More on the etymology of leprechaun

I have virtually stopped posting over the last few months, largely because I have other, more urgent, things to do and partly because I have said what I wanted to say about Cassidy, the gaggle of selfish and arrogant Irish and Irish-American twitterati who have supported him against all the evidence and the way that academia needs to start defending itself and its values against the growing tide of disinformation on the internet.

I don’t regret writing the blog and I’m glad it’s there as a resource for people with enquiring minds who want to know the truth about Cassidy and his insane theories but at the same time, I am happy to move on and do something else with my time. However, there are certain things I planned to do and just haven’t had the chance, so I will try to get them finished over the next month.

The first and most important of these jobs is to review the known facts about the etymology of the word leprechaun.

Last Christmas, I reviewed this book, which I praised and recommended, calling it a “beautifully produced and very interesting book on key words in the Irish language”:

A history of Ireland in 100 words: Arbuthnot, Sharon, Maire Ni Mhaonaigh, Toner, Gregory, McLaren, Joe: 9781911479185: Books

While I really liked this book, I happened to comment that I was very unsure about the supposed connection between leipreachán/leprechaun and Lupercus, which was lit on and made much of in reviews of the book at the time. The connection goes back to an article by a Celtic scholar called Bisagni. I commented here that I was unable to find a copy of this. A man called Martin very kindly sent a link to this article, Bisagni, Jacopo. 2012. “Leprechaun’: A New Etymology.” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies. Vol. 64. Winter. Pp. 47-84., and since then, I have intended to read and review it.

According to the scraps of information I had seen online, Bisagni was arguing that the Luperci, a kind of cult priesthood in ancient Rome associated with the Lupercalia festival, were associated with water and because of this, their name was used as the name of a class of aquatic supernatural beings in Irish mythology. After many centuries, the name Lupercii became Luprachán, and this was changed by folk-etymology to lúchorpán, which refers to a small body.

My initial scepticism was around the idea that the Lupercii were associated with water. The evidence for this is very slight, though some accounts talk about them jumping into water and swimming. And none of the accounts of Bisagni’s theory on line gave a clear statement of what evidence links Luperci to an aquatic race in Irish tradition.

However, having read the article by Bisagni, I think his idea certainly has value and that he has defended his position very well. Please note that while I am an Irish speaker, I am not a Celtic scholar, so my opinions are personal and limited by my own ignorance and I would recommend people to follow the link and read it for themselves.

There are three main arguments provided by Bisagni. Firstly, he demonstrates that versions like lupracán and lúchorpán are alternatives that are found as far back as the word has been in the language so there is no evidence that lúchorpán is the ‘original’ and that lupracán is a later variant.

Secondly, he throws doubt on the idea that lú- can be used as a prefix meaning a small thing. He shows that there are very few examples which (apparently) show this element in use and that even the examples we have are dubious.

Thirdly, he makes an excellent argument for the aspect that I found dubious. I won’t go into the details here (again, look at the original paper) but it is quite clear that Bisagni was not clutching at straws and that the argument that the Luperci were transformed into a mythical aquatic race in Irish tradition and could easily have been the origin of the Lupracáin is the strongest aspect of his argument.

I think he is quite probably right and that this is probably the strongest contender for the origin of our leprechauns, so hats off to Bisagni for a solid and very interesting piece of research and many thanks to Martin for providing the link and satisfying my curiosity!


2 thoughts on “More on the etymology of leprechaun

  1. David L. Gold

    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has adopted that etymology:

    Irish Gaelic leipreachán, from Middle Irish lupracá;n, luchrupán, luchorpán : probably alteration (influenced by lú-, small; see legwh- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots, and corp, body, from Latin corpus; see kwrep- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots) of Latin lupercus, member of the luperci, a group of Roman priests who during the Lupercalia ran up the Palatine from the Lupercal, the cave where a wolf suckled Romulus and Remus (probably from lupus, wolf; see wkwo- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots) + Irish -án, diminutive suffix.

    For the semantic development from luperci to leprechaun, it appears that the accounts of the luperci in classical texts were misunderstood by early Irish scholars, who believed the luperci to be a race of wolfmen and interpreted their run up the hill to be an escape from the Biblical flood by taking refuge in Ireland. This conception of a race of nonhuman beings inhabiting Ireland evolved into the folklore of the leprechaun [].

  2. Danielomastix Post author

    Hi David, Sorry about the delay in replying here. As is the case with the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, they find Bisagni’s case very credible but are not 100% convinced. EDIL gives a link to Bisagni’s article but also puts a question mark against it and the American Heritage Dictionary says ‘probably’. One thing is quite certain. Bisagni is doing exactly what a scholar should do. Researching carefully, finding a new angle and carefully and intelligently analysing the available facts without doctoring them or twisting them to ‘prove’ your conclusions. In other words, Bisagni is a genuine academic and scholar, unlike the late Daniel Cassidy!


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