10 Gaelic Words to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

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It’s said that everyone gets to be a bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. In that case, it’s only fair that everyone has a few words of Irish Gaelic origin ready for the occasion. Irish Gaelic is a living language of the Celtic family, and today, there are an estimated 1.3 million habitual fluent speakers in the Republic of Ireland alone.

Centuries ago, the Old Irish language dominated Ireland as well as the Isle of Man and roughly half of Scotland. Since the Middle Ages, Gaelic languages have endured gradual reduction from encroaching English—clinging to the fringes of the British Isles and developing into separate Gaelic languages, of which Irish Gaelic is just one. Irish may have been on the road to extinction, but in the 1800s, an Irish literary revival began to inspire Irish inhabitants to cherish their language and care about its future. After Irish independence in the 1920s, laws were enacted to preserve daily use and teach the language to future generations of Irish citizens.

On account of conquest, commerce, and immigration over hundreds of years, the English and Irish languages have mingled together and intertwined. From all this contact, a set of curious and often cheeky vocabulary has found its way into the English vernacular. The list below, spanning from the firmly grounded to the loftiest of the poetic, will enliven any type of St. Paddy’s Day revelry.

1. BROGUE

Irish shoe pattern

Derived from the Gaelic word for shoe, this noun in English today has two meanings. The first, used to describe a fashion of perforated leather shoes, recalls the style employed by Gaels to allow water to drain out of their shoes while traversing soggy bogs. The second, slang for an Irish or Scottish accent, is assumedly derived from the former.

2. HOOLIGAN

Irish green beer pattern

A term for a participant in rowdy, raucous behavior, this term derives from the Gaelic surname Ó hUallacháin(anglicized as O’Houlihan). Though the exact reason is unknown, one doesn’t need to delve too deeply into Irish stereotype to imagine how a surname could become shorthand for such mischief.

3. BANSHEE

Irish shamrock pattern

This mythical female spirit is an omen of death in Irish folklore. To “howl like a Banshee” is to induce the same legendary spine-tingling terror. Banshee is a compound which correlates to the modern Irish for woman (bean) and fairy (sídh).

4. GOB

Irish green beer pattern

The common English term gobble derives from this noun meaning “mouth,” or literally, “beak.” In Ireland, the term gobshite remains a common (though impolite) term for someone who talks a lot of nonsense.

5. GALORE

Claddagh pattern

When typical quantity-descriptors just don’t quite cut it, the Irish phrase go leor literally translates as “to sufficiency.” Ceart go leor remains a common response in modern Irish meaning “alright” or “good enough.”

6. SLEW

Irish leprechaun hat pattern

Irish is not shortchanged of ways to describe plenty. This one comes from the Irish sluagh, meaning “a large crowd,” often used in reference to armies. If even that doesn’t suffice, add an augmentative prefix for mórshlua, a multitude or great host.

7. SLOGAN

Irish pot of gold pattern

Sluagh injects itself into English yet again with this term, deriving from sluagh-ghairm, the battle-cry of an amassed army. The first English attestment of its modern usage dates back to 1704.

8. SMITHEREENS

Irish celtic cross pattern

As in “blasted into smithereens,” the root-word “smithers” may have been loaned from English. However, the original smidirínícarries a classically Irish diminutive suffix. If the original root-word was in fact English, this term has thus traveled full-circle.

9. SMIDGEN

Irish pipe pattern

Possibly related to smithereens, we take this term from the Gaelic smidean/smitch, or “a very small amount.” A phrase more commonly heard at a bar than on a battlefield.

10. WHISKEY (OR WHISKY)

barrel pattern

The word for this beloved drink is derived from uisce beatha, which translates literally as “the water of life.” With such pure poetic cheer, it’s no wonder St. Paddy’s Day has such universal appeal.


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