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The Gaelic You Already Know (Yes, You Do!)

If you’re just starting out on this Irish language journey, I bet you think you don’t know any Gaelic words yet.  Well, surprise! You do!

In fact, I’m willing to bet that there are Irish words you use almost every day, if not quite in their original form. A surprising number of English words come directly from Irish, or from the closely related Scottish Gaelic.

You mean it isn’t the other way around?

Many learners, when they encounter similar-sounding words in Irish and English, assume that the Irish words came from the English words, most likely because English is currently a dominant world language.

In some cases, they’re right, of course. Most modern European languages have done at least some borrowing from English, just as in years past they borrowed from other dominant languages, including Greek, Latin, German, and French.

It pays to remember, however, that English itself is, and always has been, the original great borrower. Or, as the meme says:

“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

In fact, English is a great hodge podge of different languages built on a Germanic base: Some Norman French here, a bit of Latin and Greek there, as well as quite a few words borrowed from Celtic sources.

English is also quite a young language when compared to most European languages (very young, when compared to Irish!), and many words that you might think a minority language borrowed FROM English they actually contributed TO English.

The Gaelic You Already Know

Below, in no particular order, are some English words you’ve almost certainly encountered.  Some are very common.  Some may be less common in some areas, but frequently encountered in poetry or song lyrics, or may be familiar to you from certain dialects of English.

What they all have in common is that they came into English from Irish (in some cases, passing first through Scottish Gaelic). Some have survived in English with their meaning and pronunciation pretty much intact; others have changed quite a bit in sound, or had their meanings altered slightly.

How many of these words do you know or use?

Galore (meaning “a lot, plenty”). From go leor (guh lyohr), meaning “sufficient/plenty.”

Clan (meaning “family”). From clann (klan), meaning “offspring” or “the collective children of a family.”

Crag (meaning a rocky formation). From carraig (KAR-ig), meaning “rock.”

Slew (meaning “a lot, many”). From slua (SLOO-uh), meaning “a host” or “a crowd.”

Bard (used to refer to a poet or musician). From bard (bahrd), which refers to an ancient sacred order of poets and chroniclers who accompanied themselves on the harp.

Slug (as in to take a “slug” or “gulp” of a drink). From slog (slug), meaning “gulp.”

Glen (meaning “valley”). From gleann (glan), meaning “valley.”

Phoney (meaning “fake”). From fáinne (FAN-yeh), meaning “ring.” (This apparently comes from the practice of selling cheap rings made from lesser metals and passing them off as silver or gold).

Smithereens (meaning “tiny pieces”). From the Irish smidiríní (SMIJ-ir-reen-ee), meaning “fragments” or “shards.”

Breeches or Britches (meaning “pants/trousers”). From bríste (BREES-cheh), meaning “pants/trousers.”

Trousers (“pants/trousers”). From trúis (troosh), meaning “trousers” or “leggings.”

Whiskey (I expect you know what this means!). From uisce beatha (ISH-keh BAA-huh), meaning “water of life” (interestingly, this term has been borrowed back into some dialects of Irish as fuisce, pronounced FWISH-keh, meaning “whiskey”!).

Smashing! (an exclamation meaning “that’s great!” or “that’s wonderful!”). From Is maith sin (Iss MY shin or Iss MAA shin), meaning “that’s good.”

Colleen (a female name, also a word used to mean “girl”). From cailín (KAL-een) meaning “girl” or “young woman.”

Brogue (a type of laced leather shoe, sometimes also called “brogans”). From bróg (brohg), meaning “shoe.”

Brogue (meaning “an Irish or Scottish accent”). This may also originate from bróg (for the reasoning for this, see here) or from barróg, meaning “a peculiarity of speech” or “a speech impediment” (the English weren’t very fond of Irish or Scottish accents!)

Shamrock (meaning the distinctive three-leaved clover seen around St. Patrick’s Day, and also referring to a particular shade of green). From seamróg (SHAM-rohg), meaning “shamrock,” which itself derives from seamair óg (SHAM-ur ohg), meaning “young clover.”

Banshee (meaning, specifically, a fairy woman who keens before someone’s death, but used colloquially to mean something that screeches or wails). From bean sí (ban shee), meaning “fairy woman.”

Shanty (“Old house” or “shack”). From sean tí (SHAN tee or SHAN chee), meaning “old house.”

And you thought you didn’t know any Gaelic!

See how much you know already? In our next post, we’ll explore something else with which you may be familiar: Hiberno-English (i.e., the way English is spoken in Ireland) and the effect that the Irish language has had on that particular dialect of English.

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5 thoughts on “The Gaelic You Already Know (Yes, You Do!)”

  1. As a writer I knew I was using a mixture of languages when putting my novel together. But had no idea I was also using the Gaelic.

    Absolutely fascinating and very interesting. This piece has been fascinating, informative and interesting. Thank you

  2. we in Derry city have a lot of irish in our’english’ two of the most common are ‘will I see you ‘the marra’ straight from ‘amarach’ and ‘shut your ‘gob’ from ‘geab’ if you want more I can supply. sean macartaine (john Mc cartney)

  3. Interesting about “slug”. Sasa has the Germanic word “slug” imported into Slovene, which means the same “gulp”. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the word has gone back an forth with English, from different sources. I wonder!

    1. It’s possible that both Irish and Slovene got it from a common Indo-European root. According to Webster, the first recorded use of “slug” meaning “gulp” in English was in 1912.

      Interestingly, the word “slug” meaning the slimy creature that crawls around in the garden came into Middle English from Scandinavia (that word is also the root of “sluggard” and “sluggish”).