The Words We Use

DELF, sometimes spelled delph, is a word extensively used in Ireland for earthenware and crockery

DELF, sometimes spelled delph, is a word extensively used in Ireland for earthenware and crockery. I have seen it written that this word is confined to Ireland, but this is not so. Its origin is the Dutch town of Delf, now called Delft, famous for its tableware since the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the excisemen were worried about `certain Goodes called DelphWare and Counterfeit China coming from Holland'.

Delf (the t was added to the town's name in Middle Dutch for no good reason) was named from the delf, ditch, by which the chief canal of the town is still known. Middle English has delf for ditch, from late Old English daelf trench, ditch, quarry, apparently from gedelf, digging, a digging, a ditch, from delfan, to delve or dig.

Delf, crockery, is very common still in Scotland and in England's North Country to Yorkshire. As far as I know Swift was the first Irishman to use the word in print. In his Poems to Stella at Woodpark, written in 1723, he has `A supper worthy of herself,/ Five nothings in five plates of delf.' Mary Phelan from Kilkenny wrote to ask about the word.

Not long ago a young woman from a Wexford travelling clan came this way looking for scrap, and assured me that I was looking frim. She kindly glossed the word for me, seeing my puzzled expression. `Frim, in good fettle, thriving', she said, and then added, `handsome', the minx. I had never heard the word , but it is in general dialect use in England where they also have the word in the following senses - of crops: luxuriant in growth, early, forward' of animals: `in heat' or `brimming' as they say where Shakespeare grew up, of bees: `about to swarm'. Has anybody heard this good word in Ireland? Its from Old English freme, cognate with fram, forward, advanced, bold. It's in Beowulf, I see.


And how about this beauty, sent to me by Breeda O'Brien from Santry, whose mother comes from Tramore. `Will ye look at the gite of her!', said her mother on seeing a picture of a nearnaked fashion model.

Gite is an extraordinary survival, still used in the south-west of England in the sense of dress. `A stately nymph Whose glittering gite so glinsed mine eyes', wrote Gascoigne in Philomena in 1576. Chaucer has `She cam after in a gyte of reed', in The Reeve's Tale. The Old French has guite, a hat.