11 Gaelic Loanwords to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day
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 Gaelic origin ready for the occasion.
Irish Gaelic is a living language of the Celtic family. 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, English and Gaelic have mingled 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 the firmly grounded to the loftiest of the poetic, will enliven any type of St. Paddy's Day revelry.
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 that correlates to the modern Irish for woman (bean) and fairy (sídh).
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.
When typical quantity descriptors just don't quite cut it, the Irish Gaelic phrase go leor literally translates as "to sufficiency." Ceart go leor remains a common response in modern Irish meaning "alright" or "good enough."
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.
A term for a participant in rowdy, raucous behavior, this term derives from the Gaelic surname Ó hUallacháin (anglicized as O'Houlihan).
Irish is not shortchanged of ways to describe plenty. This one comes from the Irish sluagh, meaning "multitude."
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.
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.
Possibly related to smithereens, we take this term from the Gaelic smidean/smidirin, or "a very small amount." A phrase more commonly heard at a bar than on a battlefield.
Trousers comes from triubhas, which means “close-fitting shorts.”
11. Whiskey (or Whisky)
The word for this beloved drink is derived from uisce beatha, which translates literally as "the water of life."
A version of this story was originally published in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.