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28 Weird and Wonderful Irish Words

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Around 1 million people in Ireland—as well as 20,000 people in the United States—can speak Irish. It’s an ancient and unfamiliar-looking language in the Celtic group, making it a linguistic cousin of other ancient languages like Welsh, Scots, Manx, and Breton. To English speakers though, it’s a tough language to master. It has a relatively complex grammar that sees words inflected in an array of different contexts ignored in English. It uses a different word order from English that places the verb, rather than the subject, at the head of the clause. And it uses an alphabet traditionally comprising just 18 letters, so words are often pronounced completely differently from what an English speaker might expect. Depending on the context, for instance, a B and H together, bh, make a “v” sound, while a G followed by an H, gh, is usually pronounced like the Y in yellow.

Irish also has a fantastically rich vocabulary that extends far beyond the handful of Irish words—like sláinte, craic and fáilte—that have found their way into English. Here are 28 weird and wonderful Irish words we could really do with importing into English.

Note: True Irish pronunciation is hard to replicate in English, not least because Irish has so many local variations and uses several sounds not normally found in English. But for more information on how to pronounce these words, check out the University of Dublin’s online Irish speech synthesizer here.

1. ADHARCÁILÍ (“ay-er-KOH-li”)

The Irish verb adharcáil means “to gore” or, in relation to animals like bulls or goats, “to attack with horns.” The derivative adharcáilí is used to refer to an animal in heat—or, figuratively, to a lustful young man.

2. ADUANTAS (“ah-dWON-tes”)

The word aduantas doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but describes that feeling of unease or anxiety caused by being somewhere new, or by being surrounded by people you don’t know. It’s derived from aduaine, the Irish word for “strangeness” or “unfamiliarity.”

3. AIMLIÚ (“AM-lyu”)

Aimliú is the spoiling or ruining of something by exposure to bad weather. Not that it only refers to things like plants and timber, however—you can also use it to describe soaking wet clothes, or the health of someone caught out in the rain.

4. AIRNEÁNACH (“ARR-nen-ech”)

In Irish, airneán or airneál refers to the traditional custom of “night-visiting,” in which everyone in a village or area would turn up at one local person’s home for an evening of music and entertainment. An airneánach is someone who takes part in just such an evening, but the word can also be used more loosely to refer to someone who likes working or staying up late into the night.

5. AITEALL (“AT-ell”)

The perfect word for the spring—an aiteall is a fine spell of weather between two showers of rain.

6. AMAINIRIS (“ARM-an-erish”)

The second day after tomorrow.

7. ASCLÁN (“ash-KLAWN”)

As well as being the Irish word for the gusset of a pair of trousers, an asclán is the amount of something that can be carried under one arm.

8. BACHRAM (“BOCH-rum”)

Bachram is boisterous, rambunctious behavior, but it can also be used figuratively for a sudden or violent downpour of rain.

9. BACACH (“BAH-cakh”)

As an adjective, bacach means “lame” or “limping”—Gaelige bhacach is broken, faltering Irish speech. But it can also be used as a noun to describe a misery or beggarly person, or, idiomatically, someone who outstays their welcome or who drags their heels.

10. BÉALÁISTE (“bay-al-ASH-tuh”)

A drink or toast used to seal a deal.

11. BEOCHAOINEADH ("bay-oh-keen-yu”)

An “elegy for the living”—in other words, a sad lament for someone who has gone away, but who has not died.

12. BOGÁN (“BOH-gawn”)

A bogán is an egg without a shell, although the word can also be used of soft, unsteady ground, as well as mushy, overcooked food—and, by extension, a spineless person.

13. BOTHÁNTAÍOCHT (“BOCH-an-TI-ucht”)

Another Irish word without an exact English equivalent, bothántaíocht is the practice of calling on all your neighbours just to catch up on all the gossip.

14. BREACAIMSIR (“BRAH-cam-SHUR”)

Related to the Irish word for “dappled” or “variegated,” breacaimsir describes the weather when it is neither particularly good nor particularly bad.

15. BUNBHRÍSTE (“bunya-VREESH-ta”)

Those jeans you’ve got that are nearly worn through but are still wearable? They’re a bunbhríste—namely, a pair of worn but still usable trousers. A worn out but still wearable shoe is a bunbhróg, incidentally, while a man’s second best suit is his bunchulaith.

16. CLAGARNACH (“CLOY-ger-nach”)

Literally meaning “clattering”, clagarnach is the sound of heavy rain on a rooftop.

17. CODRAISC (“COD-reeshk”)

As well as referring to a riff-raff or rabble of people, a codraisc is a random collection of worthless or useless objects.

18. DÉLÁMHACH (“TEE-lay-wah”)

Délámhach or dólámhach literally means “two-handed” in Irish, but it can be used idiomatically to mean “working all-out,” or “giving your best.”

19. DROCHDHEOIR (“DROCK-ywee”)

The Irish prefix droch– is basically an equivalent of the English prefix un–, in that it effectively reverses the meaning of the word to which it is attached. In Irish, though, droch– is often used to describe something bad or unfavorable, or is used to imply dangerousness, maliciousness, or poor quality. Drochairgead, for instance, is counterfeit money. A droch-cháil is a bad reputation. A droch-chumann is a malicious or plotting group of people, or an illicit love affair. And a drochdheoir—literally a “bad drop”—is a negative or unflattering character trait that a child inherits from his or her parents.

20. FOISEACH (“FAR-sha”)

Foiseach is grass that can’t easily be reached to be cut, so is often used of the longer grass around the edge of a field or lawn, or to the overgrown grass on a hillside or verge.

21. IOMBHÁ (“OM-wah”)

Derived from iombháigh, the Irish word for “to swamp” or “submerge,” an iombhá is either a sinking boat half submerged in the water, or any place where there is a danger of drowning.

22. LADHAR (“LAY-yer”)

The gap between your fingers or your toes is your ladhar. A ladhar bóthair is a fork in the road.

23. MAOLÓG (“MAY-loag”)

When you fill something up to the brim but then keep on adding more, the part that lies heaped above the top of the container is the maológ. The same word is also used for someone who sticks out from a crowd, or for a small knoll or hill in an otherwise flat expanse of land.

24. PLOBAIREACHT (“PLOH-ber-acht”)

When you’re crying and trying to speak at the same time but can’t make yourself clear, that’s plobaireacht.

25. POCLÉIMNIGH (“POH-claim-nee”)

Pocléimnigh is closest in meaning to English words like “frolicking” or “gambolling.” It literally means “buck-jumping,” and is a one-word name for an energetic, excitable leap into the air, or a jump for joy.

26. RAGAIRE (“RA-gerra”)

Ragaireacht is an Irish word for late-night wandering, or for sitting up talking long into the early hours. And a ragaire is someone who enjoys precisely that.

27. SABHSAÍ (“SAWH-see”)

Someone who works outside no matter how bad the weather is a sabhsaí.

28. STRÍOCÁLAÍ (“SHTREE-care-LEE”)

Stríocálaí literally means “scratcher” or “scraper” in Irish, but can be used figuratively to describe someone who works hard but is not particularly well-skilled.

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Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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