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Modern Words from Medieval Ireland

By Sharon Arbuthnot, Research Fellow in the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen's University Belfast

In this post, Sharon takes us on a fun exploration of etymology and medieval Irish words ahead of her Being Human event. Have a read and explore the 'Words You Didn't Know You Needed'. 

Every so often we all find ourselves engaged in a convoluted explanation of what seems a simple point and thinking how great it would be to have a single word or short phrase that could encapsulate all we wished to say. Recently, the BBC website actually highlighted some novel expressions in other languages that have no counterpart in English but certainly could prove useful in the right circumstances. French l’espirit d’escalier is a perfect example; meaning literally ‘staircase wit’, this refers to coming up with a fitting retort only after the opportunity to deliver it has passed.

Our Being Human event, ‘Words You Didn’t Know You Needed’, looks not to another modern language but to medieval Irish as a source of succinct and sometimes colourful terms which are still appropriate for modern-day situations. Some of the words and phrases that we will be focussing on continue in Modern Irish, though they may be barely recognisable today owing to semantic shifts and changes in spelling conventions. Most, however, seem either to have been short-lived innovations connected with specific technological and historical developments, or to have fallen out of use as the social and legal spheres to which they belonged disappeared from view. Together, they act as useful illustrations of the richness of medieval Irish and offer invaluable insights into how the people who used this language approached and made sense of the world in which they lived. In the course of our event, these words will serve also as starting-points for discussion of broader concepts of language renewal, obsolescence and change.

Without giving too much away, we will be introducing a number of intriguing and, hopefully, entertaining expressions such as ól Pátraic ‘St Patrick’s measure’, an amount of liquid equivalent to the fill of 1728 egg-shells; bánbéim ‘a white blow’, that is, one which does not draw blood; and sál tre assae ‘heel through shoe’, that particular type of baldness which affects only the crown of the head. These are mainly words and phrases which came to our attention in the course of research aimed at updating the Dictionary of the Irish Language. The dictionary was digitised in 2007 and is freely available online, but the contents still reflect work carried out mostly in the early part of the twentieth century. By combing through manuscripts and published editions, we have uncovered previously unrecorded words, excised ghost words, revised definitions and added new senses and usages. Early in 2019, the 5,000 or so corrections that we have generated over the past five years will be incorporated into the online version of the dictionary and new information on words relating to wildlife, medicine, law, linguistics, religion and society will be accessible not only to scholars working in early Irish and related fields such as history, archaeology and folklore, but also to more general users who can search the dictionary by inputting English terms that appear in definitions and translations.

So, if you are interested in browsing through linguistic fragments of the past and helping us breathe new life into terms that haven’t been said in earnest in centuries but some day might be just the word you needed, please join us for what promises to be a fun and informative evening, during which you will have the opportunity to learn a few phrases of early Irish, ask questions and vote in a real-time ‘Ask the Audience’ poll.