Deer God – Frank McNally on the dramatic surge in popularity of the girl’s name Fiadh
Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The stand-out feature of that new most-popular-baby-names list from the Central Statistics Office, surely, was the rise from nowhere of Fiadh. Well, not quite from nowhere. There’s been a buzz about Fiadh on Mumsnet for a while, and as long ago as 2015, I see, the website dailyedge.ie had it at number 4 in a list of Ireland’s “definitive hipster baby names”.
That must explain why, according to the CSO, it is now one of the two most popular girl’s names in Galway, the county which is by tradition home to the Twelve Tribes of Hipsterism.
But the bad news for hipsters is that the name now seems to have gone mainstream: crashing the CSO’s Top 10, up from 21 the year before.
No doubt the parents of all these Fiadhs will know that the name is Irish for both “deer” and “wild”.
Fewer of them, I suspect, know that it was also an older word meaning “God”, and that therein lies the explanation for a curious expression in Hiberno-English. I mean the one whereby, when referring to some mystery unanswerable to humankind, we say: “dear knows”.
Actually, now I think of it, that phrase is also used to mean the opposite: something that everyone knows, up to and including the Supreme Being. This is the sense in which the sighing mother of James Joyce’s Dubliners uses it, viz: “Ah, well! We did our best, the dear knows.” So also Flann O’Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds: “The dear knows your father worked hard enough for the money he is laying out on your education.”
In all cases, it seems, the expression arose from a confusion in Irish between the words for God and deer. Which as Terry Dolan puts it in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English, was “carried over into English, where ‘deer’ was then corrected to ‘dear’ to make better sense”.
Dolan goes on to quote the aforementioned example from Dubliners. He also cites Finnegans Wake, in which the author typically corrects the correction in search of a pun: “the deer knowed where she’d marry”.
Of course, as well as being a pun – and excuse me for sounding like a Joycean scholar here – that last line is also a clear reference to an old song, of Irish or Scottish origin, called I Know Where I’m Going.
The ballad is still popular in Ulster, especially, although it long ago crossed the Atlantic, to be recorded by among many others the Weavers, Harry Belafonte, and Odetta.
This has added an international dimension to the deer/God confusion, because the opening verse goes as follows: “Well, I know where I’m goin’/And I know who’s goin’ with me,/I know who I love,/But the dear knows who I’ll marry.”
In efforts to explain that last sentence, some would-be song historians have gone to the other extreme among supernatural know-alls – the devil, and his Scots abbreviation de’il – by way of suggesting that “dear” was an soundalike attempt to clean up the lyric.
In fact, the song posed a bigger potential diplomatic incident via another verse, which in the original begins: “Some say he’s black,/But I say he’s bonny”.
As we know, in Ulster, “black” is not necessarily a racial reference. It’s sectarian, if anything, whereas in the song, it meant only “dour” or “gruff”. But this would have been lost in American translation, so in Odetta’s version, for example, “black” became “bad”.
We might note here in passing that I Know Where I’m Going inspired a classic British film of the same title (1945), in which a young English woman travels to the Scottish islands in search of love, and encounters such complications as the notorious Corryvreckan Whirlpool, off the Isle of Mull, where a real-life George Orwell nearly drowned.
That doesn’t add anything to our case for explaining the deer/God confusion, except perhaps as a warning. If not a dangerous whirlpool, etymology can be a slippery thing, in which little is certain.
I’m reminded of a spectacular bilingual pun on that subject by Myles na gCopaleen, who once referred to something as a Fiasco, or in Irish Fiadh-Eascú (meaning “wild eel”).
So I won’t wrestle any further with this subject today. Instead, I’ll just wish every luck to the parents of Fiadhs, and of course to the little deers themselves.
Whether they’re named after God or wildlife, the main thing is that they’re healthy.
Mind you, as one final word of caution, I might also point out that in Donegal English, “wild deer” can also mean “extremely expensive”.