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10 Gaelic Loanwords to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

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It’s said that everyone gets to be a bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. In that case, it’s only fair that everyone has a few words of Irish Gaelic origin ready for the occasion. Irish Gaelic is a living language of the Celtic family, and today, there are an estimated 1.3 million habitual fluent speakers in the Republic of Ireland alone.

Centuries ago, the Old Irish language dominated Ireland as well as the Isle of Man and roughly half of Scotland. Since the Middle Ages, Gaelic languages have endured gradual reduction from encroaching English—clinging to the fringes of the British Isles and developing into separate Gaelic languages, of which Irish Gaelic is just one. Irish may have been on the road to extinction, but in the 1800s, an Irish literary revival began to inspire Irish inhabitants to cherish their language and care about its future. After Irish independence in the 1920s, laws were enacted to preserve daily use and teach the language to future generations of Irish citizens.

On account of conquest, commerce, and immigration over hundreds of years, the English and Irish languages have mingled together and intertwined. From all this contact, a set of curious and often cheeky vocabulary has found its way into the English vernacular. The list below, spanning from the firmly grounded to the loftiest of the poetic, will enliven any type of St. Paddy’s Day revelry.

1. Brogue

Derived from the Gaelic word for shoe, this noun in English today has two meanings. The first, used to describe a fashion of perforated leather shoes, recalls the style employed by Gaels to allow water to drain out of their shoes while traversing soggy bogs. The second, slang for an Irish or Scottish accent, is assumedly derived from the former.

2. Hooligan

A term for a participant in rowdy, raucous behavior, this term derives from the Gaelic surname Ó hUallacháin (anglicized as O'Houlihan). Though the exact reason is unknown, one doesn't need to delve too deeply into Irish stereotype to imagine how a surname could become shorthand for such mischief.

3. Banshee

This mythical female spirit is an omen of death in Irish folklore. To “howl like a Banshee” is to induce the same legendary spine-tingling terror. Banshee is a compound which correlates to the modern Irish for woman (bean) and fairy (sídh).

4. Gob

The common English term gobble derives from this noun meaning “mouth,” or literally, “beak.” In Ireland, the term gobshite remains a common (though impolite) term for someone who talks a lot of nonsense.

5. Galore

When typical quantity-descriptors just don’t quite cut it, the Irish phrase go leor literally translates as “to sufficiency.” Ceart go leor remains a common response in modern Irish meaning “alright” or “good enough.”

6. Slew

Irish is not shortchanged of ways to describe plenty. This one comes from the Irish sluagh, meaning “a large crowd,” often used in reference to armies. If even that doesn’t suffice, add an augmentative prefix for mórshlua, a multitude or great host.

7. Slogan

Sluagh injects itself into English yet again with this term, deriving from sluagh-ghairm, the battle-cry of an amassed army. The first English attestment of its modern usage dates back to 1704.

8. Smithereens

As in “blasted into smithereens,” the root-word “smithers” may have been loaned from English. However, the original smidiríní carries a classically Irish diminutive suffix. If the original root-word was in fact English, this term has thus traveled full-circle.

9. Smidgen

Possibly related to smithereens, we take this term from the Gaelic smidean/smitch, or “a very small amount.” A phrase more commonly heard at a bar than on a battlefield.

10. Whiskey (or Whisky)

The word for this beloved drink is derived from uisce beatha, which translates literally as “the water of life.” With such pure poetic cheer, it’s no wonder St. Paddy’s Day has such universal appeal.

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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YouTube, Hélio Surdos
How a Deaf-Blind Person Watches the World Cup
YouTube, Hélio Surdos
YouTube, Hélio Surdos

Brazilian Sign Language interpreter Hélio Fonseca de Araújo woke up on the day before the opening of the World Cup in 2014 thinking about how he could help his friend Carlos, who is deaf and blind, get access to all the excitement. So he hit the hardware store, rigged up a tabletop model of the field, and enlisted his friend Regiane to provide extra interpretation for all the complex information that needs to come through in a game. He recently brought the setup out again for this World Cup.

Here you can see Carlos watching the Brazil vs. Croatia match live, while Hélio provides Brazilian Sign Language interpretation (which Carlos follows by feeling it with his own hands—this is called tactile signing), and Regiane relays information about fouls, cards, times, and player jersey numbers with social-haptic communication on Carlos’s back.

This is the moment in the second half when it appeared that Brazil had scored a goal, but a foul was called. Hélio later makes sure Carlos can see how Neymar covered his face with his shirt.

And here is Coutinho’s game-turning goal for Brazil.

If you're wondering why Carlos occasionally looks at the screen, many deaf blind people have some residual sight (or hearing). Many deaf-blind people become fluent in sign language as deaf people, before they begin to lose their sight.

See the entire video at Hélio’s YouTube channel here.

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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