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 etymological mask of “clown”

The creepy crown craze – involving people dressed up as evil clowns frightening, threatening, and sometimes even attacking others – has spread from South Carolina all across the globe. But what about this word clown: Where did it spread from?

Clown

The word clown hasn’t been terrorizing the English language for as long as we might think but, creepily, we aren’t quite sure where it comes from. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the word in 1563, when a clown – or cloyne, as it’s first recorded – was a “rustic” or “peasant.” The lowly status of such a countryman, alas, was soon associated with ignorance and boorishness in the eyes of city folk.

On Shakespeare’s stage, clowns were “fools” and “jesters.” We see them as comical country bumpkins in such plays as The Merchant of Venice (Launcelot Gobbo), As You Like It (Touchstone), Twelfth Night (Feste), and even in Antony and Cleopatra, where it’s a clown who smuggles in the asp in a basket of figs for the titular queen’s suicide.

It’s not until the 1720s we see clowns as the circus performers that entertain – and horrify us – today.

While the origin of clown is obscure, two theories have prevailed. The first, usually attributed to Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, is that clown comes from Latin’s colōnus, a “farmer” or “settler.” You might see colony in this noun – and you’d be right. The base verb, colere, “to till,” was a productive crop, yielding words like culture and cultivate. Most etymologists have dismissed this theory.

The other, favored theory looks to Scandinavian sources like the Icelandic klunni, a “clumsy, boorish fellow,” and North Frisian klönne, for roughly the same. At base for these, and their other Germanic cognates, are words for “clots,” “clods,” and “lumps,” whose thick, rough, clumpy masses stuck as an epithet for foolish, bungling fellows.

But Anatoly Lieberman, in a recent post on his Oxford Etymologist blog, finds this prevailing Scandinavian theory to be, well, a bit clownish. Lieberman seriously doubts a word like clown would have been borrowed from a Scandinavian language in Early Modern English. Instead, he reconsiders the long-snubbed Latin explanation, citing, by way of a 1940s Dublin philologist, a Professor T. F. O’Rahilly, who notes Fingal husbandmen were nicknamed collounes. As Liberman concludes:

Colloun must have been the Anglo-French reflex of Latin colōnus ‘farmer.’ It is not unlikely that this word was imported to England from Ireland…If O’Rahilly was right, clown does go back to colōnus, but via Irish…But what about the Germanic words cited in connection with clown? Perhaps they need not be dismissed as irrelevant, but no evidence points to their currency in Elizabethan England, while the Irish route looks real.

Great. There may be no snakes in Ireland, but, etymologically speaking, there are clowns. Well, those creepy clowns have been sighted here, too.

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Potato, batata

You say potato, etymologists say batata. It’s National Potato Day in Ireland, so let’s dig up the roots of the beloved spud.

Potato

English cultivates its potato from the Spanish patata, a variant form of batata. But the batata is actually the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), completely unrelated to what we commonly refer to as the potato.

That’s a lot of potatoes.

Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing batata to Spain – and into the Spanish language – at the end of the 15th century. The crop and word thereafter spread throughout Europe and, thanks to Portuguese traders, to many parts of Africa and Asia.

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Batatas, or sweet potatoes. Image by Troy Stoi courtesy of www.freeimages.com.

The word batata comes from an indigenous Central American language, perhaps from Haitian Taíno, the language of the self-same people who inhabited much of the pre-Columbian Caribbean and Florida. Taíno also gives English the word hurricane, a word much on the minds of many along the Southeast coast today.

In English, the earliest record of potato comes from English naval commander and notorious slave-trader John Hawkins in his 1565 travel writings: “These potatoes be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets.” Batata, meanwhile, is attested in translation by the 1570s, noted as a “victaill of muche substaunce.”

Then, in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought back what we now familiarly refer to as the potato (Solanum tuberosum) from the Peruvian Andes, where it was known as papa. Papa is a word for “potato” in Quechuan, a language also ultimately responsible for the words jerky, guanine, and Coke.

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Potatoes share an etymological root with batatas, but not a botanical one. Unlike batatas, potatoes are technically stem, not root, vegetables. Image by Nadia Arai courtesy of www.freeimages.com

This plant especially proliferated in England, Ireland, and the US. In 1597, English botanist John Gerard discussed “Virginia potatoes,” thanks to the vegetable’s erroneous associations with Sir Walter Raleigh, who, according to tradition, first planted the tuber in Ireland. Sir Francis Drake and that same John Hawkins also compete for this title; the actual, direct source is unclear .

In the early record, it can be hard to tell whether writers are referring to the batata or the potato. But potato took over as the generic term for such tubers by the early 1700s, with the distinguishing sweet potato emerging by the mid-1700s.

Potato or batata, the English language definitely didn’t call the whole thing off.

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“Tory”: How the conquest of Ireland named the UK Conservative Party

With Michael Gove throwing in his hat and Boris Johnson throwing in his towel, the post-Brexit scramble for Tory – or Conservative – leadership was thrown into confusion this week in the UK. This chaos is fitting, if we look to history of Tory, a word embroiled in many conflicts of its own.

Tory story 

In its conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, England massively dispossessed the Irish of their land – among other depravations. Out of need, pride, and retaliation, some Irish turned to outlawry, plundering and killing English settlers and soldiers. By 1646, in the wake of a bloody rebellion, the English mocked these ‘Catholic, marauding bog-trotters, these savage, moss-trooper highwaymen,’ with a nickname: “tories.”

Documented in the Irish State Papers nearly a century prior, the term tory meant “outlaw” or “robber.” It derives from the Irish tóraí, from tóir “to pursue.” (Older forms, depending on your transliteration, include tóruighe, a “pursuer” or “searcher,” via tóirighim, “I pursue.”) Etymologists connect these forms to older Celtic and Indo-European bases meaning “running up to” and “to turn” or “roll.”

By 1679-80, this Tory, now with a capital T, was slung at the so-called Exclusioners, who were opposed to the succession of James, Duke of York, to the Crown. James was Catholic. What better way to attack his supporters – and stop, God forbid, any restoration of Irish land – than link them with those wild Irish tories? And what better way for the Tories to hit back than with Whig, those Protestant yokels and bumpkins? The origin of whig is uncertain, but some think it originally mean “horse driver” in Scottish Gaelic.

Many of these Yorkist Tories formed a new political party in 1689: the Tories. It was born of a longer tradition of royalism – of championing the power of the Church of England – going back to the English Civil War. Tory officially named the English Conservative Party until 1830, though, despite many changes in their political platform since, the term is still used informally today (as it is in Canada). During the American Revolution, Tories were colonists loyal to the British crown. During the American Civil, Confederates called Union sympathizers in their midsts Tories.

For many in Britain today, the etymology of Tory, that “bandit,” is mot juste, from conservatives who feel Gove stole leadership from Johnson to Remainers who feel Brexiters stole the UK from the EU. And while the meaning of our words change, our politics are as messy as ever. Perhaps we should look to that older root of Tory, “to pursue,” and apply it less to fighting and more to solutions.

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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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Beyond the etymological “pale”

Today, my wife and I are bidding farewell to Southern California to greet our new home: Dublin, Ireland. We’ll actually be staying in Oxford, England first until the Irish government finishes processing our work visas.

(Nope, it’s not the sun, I’m sure you’re wondering: I’m going to miss fish tacos the most. And family, of course.)

So, to mark the occasion, I wanted to take a break from my regular newsy musings to look into the history of a word long associated with my new home – and really only surviving the expression beyond the pale.

Pale

In the English of the late 1300s, a pale was a “stake,” the wooden sort driven into the ground – or impaled into Dracula’s heart. Stakes can make a “fence,” a fence can mark a “boundary,” and a boundary can demarcate a “territory,” as pale all came to name.

Historically, England controlled a number of regions known as the English pale. The earliest pale in the record encompassed modern-day Calais, France; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this to the 1450s. About a century later, the English pale also included southern Scotland – and, most notoriously, the greater Dublin, Ireland area. This territory became known simply as the Pale. (Imperial Russia later had a Pale, too, which confined where Jews could live.)

Many claim beyond the pale referred to the ‘wild’ regions outside of English jurisdiction in Ireland, hence the expression’s meaning of “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” The OED, however, does not actually date the phrase – first attested in “beyond the pale of expedience” – until 1720. This is significantly later than the pale’s Irish reference, making this origin story a rather contemptuous bit of folk etymology.

So, beyond the pale is metaphorical – and has been. In the 1480s, Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, used pale in translation for a professional “domain” or “field.” (Caxton was referencing monks and abbots, it so happens.) We might think of beyond the pale as, originally, “out of one’s area of expertise.”

English ultimately drove pale into its ground from the Latin pālus, a “stake.” The ancient Romans also used a pālus as a wooden sword to practice fighting – and, imitating an enemy soldier, as a post in the ground to practice their fighting on. English derives impale, palisade, and pole from the root. Travail and travel –  appropriately enough, at least for the latter, so we’re hoping – are also related, but those origins are beyond the pale of this post.

Pale, as in pale skin, is not related, though my own complexion will soon lose much of its Southern California sunburn, thankfully, in its new climes.

Now, etymologists think Latin’s pālus is ultimately formed from the verb pangere, “to fix,” as one fixes a pale into the ground. Incredibly, this verb also yields peace, rooted in the sense of a pact fastening two parties together.

“Fastened together”: that, I think, aptly describes my wife and me as we venture into our new pales, so to speak, in a country whose rich linguistic traditions will certainly inspire many a Mashed Radish post ahead.

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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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And the Oscar goes to…Boycott?

All eyes are on the big name at the Academy Awards tonight: Boycott.

Yes, this year, the Oscars are in the spotlight not as much for who’s nominated, but for who’s not. Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Smith are boycotting Hollywood’s big night to protest the conspicuous lack of diversity in the actors and filmmakers the Academy nominated in its top categories, trending in social media as #OscarsSoWhite.

Like the top prize, the Oscar, or “God’s spear,” as I discussed in a previous post on the award’s name, boycott derives from a name.

Boycott

First cited in 1880, boycott, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology elucidates:

is an allusion to Captain Charles Boycott, 1832-1897, an English land agent over Irish tenant farmers, who refused to lower rents in hard times and was subjected to an organized campaign by local people who refused to have any dealings with him…The practice was widely instituted towards others and the term was quickly adopted by newspapers in almost all European and many non-European languages.

Barnhart goes on to provide examples of the adoption, which notably includes the Japanese boikotto.

Boycott‘s ostracism featured tenants’ refusal to work his farms and businesspersons’ refusal to trade with him. The eponym later extended to various protestatory refusals, such as like the one we are seeing this Oscar night.

What a way to be remembered, huh? As we saw recently, Bork was borked. Boycott was boycotted. And I don’t think we really want to give him one of those golden statuettes.

A -cott-age industry?

Boycott inspired girlcott, a boycott carried out by women (who must have felt the word was simply mansplaining protests).

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this playful formation, girlcott, to  1884. It features -cott as an early example of a “libfix”,  a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky for this fun and fascinating phenomenon we see in inventions like Snowzilla or Carmageddon, both of which make people take a staycation. This -cott, like –zilla, –(a)geddon, –cation, and –splain doesn’t have an inherent meaning like the suffix -ness or -ly do, for example, but is liberated from a word and affixed to new coinages. Hence, Zwicky’s libfixBoycott is a family name, likely taken from where the family’s from in England.

This -cott, of course, should not be confused with mascot (a French term for “talisman” that may be relate to mask), ascot (named for Ascot, a city near Windsor, Berkshire in England remembered for the fashions worn at a big race held there), or Epcot (the Disney World theme park, “Experimental Prototype of Community of Tomorrow”).

If you support Trump’s recent call to boycott Apple over its refusal to decrypt a phone used by one of the San Bernardino’s shooters, as I recently touched on in my post on crypt, you might want to…orangecott it?

And #OscarsSoWhite, to circle back, might not seek to boycott the red carpet but blackcott it – or diversitycott it.

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