The Irish words for ‘selfie’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘spam’
Or, if you need to discuss ‘earworms’ or ‘Klingons’ as Gaeilge, read on
Sinead Burke: she wanted a term in Irish for “little person” that was more appropriate for the 21st century. Photograph: Sara Freund
There’s no word in Irish for “eejit”. It’s true that we have amadáns, pleidhces and breallaires, but the word eejit has certain untranslatable qualities. It is clearly related to idiot, but it is not the same – in the process of being phoneticised to fit an Irish voice and retailored to suit Irish usage it has shed some of its harshness.
I’d call my nephew a feckin’ eejit, but never a f***ing idiot. If one were rendering Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel into English, no translator would consider idiot and eejit to be interchangeable. There’s a warmth there, a willingness to indulge or forgive the eejit that isn’t offered to the idiot.
This “English” word is an outlier because since I’ve started @theirishfor – a Twitter account where I look at unusual Irish words – I’ve come across a treasure chest of words in Irish whose magic isn’t replicated in an English translation.
I’ve listed some here, starting from the very old and coming right up to present day. I think you’ll find more than a few of these to be of great use in your daily life.
Athghnó – is one of the words found in Dinneen’s dictionary that was left out of subsequent lexicons. It means work that is be done again (because it wasn’t done right the first time). How have we survived without it?
Gadhrach – another word from Dinneen which would fit nicely into modern life. This one is an adjective describing someone who loves dogs or a place with lots of dogs. This word gets 12 out of 10 from me.
Faolshnámh – if someone moves with great style, perhaps this word might come in handy; it is defined as gliding (or swimming) like a wolf. Faol is one of a number of terms for a wolf in Irish, but my favourite is mac tíre; literally, a son of the country.
Dallchéim – an even older word, this one means a step into the dark, literally or figuratively.
Stadhan – another word with no exact match in English. A stadhan is a flock of birds hovering above a shoal of fish. Could this be the perfect group noun for an army of anonymous online bullies? There is a seanfhocal for the lynchmob mentality in Irish: nuair a chacann gé, cacann said go léir (when one goose poops, they all do).
Leamhach – a lovely but obscure word for a calm, safe patch at sea. This word could be brought back into common parlance as a term for a safe space.
Armchar – not to be confused with the very different English word “armchair”, this old but sadly relevant adjective describes someone who loves weapons.
Trumpadóir – literally a trumpeter, this can also mean an obnoxious loudmouth, someone you’d like to hear and see less of.
Loimic – we may consider waxing and other painful grooming rituals to be recent arrivals to this island, but the 1864 O’Reilly dictionary includes this word as “a plaster for taking off hair”.
Clannógach – this word describes someone with luxuriant, tressy hair (a clannóg is a single lock or tress). However, it can also mean someone who is sly or cunning. It’s possible that sometimes both meanings may apply to the same person, someone whose hair is full of secrets. If you want to avoid such confusion you might consider a neologism from Finnegans Wake: sfumastelliacinous, which describes hair full of pretty stars and beautiful shadows. Not an Irish word, but a word from an Irishman.
Cailín Domhnaigh – following on from the glamour of the last two words, this literally means a “Sunday girl”, and describes a gal who is lazy but very well turned out (all week long).
Rún – one of the shortest words in Irish is also one of the most poetic; rún can mean a mystery, a secret, a promise (a new year’s resolution is rún na hAthbhliana), a love or a secret love. You might remember this word from such programmes as Ros na Rún.
Seoraí – it just might be the most Irish word in the Irish language; it means the flourishes and stylish additional details in storytelling. They may not be essential to the plot, but they’re the reason that two people tell a story but one tells it better.
Aimliú – on reflection, maybe this is the most Irish word in the language. It means “ruined by bad weather”.
Taibhseoir – this is someone who might use seoraí; it’s a word for someone who tells ghost stories. A taibhse is one of the words for a ghost; taibhseach means pretentious or showy. Speaking of which…
Féinspéisí – this means someone who’s really, really into themselves. On an unrelated note, a féinín is a selfie.
Buachrapaire – this is the Irish word for a boa constrictor. We famously don’t have snakes in Ireland, so it is a relatively recent term. Whoever coined it deserves a round of applause because it contains a lovely double meaning: bua + chrapaire means “gifted crusher” whereas buach + rapaire means “victorious wrapper”. However, a feather boa is a muince chleití, which literally means a feather necklace.
Éistphéist – this is the Irish word for an earworm, a snatch of music that you can’t get out of your head. Éist means listen, péist means a worm or monster. Serendipitously, they rhyme.
Tliongánach – it is the Irish word for Klingon. It’s nice to know that when translating this one, the care was taken to recognise that “Klingon” is an exonym (a word that outsiders use to describe a place or people) and identify that language’s own word for itself (tlhIngan) and base the transliteration on that. This stands up well compared to a science fiction neologism such as Jedíoch (Jedi), which doesn’t even replace that unsightly J.
Jeighbh – speaking of unsightly Js, this is the Irish word for jive. The original Irish alphabet had 18 letters, with a partial thawing of attitudes towards the other eight (J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y, Z) from the middle of the 20th century. When you look at the effort they went into to replicate the V sound without using the verboten letter, it makes you wonder why they left the J untouched. There’s a popular urban myth suggesting that De Valera insisted on the inclusion of V in Irish to accommodate his own name. It has also been suggested, more plausibly, that the inclusion of these letters is sometimes a shady comment on the new word itself - trivial, modern fripperies like tvuít (tweet), veasailín (vaseline) or vótáil (voting).
Turscar – when coining a phrase for spam (the unwanted email rather than the notorious canned meat), a decision was made to see if there was an existing word in Irish that conveyed the idea of unwanted, useless stuff being delivered without invitation. As it happens turscar, one of the 31 words for seaweed in Irish, specifically refers to dead seaweed deposited on the beach by the retreating waves. Foirfe!
Breatimeacht – this is the controversial Irish word for Brexit, a portmanteau of Breatain (Britain) and imeacht (leaving). While it follows the form of the source word closely, some critics have pointed out that translation offers the opportunity for correction – it’s the UK that’s leaving, not the geographical entity of Britain. This has led to Sasamach being more popular in some quarters (Sasana, England, amach, out). Others point out that Brexit means Brexit; “proper nouns” typically aren’t translated- for example, Black Lives Matter and the Home Sweet Home movements are referred to by their English titles on the nuacht.
Duine beag – one of the most recent additions to the Irish terminology database is the outcome of successful efforts by disability campaigner Sinéad Burke, who wanted a term in Irish for “little person” that was more appropriate for the 21st century than the unkind words of the past.