raj, maintained it came from the Malagasy language of the Malay peninsula. They won. This week she mourned the passing of an old friend who was “humorous, learned, courteous, flamboyant, optimistic, occasionally mad and extremely good company”.

The eldest of five children of Seán Ó Muirithe and Éilis Nolan, he was born in Priory Street, New Ross, Co Wexford. His father was a national teacher, who won prizes for singing the 17th-century songs of his native Munster. His love of language began with Gaelic, and it was noted that he spoke the pure Irish of his father’s birthplace, Ballyvourney, in southwest Cork.

He trained as a primary teacher at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, where John McGahern was a fellow student. In the Ierne ballroom in Parnell Square he met Mary Gallagher from Donegal and they married. He taught at primary level for 10 years in Wexford and Kilkenny. Chafing at the rigidities of the system – being docked a day’s pay for taking his pupils to see a play in Irish was the last straw – he returned to Dublin.