Tag Archives: Gaeilge

A Wren Pissing In The Sea

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called Gosh Darn It, Danny in which I said that a bit more nonsense on IrishCentral would be – as we say in Irish – like a wren pissing in the sea. (Mar mhún dreoilín san fharraige.) Jeremy Butterfield, an expert lexicographer and linguist, commented that it was a great expression and that he would squeeze it into English conversations whenever he had the opportunity. Then, a year or two later, I learned that the Welsh use the same idiom (fel piso dryw bach yn y môr). This started me wondering where the expression originally came from, so I decided to do a little research.

Strangely, one of the oldest known proverbs in history is very similar to this idiom. It is found in the Sumerian language: The fox, having urinated into the sea, said: ‘The depths of the sea are my urine!’

However, this Sumerian expression doesn’t seem to have left any direct mark on the world’s languages and it is not until a few hundred years ago that we find it in contexts where it is more likely to have spread into Irish or Welsh. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, a similar expression is found in a 1590 work (Deviz Familiers) by the French writer Gabriel Meurier:  peu ayde, disçoit le formy, pissant en mer en plein midy’. (A little helps, said the ant, pissing in the sea in broad daylight’.) Within a few years, a similar expression was recorded in English, in a letter from a man called Philip Gawdy to his brother, but in the Gawdy version, the ant has become a wren and he omits the word piss (bycause the wrenn sayde all helpte when she … in the sea).

In other words, this is an expression that seems to have formerly existed in a number of European languages that interacted regularly with one another: French, English, Irish and Welsh. However, it seems to have been lost in English and probably in French. Why this should be is a mystery, as it is a good expression.

When I looked at this question, it reminded me of another phrase which I found beautiful when I began learning Irish in my early teens, the phrase bóín Dé (little cow of God) which is the usual term for the insect known as a ladybird or ladybug in English. I later learned that phrases with the same meaning are found in many of the Slavic languages (boża krówka in Polish, Божья коровка in Russian) and I wondered why. The answer is, of course, that this was formerly widely spread throughout many European languages. In English, it was known as Godyscow in Middle English and in French it was vache de Dieu. Gradually, other expressions, mostly to do with the Virgin Mary, have supplanted these names in many European languages, leaving Irish and the Slavic east with what looks like a special connection, whereas in reality what we have today are just the remnants of something far more extensive.

If you are the kind of person who enjoys etymology and word history, you will find a lot more of it (and much better researched) over at Jeremy Butterfield’s blog: https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com.

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!

A Recommendation/Moladh

A while back, I bought a copper photo etching from talented New Zealand artist Chris O’Regan. I had intended to write about it before now but I’m only just getting around to it. Anyway, the picture took a while to make its way from the Land of the Long White Cloud to Ireland but I was really delighted with it and I promised Chris that I would give him a bit of publicity here.

The effect of the picture is very unusual. According to Chris himself, the etching process involved uses a polished copper surface where the etched areas are treated with a patina (a chemical) that permanently turns the recessed areas black and brown and the unetched areas are left with the copper shining through. The image will literally last hundreds of years because of the way it was made. It came in a tasteful and elegant wooden frame.

Chris has done several of these pictures. My picture is of Brian O’Nolan (otherwise known as Flann O’Brien or Myles na gCopaleen).

The picture is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest of Irish writers. As I am a Flannatic and a Mylesian, I am delighted to have such an attractive image of my favourite writer on prominent display in my house.

However, there is a special reason why I notice this picture every day as I go past it. Anyone who has ever lived near the sea will know that a seascape is never the same from one hour or one day to the next. As with the sea, the fact that this picture has a reflective copper surface means that it is always different depending on the light filtering in from outside. It is muted on a dark, cloudy day, while on a sunny day, the image of the great man’s face stands out and captures your attention.

If you are looking for an unusual and tasteful ornament for your home, or a different and special gift for someone who loves Irish culture and literature, check out Chris’s website here:

Home – Celtic Art Dagda Metalwork

Tamall beag ó shin, nuair a bhí an phaindéim i mbarr a réime, cheannaigh mé eitseáil ghrianghraif chopair ó ealaíontóir cumasach ón Nua-Shéalainn darb ainm Chris O’Regan. Bhí sé ar intinn agam scríobh ar an ábhar seo roimhe seo ach idir rud amhain agus rud eile níor éirigh liom é a dhéanamh go dtí anois. Thóg an pictiur tamall maith lena bhealach a dhéanamh ó Thír an Scamaill Fhada Bháin go hÉirinn ach b’fhiú go mór fanacht air. Bhí mé agus tá mé thar a bheith sásta leis agus gheall mé do Chris go dtabharfainn giota beag poiblíochta dó ar an bhlag.

Ta cuma thar a bheith neamhchoitianta ar an íomhá. De réir Chris féin, baineann an próiseas eitseála usáid as dromchla snasta copair ar a ndéantar na hachair eitseáilte a chóireáil le paitean (ceimiceán) a thiontaíonn na codanna ionsuite dubh agus donn agus fágtar na codanna neamheitseáilte gan athrú. Mairfidh an íomhá na céadta bliain mar gheall ar an dóigh a ndearnadh í. Ní hamháin sin, ach tháinig an pictiúr i bhfráma breá galánta.

Tá dornán de na pictiúir seo déanta ag Chris. An pictiúr atá agamsa, is de Bhrian Ó Nualláin é (ar a dtugtar fosta Flann O’Brien nó Myles na gCopaleen).

Ómós cuí atá ann do dhuine de na mórscríbhneoirí is fearr de chuid na tíre seo. Tá dúil as cuimse agamsa i saothar Myles agus tá mé thar a bheith sásta íomhá chomh galánta tarraingteach den scríbhneoir is fearr liom a bheith ar taispeáint in áit fheiceálach sa teach s’agamsa.

Ní hamháin sin, ach tá fáth ar leith a dtugaim an pictiúr seo faoi deara agus mé ag dul thart leis gach lá. Duine ar bith a bhí ina chónaí cois farraige riamh, tuigfidh sé nó sí nach mbíonn muirdhreach mar an gcéanna ó uair go huair nó ó lá go lá. Agus mar a bhíonn i gcás na farraige, mar gheall ar an dromchla fhrithchaiteach lonrach ar an phictiúr copair, bíonn sé i gcónaí difriúil ag brath ar an tsolas ag síothlú isteach ón tsaol amuigh. Bíonn sé maolaithe ar lá scamallach dorcha ach nuair a bhíonn sé grianmhar amuigh, bíonn aghaidh an mhórscríbhneora le feiceáil go suntasach agus tá idir líonadh súl agus líonadh croí ann.

Má tá tú ag iarraidh maisiúchán neamhchoitianta toighseach a fháil don teach s’agat, nó bronntanas difriúil speisialta a cheannach do dhuine a bhfuil dúil aici nó aige i gcultúr agus i litríocht na hÉireann, mholfainn duit spléachadh a thabhairt ar shuíomh gréasáin Chris anseo:

Home – Celtic Art Dagda Metalwork

Cassidese Glossary – Sucker

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

The late Daniel Cassidy, in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that sucker (in the sense of stooge or naïve person) comes from the Irish sách úr meaning ‘a fresh, well-fed fellow’ or ‘fat cat’ ready to be fleeced.

As usual with Cassidy’s claims, the phrase sách úr is not found together (as noun and adjective) in any Irish text, so we will just have to examine the two constituent words to see if they could be used in this way.

Firstly, úr does mean fresh or new. Sách is primarily an adjective meaning sated, full, well-fed. Its main use in some dialects (though not in mine: we use measartha) is as an adverb, as the equivalent of words like ‘fairly’ or ‘pretty’ in English.

Bhí sé sách maith. (It was fairly good, good enough)

But in Cassidy’s phrase, the word sách is obviously a noun. In the Irish dictionaries (such as Ó Dónaill) there is a noun sách meaning a well-fed person and the word is familiar to almost all Irish speakers from the proverb Ní thuigeann sách seang, má thuigeann ní in am. (The well-fed do not understand the slender, if they do it’s too late.) But just because something is used as a noun in a proverb doesn’t mean you can use it as a noun in any circumstances. Proverbs have their own rules, in Irish and in English. For example, in English you can say “Only the good die young.” But you can’t say “*That man is a real good” or “*That family are really nice – they’re all goods!”

If you have any Irish, check out some uses of sách in this excellent website, Pota Focal –

http://www.potafocal.com/Search.aspx?Text=s%c3%a1ch&Lang=ga

There are lots and lots of references on Pota Focal where the word is being used as an adverb and at least one where it is a noun, but in that case it occurs with seang and is a clear reference to the proverb.

So, I am confident that sách would not be used as Cassidy says. Of course, we have to remember that Cassidy didn’t know any Irish at all. In Irish, there are plenty of expressions which could be used to mean gull or sucker: boigéisí; gabhdán; glasóg; mothaolaí, and Irish speakers would have used an expression like these rather than sách úr.

Cassidese Glossary – Stock

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

The late Daniel Cassidy, in his work of etymological fantasy, How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that stock, as in the phrase ‘a stock of a man’, comes from the Irish staic.

Stock, of course, means a tree-trunk and makes perfect sense as a description of a well-built man. This is an ancient word of Germanic origin. It is found in Old English in the form stocc. Irish staic is a borrowing of the English word stack, which is of Old Norse origin.

Cassidese Glossary – Spree

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

According to Cassidy, the term ‘spree’ as in ‘a killing spree’ or ‘a spending spree’ derives from the Irish word spraoi. The word spraoi is certainly common in the Irish language and many Irish speakers believe it is an Irish word. It means ‘play’, as in bhí siad ag déanamh spraoi (they were playing). You can also say chuaigh siad ar an spraoi (they went on a/the spree).

However, there is no evidence for the existence of the word spraoi in Irish before the early twentieth century. Like the word craic (ceol agus craic), it is almost certainly a loan word which has become an intrinsic and important part of the language since it was borrowed little over a century ago.

If we look up the word spraoi or any variant of it in Corpas na Gaeilge (a database of over 7,000,000 words from the 17th to the 19th century), we find nothing. The same with eDIL, another online database. And Dinneen, the lexicographer who composed his dictionary in the early years of the 20th century, did not include the word at all.

In English, or rather Scots, the word spree is recorded as far back as 1804 with the meaning of ‘a pleasant outing’. Scholars of language speculate that it may ultimately derive from a Scottish Gaelic word which is a cognate of Irish spré (spréidh in the older spelling), meaning cattle, wealth or dowry, but spré isn’t recorded with the meaning of outing, drunken ramble or playing in Irish.

Cassidese Glossary – Snap (Cold)

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

Dinneen’s Irish dictionary gives various meanings for snab, including a snap, an end or fragment, a spell or turn (cf. “a cold snap”). The book also gives snap with the meaning “a snapping, a sudden assault or seizure.”

Daniel Cassidy, in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, claims that the word snap is originally an Irish word which was borrowed into English. While snap in the sense of a snapping, a sudden assault or seizure, a snap, an end or fragment is found in Irish, the evidence is very clearly in favour of this being an English word borrowed into Irish for a number of reasons.

There is no evidence for the existence of the word snap in Irish before the modern era. (You can check this on eDIL.) Furthermore, snap is recorded in the sense of a snap or sudden bite in English from the late 15th century, and probably derives from Dutch or Low German snappen. It is related to Germanic words like snout. Snap in the sense of a sudden change of the weather is a natural extension of snap in the sense of a sudden bite.

Cassidese Glossary -Skedaddle

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

In his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, the late Daniel Cassidy claimed that ‘skedaddle’ (meaning ‘to run off’) comes from the Irish sciord ar dólámh. Of course, as usual with Cassidy’s claims, sciord ar dólámh isn’t found in Irish. It isn’t a recognised phrase. It is not found in any song or poem or prose work. Cassidy invented it by putting together words he found in a dictionary. It might mean something like to rush with both hands. Even if it did exist, it wouldn’t sound much like skedaddle and there are plenty of well-known expressions in Irish which mean to run off or run away.

Furthermore, the experts tell us that skedaddle is an American version of an English dialect word scaddle, which also means ‘to run off.’ This word is actually attested and it is also found in the English of Ulster (according to the excellent Concise Ulster Dictionary).

Cassidese Glossary – Muck

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

The word muck is a term from poker. The muck is used to refer to the discarded cards that are no longer in play and if someone mucks their cards, they fold.

There is nothing mysterious or hard to understand about the etymology of this term. Muck is an ancient English term for dirt, derived from a Scandinavian word for dung, so when cards are out of play and no longer worth anything, they become the muck.

Cassidy implausibly (and unnecessarily) claims that it derives from the Irish word múch, which means to extinguish or smother. This is pronounced mookh (with the kh like the ch of Irish or Scottish loch), so it really sounds nothing like muck.

Cassidese Glossary – Heckle, Heckler

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

Heckling was part of the process of making linen out of flax. The fibres were flicked over a kind of comb over and over again to separate them, split them and remove impurities. The people who carried out this task were called hecklers.

In places like Dundee, the hecklers were often very radical. It is said that as they worked, one of their number used to read out articles from the newspapers and the others would shout out comments. This gave rise to the association between the trade of heckler and the shouting out of comments at a public meeting.

The late Daniel Cassidy, in his work of false etymologies How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the word heckle comes from an ‘Irish’ phrase éamh call, which he says means ‘Screaming out complaints; ranting, scolding’. The phrase éamh call does not exist in the Irish language. The two words Cassidy stuck together to make it do exist, but the phrase does not.

Éamh is defined as cry, scream, entreaty or complaint. Call (a loan from English) is defined as call, need, claim or right. It is hard to see how combining the two words would give the sense required. Complaint of rights? Scream of needs? Hmm.

The Irish language has many real ways of saying heckle or interrupt, like trasnáil a dhéanamh, trasnú, trioscadh, cur isteach ar chainteoir, briseadh isteach ar chainteoir.

Finally, even if we accepted that éamh call made sense, Cassidy’s éamh callaire for a heckler wouldn’t make any sense, for the same reason that an Irish speaker is not a Gaeilge cainteoir or a housewife is not a teach bean. It would have to be callaire éamh. As with cainteoir Gaeilge or bean tí, the other word appears in the genitive after the head word. This is a measure of how bad Cassidy’s Irish was.