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:

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

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Behind the name of the next US president: “Hillary” or “Donald”

…and then there were two: Hillary and Donald. A week after Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination for president, Hillary accepted hers, the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in US history. 

Running up to the big day in November, we’ll be hearing  a lot of these two names. So, what sort of etymological qualifications do Hillary and Donald bring to the White House?

Hillary

The name Hillary broke its own glass ceiling, onomastically speaking: It was originally a male name. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, Hillary comes from a medieval form of the Late Latin masculine name, Hilarius.

The Latin Hilarius means “cheerful.” It was formed from hilaris and taken from the Greek hilaros (ἱλαρός), also meaning “cheerful.” Greek’s hilaros is related to hilaos, “gracious” or “kindly.”

There may be a yet deeper root for these Latin and Greek descriptors, if we look to Proto-Indo-European: *sel-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots defines as “of good mood” and “to favor.” This root yields solace and silly, which originally meant “happy” and “prosperous.”

The name Hillary spread thanks to a 4th-century Gallo-Roman theologian, now saint, Hilarius of Poitiers. English observers honor St. Hilarius’ feast day on January 13, when one can celebrate Hilary-mass to usher in Hilary-tide. The timing of this feast was also used to mark court and academic sessions, hence Hilary term, at Oxford and Dublin.

By the late 19th century, Hillary became more popular  (and since exclusively so) for females. The double L spelling is a North Americanism.

Hilarius is a short way from hilarious, but this adjective is actually a late formation in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes it to Sir Walter Scott in 1823, when it meant, like its Latin and Greek forebears, “cheerful.” It soon characterized a “boisterous joy,” extended to and settling on “extremely funny” by 1925.

Donald

Sometimes with affection, sometimes with ridicule, and often with irony, Donald Trump often goes just by his first name: The Donald. Like his mother (and one of his golf courses), the name Donald hails from Scotland.

Donald is an Anglicized form of the Scottish Gaelic Domhnall. (The mh is pronounced more like a V. Domhnall also has its cousins across the Celtic languages.) Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names notes that the English spelling Donald was a misinterpretation of the original Gaelic and influenced by Germanic names that end with a D, like Ronald.

The Gaelic Domhnall literally means “world ruler.” Philologists think the ancient Celtic form was *dub-no-walos. This joins *dubno-, “world,” from an Indo-European root meaning “deep,” like the earth or ground, hence “world.” *Walos is anchored in *wal-, “to be strong,” seen in Latin-derived words like valor and value.

In the Middle Ages, many Scottish kings took the name Donald, as did St. Donald of Ogilvy, near Angus today. Clan Donald, also MacDonald (“son of Donald”), remains a major clan in the Scottish Highlands. 

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The origins of Hillary and Donald are fitting in their own ways, aren’t they? Many want a wonkish Hillary Clinton to be more “cheerful,” a complaint others see as tinctured with sexism. As for Donald? Well, many can imagine he might just start taking down his buildings’ “Trump” signs to display some Celtic etymology instead.

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Etymology on the streets

I haven’t even been settled for a week and I’m already in love with my new city, Dublin. The people and culture are absolutely wonderful, of course, but the etymology is world-class. Even something as simple as taking out my dog surprises me with lexical delights, like this utility marker I noticed on a recent walk:

uisce grate.JPG

is Irish for “water.” (Signage in Ireland is widely bilingual, in case you didn’t know.) You probably better know uisce, however, in a more distilled form: whiskey.

English ultimately borrowed (and shortened) whiskey from the Irish uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” The development of the form whiskey doesn’t exactly walk a straight line, if you will. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites “whisky” in 1715 in an apt passage from the Book of Scottish Pasquils: “Whiskie shall put our brains in a rage.” (Tell me about it.) Earlier forms in the 18th century include usquebea and usquebaugh, apparently variants of iskie bae, dated much earlier to the 1580s. Today, the United States and Ireland largely spell the spirits whiskey, while England and Scotland favor whisky, hence the distinction in the beverage trade.

Aren’t you just asking for it, Ireland, when even your literal water can’t escape drinking stereotypes? Not so fast, as Barnhart’s dictionary will have it: “The Gaelic word is probably a loan translation of Medieval Latin aqua vitae alcohol, spirits; literally, water of life; in English aqua vitae had been recorded as applying to intoxicating drinks since 1547.” Aqua vitae was originally was used of unrefined alcohol in 15th-century alchemy.

Similarly, French has eau-de-vie, “water of life,” for brandy and the like. Russian vodka derives from voda, meaning “water.” English itself shouldn’t be so quick to judge, either: the very word water is a cognate to uisce, if their common, hypothesized Proto-Indo-European root, *wed- (“water,” “wet”), is correct. The Russian voda is also related to this root.

With etymological discoveries right at my doorstep, it’s hard not to love this Irish uisce – not to be confused with Irish Water, Éirann Uisce, the national utility whose recent charges few have been raising their glasses to.

uisce bill.jpg

But as much as I’m intoxicated by new home, I can’t forget my own roots: I’m still a bourbon guy.

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Four-leaf etymologies: slew

A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.

This happened to me for the word slew.

I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.

The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.

So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.

But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.

Slew

Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”

Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”

I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.

The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.

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Ferguson

Sometimes etymologies just drive home the point perfectly.

Ferguson, Missouri is named for one, William B. Ferguson, who allowed a railroad to go through his land in 1855. A train depot thereafter built there was named for him as part of the deal. The city–and now central station of an urgent debate on police militarization and racial inequality in the United States–grew from there.

This debate–this unrest–has thrust words like protest, curfew, and loot into my etymological spotlight. But perhaps it’s the origin of Ferguson itself that is most illuminating.

Ferguson

Ferguson is a Scottish surname. It’s Gaelic in origin, meaning “son of Fergus.” Fergus (or Fearghus) is a given name that combines two words. The first component, fer, means “man.” The second, gus, means “strength” or “ability.”

Fer has many friends, such as Latin’s vir (“man”), source of English virile and virtue, among others. It lives on, too, in world–and in the first part of werewolf–from its Old English iteration, wer.

At root is the Proto-Indo-European *wi-ro-, meaning, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, “man.” As the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) comments: “The reconstructed word *wi-ro-, a derivative of *the root weiə-, ‘to be vigorous,’ was used especially of men in their capacity as warriors or as slaves. (Slaves were often captured warriors.)”

Gus has also kept good company. We saw it before in disgust. The base is the Proto-Indo-European *geus-, with the curious dual meanings of taste” and “choose.” Choose and choice are descendants, as we saw, down the Germanic line, while the Italic route yielded gusto and gustatory. 

In the case of Fergus, it features the Celtic *gustu-, used in personal names. So, Fergus, the AHD observes, means “having the strength of men,” via Old Irish gus for “strength.”

So, Fergus is literally “man-strength.”  And the question Ferguson, Missouri is asking us is, in many ways, what really constitutes “having the strength of men”?

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