28 Weird and Wonderful Irish Words

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iStock.com/trabantos

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 that are typically 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”)

A rainbow over the Irish countryside
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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”)

Friends share a celebratory toast with pints of beer
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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”)


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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”)

Old Homestead in Ireland
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Foiseach is grass that can’t easily be reached to be cut, so is often used to describe 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”)

Man jumps in the air for joy
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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.

Find Your Birthday Word With the Oxford English Dictionary's Birthday Word Generator

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iStock/photoman

Language is always changing and new words are always being formed. That means there are a bunch of words that were born the same year you were. The Oxford English Dictionary has created the OED birthday word generator, where you can find a word that began around the same time you did.

Click on your birth year to see a word that was first documented that year, and then click through to see what that first citation was. Then explore a little and be surprised by words that are older than you expect (frenemy, 1953), and watch cultural changes emerge as words are born (radio star, 1924; megastar, 1969; air guitar, 1983).

Does your birthday word capture your era? Does it fit your personality? Perhaps birthday words could become the basis for a new kind of horoscope.

This story has been updated for 2019.

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

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iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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