The Words We Use


J. GALLAGHER of Deramore Park South, Belfast, wrote to ask about the word marmalade. He has heard that it has connections with Mary Queen of Scots.

There may be some folkloric connection with the poor woman, but marmalade is from the Middle French marmelade, from Portuguese marmelada, from marmelo, quince, from Latin melimelum, from Greek melimelon, a word composed of meli honey, and melon apple.

Micheal O Maille from Cullina, Beaufort, Co Kerry reminds me of the word spadhar, pronounced spire, more or less, used by Liam O Muirthile in a beautiful piece he wrote recently about the Munster Blackwater. This Irish word for the reeds used by thatchers is an importation. The English is spire, a name given to various coarse kinds of rush or sedge, the thatchers' Phragmites communis. One glossary of New Forest words speaks of spire-beds, "places where the spires or shoots of the reed-canary grass grow . . . that are used by plasterers and thatchers in their work". Spire is an old word. It's in The Owl and the Nightingale, written about 1225; it speaks of "spire and grene segge".

Mr O Maille also sent the word birl, heard in Glenflesk, near Killarney, Co Kerry. It means a trip or a short quick journey there. I'm surprised to find this word so far south. It's onomatopoeic, and Scots in origin, and is found all over Ulster in the senses to spin, to go fast. "Give it a birl", means give it a try, in places I know near Glenties, Co Donegal.

There is another birl still in use in Donegal, and for all I know in other places in Ulster. To be on the birl means to be "on the batter". This may be connected with the spinning motion associated with over-indulgence; I don't think so, however.

Birl, also written birle and burl, is found all over Scotland and the north of England in the sense to pour out liquid, to pass it around, to ply somebody with drink. It also means to go "on the tear". A lady in Scott's Minstrelsy birled a man with her ale and wine. In St Ronan, the same writer has "he gaed down to birl it away at their bonnie bottle". I've heard birler near Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal. Now this birl is not related at all to the spinning, travelling birl. It's from Old English byrlian, to pour out, to give to drink; hence the Old Norse byrla.