Motherfoclóir: The Irish they didn’t teach you in school
Darach Ó Séaghdha, the man behind Twitter hit @theirishfor, shares his favourite words
Cumhracht: the smell of a man’s body after intercourse, this word was used to great effect in Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem Gan Do Chuid Éadaigh. Photograph: Getty Images
Since childhood, those Back To School ads have enraged and terrified me. I never understood why the kids in the posters were always smiling as they heralded the end of the summer holidays. Had they been brainwashed, or was someone dear to them being held hostage? Even as an adult, these ads provoke memories of the last weekend before the new term when we stood still, trying to do as much nothing as possible before the return of homework and ciúnas.
These feelings should have passed long ago, but school memories are especially potent. School is the place where we come to understand the rules of society and the workplace both written and unwritten. It’s often our first personal interaction with the State itself. But it’s also the place where some of our greatest friendships are made.
For a lot of people, their thoughts and feelings about the Irish language are intimately connected with their memories of school, and maybe Gaeilge is their Back To School ad. I’ve been trying to address those feelings with @theirishfor on Twitter and with the Motherfoclóir book and podcast.
In that spirit, I’ve found some Irish words that might be more suitable to the world beyond the classroom window.
This one means jockey and is a good example of the difference between school Irish (with its emphasis on correctness and aesthetics) and everyday spoken Irish in Gaeltacht areas (where loanwords are taken as required). With its similarity to the equivalent English term and that terribly arriviste J at the start, it’s easy to see why some speakers would prefer a term like eachaí or marcach for a jockey. It’s a matter of personal preference.
The smell of a man’s body after intercourse, this word was used to great effect in Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem Gan Do Chuid Éadaigh. During the high tide of Irish censorship before 1968, “provocative” texts written in Irish were sometimes given more leeway than English language ones – this resulted in the English translation of Merriman’s The Midnight Court being banned, but the Irish version being available.
An old one from Bishop O’Brien’s 1768 dictionary, this adjective describes someone “addicted to satires or lampoons”. While bards who composed satires were held in high regard in Ireland, Brehon Law set parameters for the kinds of satire that crossed the line and required compensation. Coining a nickname which stuck was deemed grounds for paying the victim’s honour price (libel was priced in accordance to your social standing in those days).
Another 18th-century one, this handy word describes a jet of milk gushing directly from a cow’s udder. Not to be confused with abha bán, which is saliva flowing in a white stream after accumulating in the mouth (possibly while asleep)… or ainbhlinn, the froth from the mouth of a decaying corpse.
This means purest gold; it translates literally as “red gold”… not to be confused with deargár, which means a carnival of bloodshed. Ár is a problematic term for slaughter as it can also mean “our”.
This one is from Dinneen’s Dictionary and means “the loneliness felt at cock-crow”, as opposed to aduantas an tsléibhe, which means the loneliness of the mountain.
This verb doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English; it means to smear something (or someone) with excrement.
This handy word refers to a patch of grass that has previously had a cowpat on it, and is still slightly embossed.
This is the Irish word for hemp and, as a synecdoche, can refer to a hempen rope. As such ropes were used for hangings, a gallows-bound person could be referred to as a cladhaire cnáibe (literally, a hemp fiend). Is a hemp fiend the same as a dope fiend? Maybe there was an overlap between the two, but the Irish colloquial term for cannabis is raithneach – literally, fern or bracken.
This word means a purring cat (you’ve probably heard ar mhaithe leis féin a dheineann an cat crónán – the cat purrs for its own good) and can also mean a person who enjoys organising and implementing pranks or hoaxes.
This adjective describes someone with a large bottom. If you don’t like it, Irish has other words to convey this idea; tónach (from tón, a bottom) is one, and giústa is a person who is either tónach or tiarpach.
Translating literally as badger’s horns, this is a figure of speech from old Irish equivalent to red herring or hen’s teeth – a thing that doesn’t actually exist and isn’t worth looking for.
This is another word from old Irish and it means the heads of decapitated enemies. The fact that this hasn’t been included in modern dictionaries is a sign of the times; in the distant past, these heads were often used as footballs or decorative ornaments. There is no connection that I am aware of between cendáil and the girl name Kendall.
With some dictionaries, the zebra crosses the finish line. Others let zygote have the last word. In Father Dinneen’s classic foclóir, the final entry is this one, a word that means buried treasure. It feels like an appropriate place to leave off, as there is so much buried treasure in the Irish language – words full of earthy poetry that hint at a whole other way of looking at the world. You may not have to dig too far to find it.
Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from @theirishfor by Darach Ó Séaghdha is published by Head of Zeus, at £10.99; the Motherfoclóir podcast is at headstuff.org/motherfocloir