The Words We Use

Not long ago a Co Down farmer of my acquaintance asked me about the word elder, which is common in Ireland in place of the udder…

Not long ago a Co Down farmer of my acquaintance asked me about the word elder, which is common in Ireland in place of the udder of a cow or mare. One word led to another, and we eventually got talking about real or imagined diseases in animals and the words connected with them.

Elder found its way into W.H. Patterson's glossary of Antrim and Down words, collected in 1880. The Ballymena Observer of 1892 has it as well. In the southeast, Patrick Kennedy, in his Fireside Stories of 1870 has: "A cow with her poor elder so full that it was trailing on the ground." The word is found all over Scotland, and in England from the border counties as far south as Leicestershire and the West Country. It is from Middle Dutch elder, "a teate, a mamme or a dugge", according to Henry Hexham's Copious English and Netherduytch Dictionarie of 1647, recently republished in facsimile. Udder is not a related word. It is found in Old English, in a tract dated 1000, as uder, the Old Norse form is jugr, the Middle Dutch is uyder.

The conversation led to the fairies and their place in farming. My friend had heard of the terms elf-shot and elf-stones, though they were not in his personal vocabulary. Elf-shot is known in the North. Carleton tells us that "if a man had a sick cow, she was elfshot". What he meant was that she had been struck with little flint arrows, called elf-shot, by the fairies. Scott in his Minstrelsy says that the approved cure is to chafe the parts affected with a blue bonnet. In Munster, the flint arrows used by the fairies to cause disease were called elf-stones, Crofton Croker tells us in his Fairy Legends. In Wexford in the old days an elf-bolt was said to be the cause of disease in both cattle and humans. Bronte has this word in Wuthering Heights. Small world. The Anglo-Saxon Leechdoms of about 1000 has ylfa gescot as the name of a disease caused by the little pests.

Cowans are even more dangerous creatures. They live in fresh water lakes in the north, and carry off cattle. They look like enormous seals; hence their name, from Scots cowie, a seal. The word, Macafee's Concise Ulster Dictionary tells me, may be from the Scots cow, "to poll" (because it has no visible ears), and is itself from Old Norse kollr, a shaven head. And southern farmers think they have problems.