Tag Archives: leipreachán

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: Amazon.co.uk: 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!

A Quick Update

There is quite a lot of news to report. Firstly, Murchadh Mór has posted an alternative to the Rubber Bandits’ silly piece of Cassidese nonsense in Nós (http://nos.ie/gniomhaiochas/teanga/na-rubberbandits-an-ghaeilge/) and on Facebook. What he has done is to give a number of words that really do come from Irish. I hope that this will have some effect and that it will be spread the way the original list of nonsense derivations has been spread.

I’m not sure if it will, for one very simple reason. The original list, along with the rest of Daniel Cassidy’s book, is full of words for which nobody would ever have suspected an Irish origin. Longshoreman from Irish loingseoir? Really? Sucker comes from Irish sách úr? What? Wanker from uath-anchor? That’s amazing!! Except Cassidy’s claims are all lies and nonsense, a concoction of fake Irish and deliberate distortion. The list given by our friend Murchadh Mór is considerably less ball-grabbing, simply because it’s actually true and because of that, the claims made are less bizarre and left-field.

I hope the Rubber Bandits will see sense and stop spreading this childish shite. We all know it’s rubbish (including the Bandits by now). And hell, it’s not as if myself or Murchadh Mór are implacable enemies of the Rubber Bandits and all they stand for. We’re not irate peasants standing here with blazing torches and pitchforks shouting “Aargh! Burn the rubber-faced spawn of Lucifer!” In terms of political and social opinions, I doubt if you could get a Rizla paper between us. I was posting happily in support of Liam Hogan months before any of this stuff came up on Twitter and I reckon most of our opinions coincide closely. Plus much of their material is actually very funny. It’s just that in this case, they’re peddling fake news and supporting a bunch of liars and I’d rather they didn’t.

As a result of the controversy over the RBs’ tweet, the number of hits on this site has spiked. Every year, the number of visitors and hits has surpassed the year before. This year, the number of visitors outstripped last year’s figure about a month ago and just today, we surpassed the number of hits we achieved last year. Which means that more and more people have now been informed about Cassidy’s nonsense, thanks to this blog and to others with a sense of responsibility and a love of the language like Murchadh Mór and Ciara Ní Aodha.

Finally, I would like to point out that someone has commented on the derivation of the term leprechaun. Apparently an Italian academic suggested that lúchorpán (small-bodied creature) is not the genuine origin of later terms like leipreachán. His idea, given in an article in the Cambrian Journal of Celtic Studies, is that it derives from the Latin Lupercus, the Roman version of Pan whose festival was the famous Lupercalia. I don’t know if he has any evidence for this and I really don’t care, because it doesn’t change the fact that the English word leprechaun comes from Irish. Its ultimate origins are completely irrelevant. Apparently the word Gael comes from a Welsh word meaning ‘wild man’ but there is no doubt that Gael and Gaelic entered English from Irish or Scottish Gaelic, not from Welsh, so we say that they are Gaelic loanwords in English. The ultimate derivation of the word is not relevant because how far back do you go and where do you stop? And after all, if the word lúchorpán is the correct origin, the chorp part of it is a loan from the Latin corpus anyway.

Leprechaun is absolutely, definitely an English word of Irish origin. It occurs in Irish first in the 14th century, where the lúchorpáin are found in the sea under Dundrum Bay in County Down, though that story is thought to be a rewriting of an earlier version. In English, it first occurs as ‘Irish lubrican’ in 1604. And I know that ‘hey, did you know that leprechauns aren’t Irish … they’re fucking Italian … I shit you not!!’ has a lot more wow factor than the truth. Unfortunately though, like many glittery little factoids, it happens to be a pile of utter shite garnished with iron pyrites, and some of us still care about not wasting our time with things like that.