A Note on the Word Geis

I had a message recently from David L Gold, a true language scholar and a long-term online friend of this blog. It was David who suggested providing a glossary devoid of invective against Cassidy and his enablers. David’s message is worth quoting in its entirety:

Who says that the compilers of the OED try to play down the influence of Irish on English? Here’s one of the entries from the edition of 1933, recently revised:

geis, n.

Pronunciation: /ɡɛʃ/ /ɡeɪʃ/ /ɡiːʃ/
Forms: Also gaysh, geas. Pl. geasa, geise.
Etymology: Irish.

In Irish folklore: a solemn injunction, prohibition, or taboo; a moral obligation.

1880 S. Ferguson Poems 63 This journey at this season was ill-timed, As made in violation of the gaysh.

1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 344 He thought he saw Gradh son of Lir upon the plain, and it was a geis (tabu) to him to see that.

1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 373 Every man who entered the Fenian ranks had four geasa (gassa, i.e., tabus) laid upon him.

1928 Observer 22 Jan. 5/4 Apparently a man could be either:—(1) Born under a ‘geis’ prohibiting certain actions on his part, or (2) Laid under ‘geis’ either at birth or any time during his life, either by divine or human agency.

1965 New Statesman 23 July 129/2 In a sense which most Irish people will know, this put Fallon under a geas, a moral compulsion, to say his bit.

David is entirely correct about this. The word geis is an interesting one, as it is a survival of ancient ideas about supernatural injunctions or taboos placed on people. The most famous example is probably Cú Chulainn, who was weakened sufficiently by being tricked into eating dog-meat that his enemies were able to destroy him. The word for a superstition in my dialect of Irish is geasróg, which comes from geis. (The more common word in southern Irish is pisreog, which is also common in Irish English as pishrogue.)

As David points out, there are many words like this in the mainstream dictionaries. There is no conspiracy to hide Irish influences on the English language, no sinister cabal of Anglophile academics trying to play down the role of the Irish in the linguistic history of America. It’s all pure nonsense!

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