One of the few Irish words that everyone in Ireland knows is amadán, "an idiot". They might know liúdramán too, which is "a wastrel or a lout, or a lazy-bones". It's appropriate that it's these nasty words that are most widely known, as Irish is particularly well-endowed with such slurs, insults and brickbats. It's built upon them, and not in any mean-spirited, vulgar way; the words have a warmth to them, and are not overly offensive.
The word lout, for example, is breillice. But can also be buailtíneach, claibhtéir, mulpaire, breoille, guilpín and closmar, to name just a few of the two or three dozen terms that can convey this idea. Presumably, it wasn’t that there were more scoundrels in Ireland long ago, but that living in such close proximity to one another led to the loutish aspect seeming more apparent.
Thus, there was need for words like caobhach, a lumpish person or a lout; ciolcán, a clumsy person or a lout; géibirne, a gawky person or a lout; sliastán, a lazy long-legged person or a lout; and daba, a clodish or loutish person.
More than malevolence, what they seek to express is the frustration of having to rely on one another for every aspect of life, from birth to burial. Everyone was tangled together in tight-knit communities in which we farmed, fished, fought and feasted as one. Having words like bathlach, a clumsy person or a lout, or ceamach, a ragged, tattered person or lout, helped people deal with the irritation in a light-hearted way.
Many of these terms aren’t so well-known anymore, but try saying enough of them and people will soon get a sense of what’s being conveyed.
In 2009 a former schools inspector from Mayo, Tomás Ó Fiacháin, published a dictionary of these words that describe a person's character or appearance. Cén Sórt É published by An Gúm contains almost 4,000 such terms, and the vast majority are negative.
To put this in context, most of us have only about 12,000 words in our entire vocabulary and Shakespeare managed to get by on 30,000 throughout his entire oeuvre. It’s fair to say the language is inordinately well-endowed with slurs.
There are 20 words to convey the concept of a lazy person, including almhastrach, drollaire, feádóir, leadaí, feamaire, crochadóir, díomhaoineach, learaire, leoiste, ránaí, rangadaró, seipléir, and ríste. But many of the juiciest words are just too nasty or crude to appear here in this politically correct era.
A significant proportion of the words gathered by Ó Fiacháin are aimed at women and while many are insulting to varying degrees, it appears as though they were not used by men. Or, at least not used by men in the company of women. They were words used by women in a jokey manner while working with other women weaving, pulling seaweed, gathering turf, fetching water, churning butter etc.
A hefty, strong woman could be described as an alaisceach, bambairne, rúpach, grátachán, plíomsach, ruarcán, giománach, among many others. There are also dozens more edgier words for women but, I wouldn’t dare list them here. I posted the word ráitseach “wanton woman, woman of loose morals, chatterbox or prattling person” on social media, and was immediately challenged to include an equivalent word for a man. It wasn’t hard, as Ó Fiacháin lists 13, including gráiscín, ríobóid, graostach, bodóg and adharcachán.
What use these words are to us now is unclear except that they do help put pay to the assumption that Irish is a pious, worthy language that has God or the Virgin Mary in every second sentence. Certainly, common daily greetings do often require a reference to one of the iconic figures of Christianity, and words like hopefully or fortunately are hard to translate without invoking the omnipotent Christian godhead, but don’t let that fool you. The truth is that Irish is as slanderous, scabrous and muck-mouthed a language as any you’ll find. And it has more apt and accurate insults than you could ever need.
In an attempt to offer people a flavour of these, I selected 42 mildly nasty words and asked Korean artist Antic-Ham to illustrate the type of characters she imagined they described. She has now assembled these into an art book with her partner, Francis Van Maele, with whom she runs the tiny publishing house, RedFoxPress, from a clifftop cottage beneath Slievemore in Dugort, Achill Island.
The handmade books of RedFoxPress are closer to works of art. Each is printed, assembled and hand-bound on the kitchen table of their home, overlooking the Atlantic, and they are printed in small editions of no more than 200 copies, each individually numbered. Some of RedFoxPress's art-books are to be found in the greatest art collections in the world, including MOMA, Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and Gutenberg Museum. My hope is that some of these distinguished galleries and museums will acquire our little book and thus have Irish words to describes lazy, untidy, listless people (broghais), or mangy, wretched people (clamhaire) or irresponsible, flagrant carousers (drabhlásaí) in their permanent collections. I fantasise about how proud the great champions of the Gaelic League, such as Douglas Hyde and Patrick Pearse, would be at this recognition of our native language, though I could well be deluding myself.
Dána Gránna – Nasty Words for People is available from mayobooks.ie or redfoxpress.com
Cold-blooded lethargic sit-by-the-fire person.
A lazy person who dawdles by the fireside.
Soft, flabby, person.
A slovenly person.
Greedy, gluttonous, person.
Heavy drinker. Swiller. Silly gabbler.
A slow, awkward workman. Shuffler.
Layabout. Idler. Sluggard.
Patch of green scum in sea.
A low person.
Creeper or crawler.
A thin, lanky, gritless person.
Untidy, slovenly, person.
Careless, slap-dash worker.