Analysis: from útluighe to bánbiad, the rediscovered words demonstrate the quirky and colourful language of medieval Irish

By Sharon Arbuthnot, University of Cambridge

Updates to the Oxford English Dictionary deliver a regular batch of new words and phrases. The latest instalment includes gym bunny ("a person who spends a lot of time exercising"), junk mailer ("a distributor of circulars, advertisements, etc., by post") and noob ("a person new to or inexperienced in a particular sphere or activity, esp. computing or video games"). As these terms nicely illustrate, new additions to a dictionary which deals with modern-day language often have to do with lifestyle trends and developments in popular culture, technology and commercial activity.

In contrast, new additions to a dictionary of medieval language are not novel terms that have appeared recently in speech and writing, but lost words that have been rediscovered. These can include words that have been hidden in centuries-old manuscripts, words in published texts that were not picked up previously by dictionary-makers and words that have been misunderstood in the past.

Hitherto-unknown medieval words are precious finds. They extend our understanding of the vocabulary of a particular period, sometimes in unexpected ways. They offer unique insights into the people who used these terms, revealing much about their everyday lives and activities, about the beliefs and relationships that were important to them and about their contact with speakers of other languages.

From RTÉ lyric fm's Culture File, what a velum scrap from an Irish translation of Arabic medical textbook tells us about medieval Ireland

The most authoritative source of medieval Irish is the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL) which covers the language from earliest evidence up to around the year 1650. Over the past five years, I have been working as part of a team of researchers from Queen's University, Belfast, and the University of Cambridge to revise and expand the dictionary’s contents. We have changed definitions, supplied evidence to show that certain words were in circulation at an earlier date than was previously thought and even deleted a few items which proved not to be real words at all!

But when the updated version of the dictionary is launched at the end of this month, it seems likely that the main talking points will be the newly created entries. More than 500 entirely new headwords have been added, many of them testifying to the quirky and colourful language that is so characteristic of medieval Irish. They also provide fascinating titbits of information on all manner of subjects from food to festivals, superstitions to medicine and society to wildlife. 

From RTÉ Archives, a report on the launch of an Irish-Breton dictionary in 1987

As a taster of what is to come, here are 10 of my favourite new words and phrases, all notable for different reasons and certainly worth looking up as soon as the updated version of the dictionary becomes available online.

(1) Bánbiad translates literally as "white food". It was used over a long period of time to refer to dairy products and could be readily revived into Modern Irish as bánbhia to serve a similar purpose.

(2) Modern Irish already has crotach "curlew", but there seemed to be no medieval evidence for this bird-name until we noted crottach in texts going back at least as far as the early 15th century.

(3) Rímaire denotes a computist, a person concerned with calculating dates and time. We now know that this word was around in the ninth century and perhaps even earlier, but the amusing thing about this new find is that it corresponds directly to Modern Irish word ríomhaire for "computer".

The words provide fascinating titbits of information on subjects from food to festivals, superstitions to medicine and society to wildlife

(4) Slinnénacht refers to the practice of scapulimancy or divination from the shoulder-blade of an animal. So far, just one instance of the word has been located and it appears in a text of c.1600 alongside other terms for supernatural processes including néladóirecht ("cloud-divination, nephelomancy") and dernatóracht ("palmistry"). 

(5) Féil Muire Geimrid, "the Winter Feast of Mary", fell on a Sunday in 1070 and was celebrated sometime after Epiphany. This feast cannot be mapped with confidence onto any known religious festival, but it possible that the reference is to Candlemas, which is known as Lá Fhéile Mhuire na gCoinneall in Modern Irish.

(6) Galar na placóide was obviously the name of a disease. The Annals of Inisfallen tell us that, in the year 1259, people and horses suffered from it and that it involved some form of cough. The relevant extract from the Annals is interesting also for its unorthodox spellings of Irish such as er ekybh for more common ar eachaibh for "on horses".

(7) Ngetal was the early Irish name for the letter-cluster ng, which we still find in Modern Irish expressions such as i nGaillimh for "in Galway". Though it seems very unusual today to see an Irish word spelt in this way, there are several examples of this term, so it is clear that ngetal not only meant "ng" but also began with ng-.

(8) Ó is an exclamation, corresponding to something like "ah!" or "oh!" in English. As a single-letter word, examples are very difficult to find, but there is at least one clear instance, dating from around the year 845: ó ní epur na haill "oh! I say nothing more".

(9) Útluighe "an outlaw'" goes back ultimately to Old Norse útlagi, though the term was perhaps borrowed into Irish through English or Anglo-Norman. It was used once by Ulster poet Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe in the 13th century but apparently never caught on.

(10) Foclóracht, "vocabulary", is being added to the dictionary for the first time from a 16th-century Scottish source. It represents the latest addition to a batch of related terms. Foclóir, which is used in Modern Irish to mean "dictionary", was added in 2013, while focul, the word for "word", has been in the dictionary from the very start. 

Dr Sharon Arbuthnot is a researcher and editor for the Dictionary of the Irish Language, currently based at the University of Cambridge.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ