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

Irish shoe pattern
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 leprechaun hat pattern
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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

Irish pot of gold pattern
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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

Irish celtic cross pattern
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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

Irish pipe pattern
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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)

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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.

This story was originally published in 2015.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
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The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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