10 words with surprising Irish roots

From bother and trousers to slogan and slew, the English language has Irish etymology galore

We’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, as we like to say, but so too are many of our words – and not just the more obvious ones like leprechaun or shamrock. There are many other everyday words whose Irish origins may just surprise you. You might even say there’s a whole slew of them:

The gob- in gobstopper comes from an Irish word for “mouth.” (Pixabay)

1. Slew

First attested by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in Daniel Thompson’s 1839 The Green Mountain Boys, slew begins as colloquial American-English for “a large number (of something).” Speakers frequently emphasize the size of slew with whole; Thompson himself uses the phrase “whole slew” in this word’s earliest appearance in the OED’s record. Slew was borrowed from the Irish slua, or sluagh, which means a “crowd,” “host,” or “multitude.” 

English has a slew of slews, including a verbal slew, “to turn,” as well as another noun for a kind of “marshy pool,” but these slews are unrelated. We do see, however, the Irish slew in another word of Irish origin: slogan.

2. Slogan

Running for political office, as we saw in the 2016 campaign for the U.S. presidency, can be like doing battle – all the more, etymologically speaking, when we consider that a slogan was originally a “war-cry” in English.

The Irish root of slogan, sluagh-ghairm, quite literally means “war-cry.” The first component is sluagh, which we saw in slew, and whose meaning of “host” we can understand in this word as “army.” The second component, ghairm, means “cry” or “shout.”

Scottish and Irish clans once issued a sluaghghairm, usually crying out a surname or a gathering-place as a signal to battle, the OED tells us.

In English, slogan is evidenced by the early 1500s in the form of slogorne, which more closely renders the Irish roots of the word. We see its modern sense of a motto, especially a political one, by the start of 1700s.

3. Gobsmacked

We like to say the Irish have the “gift of the gab.” But if you’re gobsmacked, something astonishing has left you “speechless.” We can easily see the word – which is relatively young in the record, dated as recently as 1980 in U.K. slang, the OED notes – is a compound of gob and smacked. Smacked makes sense, given the meaning of the word, but what about gob? It’s a “mouth,” making gobsmacked like “being punched in the mouth,” thus “speechless.” 

Many word historians believe that gob derives from the Irish gob, a “mouth” (or “beak”). Now, a gobstopper is a hard candy that really puts the jaws to work, then, cited as early as 1928. Gobs, gobbets, goblet, and gobble may all also be related, dealing with various meanings of “biting” or “bite-sized” from what might be a Romance borrowing from Gaulish, a Celtic language once spoken on the European continent.

4. Trousers

Trousers moves us from Irish “mouths,” as we saw in gobsmacked, to Irish legs – or at least a kind of garment historically fashionable among Celts, apparently.

American-English speakers know trousers as “pants,” covering the legs from the waist to the ankles, as trousers so reference by the late 1600s. But in the early 1600s, trousers emerges as a variant of trouse and trews, originally a kind of close-fitting thigh-covering to which stockings were attached.

Over time, the sense, spelling, and cloth of trousers all got longer, shall we say. In the 19th century, women and girls, and later little boys, wore the trousers in the family, the general term for “pants” thus coming later.

Trouse and trews, as far as etymologists can tell, was borrowed at some point in the 16th-century from the Gaelic triubhas (modern Irish, treabhsar). The early record of these words associates them with a kind of “close-fitting shorts” Irishmen and Scottish Highlanders wore. Some Scottish still sport traditional trews today. 

The ultimate origin of triubhas is unknown, though some scholars have attempted to connections to the French-based truss.

5. Phony

If trousers wears the Irish triubhas, then phony may just wear the Irish fáinne, a “ring.”

Phony, meaning “fake,” probably originates in a con game called the “fawney rig.” In the “fawney rig,” the trickster would drop a brass ring (a fawney) in the streets, pretend he found it, and present it to his passer-by as made of gold, offering to sell it to the person for half of its gold value (though much higher than its actual, brass value).

From this scam English at some point rendered fawney as phony for “a fraud” or an adjective for “counterfeit.” The OED first cites the word in late 19th-century U.S. horse-racing slang: phony bookmakers who issued bets they didn’t pay out.

For more on phony, see my previous post on the word

6. Electron

So far, we’ve seen words from the Irish language. Electron is a word coined by the Irish.

English scientist J. J. Thomson is credited with finding proof of the electron in 1897, but his Irish counterpart, G. J. Stoney, is credited with first coining the term electron in earlier studies of chemical electricity. Stoney first used the word for a kind of unit of electrical charge in ions, the term applied to the particle following Thomson’s discovery.

The word electron fuses a Greek-based prefix, electr-, from electric, and a Greek-based suffix, –on, after the earlier ion and since used in the naming of particles, like proton –except for quarks, another subatomic word coined by a famous Irishman.

7. Quark

There may be only one thing harder to understand than particle physics: James Joyce’s 1939 Finnegan’s Wake. Quark appears in a passage of this novel:

Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

Murray Gell-Mann, celebrated for his groundbreaking work in particle physics, applied quark as a name for the subatomic particles he studied in the 1960s. Gell-Mann wrote to the OED in 1978 that he had been playing around with the sound quork in 1963 when he noticed quark in Joyce’s novel. Originally, there were three quarks, just like those three cries for Mister Mark, and so Gell-Man used quark as a nod to the author.

Quark, as far as scholars can tell from the seabirds that squawk in the passage where Joyce uses quark, may be a variant of quawk, imitating the birds’ croaking calls. 

8. Smithereens

If you blow an atom to smithereens, you would end up with quarks – and a nuclear explosion. Smithereens is another word English should thank the Irish for. Smithereens, or “small fragments,” is first attested in English in 1829 as smiddereens.

Often appearing in phrases like “blown to smithereens,” the word is borrowed from the modern Irish smidirín, a diminutive of smiodar, a “fragment.” The ultimate origin of smiodar is unknown, though some etymologists have suggested it derives from the same root that gives English smite. The connecting sense, then, is striking something into tiny bits with the heavy blow smiting delivers. 

9. Bother

Bother proves a bothersome word for etymologists. Its ultimate origin is not known, but in its first appearance, this word for “to annoy” is used by the likes of actor Thomas Sheridan and author Jonathan Swift, who no doubt joins Joyce in the pantheon of Irish literature – of all literature, for that matter.

The OED records an early usage of bother in a letter Thomas Sheridan wrote to his godfather, Jonathan Swift, in 1718, using bother in the sense of  “to bewilder with noise,” hence to “fluster” or “muddle.” The dictionary next cites Swift himself, who used a more dialectical spelling, bodder – and used it with the modern meaning of “to pester” – at least by 1745.

Due to its comic usage in Irish literature and letters, some scholars propose bother derives from the Irish bódhar, “deaf,” and buaidhirt, “trouble.” The, um, bother, is, though, that the middle consonants in the English bother/bodder don’t sound at all like those in the Irish bódhar/buaidhirt, as much as the similar spelling is compelling, requiring scholars to string together a possibly problematic series of sound changes.

As philologist Walter Skeat has suggested, bother could be a variant of pother, cited over 100 years before bother, and with similar meanings of the kind of turmoil associated with a lot of noise.

10. Galore

In this post, we’ve seen Irish words galore. This word, which English frequently uses as a predicate adjective for something “in abundance” also has Irish roots. Found in English by the 1670s, galore comes from the Irish go leór, literally meaning “to sufficiency,” hence the adverbial “sufficiently” or “enough.” May your St. Patrick’s day bring you craic – and word-nerdery –galore!

m ∫ r ∫


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