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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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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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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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