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.

10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

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iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Its name comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. You can call them thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

10 Endangered Alphabets You Should See Before It's Too Late

The Glagolitic script carved into wood
The Glagolitic script carved into wood
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

The Arabic and Simplified Chinese scripts aren't in danger of going anywhere anytime soon, but the same can't be said for Balinese, Mali, Pahawh (or Pahauh) Hmong, and the other 100-some alphabets that Vermont-based writer Tim Brookes has cataloged in his online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, which is set for a soft launch on January 17. The featured alphabets—which Brookes has loosely defined to include writing systems of all sorts—are vanishing for varied reasons, including government policies, war, persecution, cultural assimilation, and globalization.

“The world is becoming much more dependent on global communications and those global communications take place in a relatively small number of writing systems—really something between 15 and 20,” Brookes tells Mental Floss. “And because that’s the case, all the others are to some degree being eroded.”

The atlas will include a bit of background information about each alphabet as well as links to any organizations attempting to revive them. By creating a hub for these alphabets, Brookes hopes to connect people who want to preserve their language and culture, while also showing the world how beautiful and intricate some of these scripts—including the 10 below—can be.

1. Cherokee

Although the Manataka American Indian Council says an ancient Cherokee writing system may have existed at one point but was lost to history, Cherokee was more or less a spoken language up until the early 19th century. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah started working on an 86-character writing system known as a syllabary, in which the symbols represent syllables. Most remarkably, Sequoyah himself had never learned how to read. At the time, many Native Americans deeply distrusted writing systems, and Sequoyah was put on trial for witchcraft after tribal leaders caught wind of his new creation. However, once they realized that written Cherokee could be used to preserve their language and culture, they asked Sequoyah to start teaching the syllabary. “The Cherokee achieved 90 percent literacy more rapidly than any other people in history that we know of,” Brookes says. “[Sequoyah’s syllabary] is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.”

After a period of decline in the years following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Cherokee language education saw somewhat of a revival in the late 20th century. The predominance of English and the Latin alphabet has made these efforts an uphill battle, though. Brookes says it’s difficult to find people who can teach the script, and even among Cherokee translators, few are confident in their grasp of the writing system.

2. Inuktitut

A stop sign containing the Inuktitut script
A stop sign in Nunavut, Canada
Sébastien Lapointe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Nine different writing systems are used among Canada’s 59,500 Inuit. Many of these are based on the Latin alphabet, but the one shown above uses syllabics that were first introduced by European missionaries in the 19th century. Since it’s difficult and costly to represent each of these writing systems in official documents, many Inuit officials write and hold meetings in English, all but ensuring the demise of their mother tongue. However, Canada’s national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is now in the process of developing one common script for all Inuit. “Our current writing systems were introduced through the process of colonization,” the organization writes on its website. “The unified Inuktut [the collective name for Inuit languages] writing system will be the first writing system created by Inuit for Inuit in Canada.” It remains to be seen what that script will look like.

3. Glagolitic

A tablet containing the Glagolitic script
The Baška tablet, which was made around the year 1100
Neoneo13, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

It’s widely believed that Glagolitic, the oldest known Slavic script, was invented by missionaries Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius around 860 CE in an effort to translate the Gospels and convert the Slavs to Christianity. The name Glagolitic stems from the Old Church Slavonic word glagolati, meaning to speak. Some of the symbols were lifted from Greek, Armenian, and Georgian, while others were entirely new inventions. Nowadays, academics are typically the only ones who can decipher the script, but some cultural institutions have made efforts to preserve its legacy. In 2018, the National and University Library in Zagreb launched an online portal containing digitized versions of Glagolitic texts. In addition to being a source of Croatian heritage and pride, the alphabet has also become an object of tourist fascination. Visitors can view monuments containing Glagolitic symbols along the Baška Glagolitic Path on the Croatian island of Krk. And in Zagreb, the capital city, it’s not hard to find gift shops selling merchandise adorned with Glagolitic writing. However helpful this may be to the tourism sector, it's no guarantee that more Croatians will want to start learning the script.

4. Mandombe

The Mandombe script
Moyogo, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

This African script is unusual for several reasons. For one, the Mandombe alphabet reportedly came to David Wabeladio Payi—a member of the Kimbanguist church in the Democratic Republic of Congo—in a series of dreams and spiritual encounters in the late ‘70s. One day, he was looking at his wall when he noticed that the mortar between the bricks seemed to form two numbers: five and two. He believed these were divine clues, so he set out to create a series of symbols based off those shapes. Eventually, he assigned the symbols phonographic meaning and turned it into an alphabet that could be used by speakers of the Kikongo and Lingala languages. Perhaps most remarkably, the pronunciation changes depending on how the symbols are rotated. “It’s one of about three writing systems in the world where that’s true,” Brookes says. Unlike most of the other alphabets on this list, Mandombe is growing in popularity rather than declining. However, because it’s primarily being taught in Kimbanguist schools and used only for religious texts, it will be a challenge to convince the rest of the population to start using it. Elsewhere in the country, the Latin alphabet is used (French is the official language). “What it’s up against is, in essence, exactly the same forces that a declining script is up against,” Brookes says. For this reason, many new alphabets can be considered endangered.

5. Ditema tsa Dinoko

In a similar vein, Ditema tsa Dinoko is also a minority script, and it's too new to tell if it will stick around. A team of South African linguists, designers, and software programmers invented this intricate, triangular-shaped alphabet in just the last decade in hopes of forging a single script that could be used by speakers of indigenous languages in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Because the symbols were inspired by artworks and beadwork designs that are typical of the region, the alphabet is also a celebration of culture. “One of the really interesting features of African alphabets is how deeply embedded they are in what we would call graphic design,” Brookes says. “Instead of imitating the shapes or structures or layout of other writing systems, such as our alphabet, they often start from a completely different point of view and draw on designs that are found in war paintings, weaving textiles, pottery, and all of those other available graphic elements.” The colors used in the alphabet aren't necessary to understand the script, but they hark back to the alphabet's artistic origins while also functioning as a kind of font. For instance, different writers may use different colors to give their text "a certain feel or emotional resonance," Brookes says.

6. Mandaic

The Mandaic script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

This ancient, mystic script dates back to the 2nd century CE and is still being used by some Mandaeans in Iraq and Iran. According to mythology, the language itself predates humanity, and the script was historically used to create religious texts. Charles Häberl, now an associate professor of Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Rutgers University, wrote in a 2006 paper that Mandaic is “unlike any other script found in the modern Middle East." And unlike most scripts, it has changed very little over the centuries. Despite its enduring quality, many of the speakers in Iraq have fled to other countries since the U.S. invasion in 2003. As these speakers assimilate into new cultures, it becomes more challenging to maintain their linguistic traditions.

7. Lanna

The Lanna script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

According to Brookes, the Lanna script was primarily used during the time of the Lanna Kingdom in present-day Thailand from the 13th century to the 16th century. It’s still used in some regions of northern Thailand, but faces stiff competition from the predominant Thai script. The word Lanna translates to "land of a million rice fields." The script is one of Brookes’s personal favorites as far aesthetics are concerned. “It is so extraordinarily fluid and beautiful,” he says. “They developed this script to indicate not only consonants, but then the consonants have vowel markings and other consonant markings and tonal markings both above and below the main letters, and so you have this amazingly joyous and elaborate writing system, and it’s like a pond of goldfish. Everything is just curving around and swimming in all these different directions.”

8. Dongba

The Dongba script
Courtesy of Aubrey Wang

Members of the Naxi ethnic minority in China’s Yunnan province have been using this colorful pictographic script for well over 1000 years. The pictures stand for tangible objects like mud, mountains, and high alpine meadows, as well as intangible concepts such as humanity and religion [PDF]. Historically, it was mainly used by priests to help them remember their ceremonial rites, and the word Dongba means "wise man." However, the script has undergone something of a revival in recent years, having been promoted by people working in the arts and tourism industries. It’s also taught in some elementary schools, and it remains one of the few pictographic scripts that’s still in use today. At the same time, Brookes says he's seen little evidence of efforts "to create a circumstance where the script is actually used in a functional, everyday fashion." With the predominant Chinese script looming large throughout much of the country, Dongba's days may be numbered.

9. Tibetan

A student writes the Tibetan script
China Photos/Getty Images

Some of the world’s alphabets and languages are endangered for political reasons. Tibetan is perhaps the best-known example of that. The Chinese government has cracked down on language instruction in recent years, with the aim of promoting Mandarin, the predominant language—although some have argued this policy comes at the expense of minority languages. In Tibet, many schools now conduct the bulk of their lessons in Mandarin, and Tibetan might be taught in a separate language course. Chinese officials put a Tibetan activist on trial in January 2018 for “inciting separatism”—partly because he criticized the government’s policies on Tibetan language education. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In general, “the story behind endangered alphabets is almost never a pleasant or cheerful one, so that’s the human rights side of it,” Brookes says.

10. Mongolian

The Mongolian script

Anand.orkhon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Some have likened the appearance of the traditional Mongolian script to a kind of vertical Arabic. The script traveled to Mongolia by way of a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs in the 1100s. Beginning with Genghis Khan, Mongol leaders used the script to record historic events during their reign. Later, when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite state, the country started using the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s, and the traditional script was largely cast aside. The traditional alphabet is still used in inner Mongolia and is returning to Mongolia, and the renaissance of Mongolian calligraphy has bolstered its usage to some degree. Nonetheless, it, too, remains endangered.

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