7 English words with Irish origins

By Laurine Tiran / April 20, 2021
7 English words with Irish origins

Languages come from a mixing process, that’s why we find English words with Irish origins more often than you might think. Here are a few of them, described and discussed with a fluent Irish speaker. 

 

As everybody knows, Ireland is an English-speaking country, but it doesn’t mean that the Emerald Isle doesn’t have its own language. Indeed, when arriving in Ireland, don’t be surprised to see the road signs both in English and in Irish. 

Irish is part of the Celtic language family and is called Gaeilge in its original form. However it shouldn’t be confused with Gaelic. A lot of foreigners believe the words Irish and Gaelic can be both used to speak about the local dialect of Ireland, but this is a mistake: the Gaelic language refers to Scottish Gaelic, not Irish. 

7 English words with Irish origins(© O’Dea at Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

“You might be surprised to know but most people in Ireland aren’t fluent in Irish,” Aoife, a Irish fluent speaker, tells me. The Census of Population of 2016 found that more than 1.7 million people, so almost 40% of the population, could speak Irish. 

However, the vast majority of these Irish speakers answered the census saying that they never spoke it (418,420 – 23.7%) or that they only spoke it in the educational system (558,608 – 32%). Only 73,803 people spoke it daily (4.2%), which is why UNESCO qualifies Irish as a “definitely endangered” language.

 

Irish and English: linked by history 

 

To address the links between the English and Irish languages, I interviewed Aoife. In her last year of secondary school, this student from Waterford is one of the lucky people fluent in Irish. Since she lives in Munster, she speaks the local dialect. 

“Like most Irish people, the first language I learnt was English, as for many people in Ireland,” she explains. “We learn Irish in primary and secondary school, but it is a very difficult language, and most people end up just learning what they need to for their Irish Leaving Cert exam”.

Going to a special Irish speaking primary school (a “Gaelscoil”), she spoke Irish every day from the age of four to twelve in school with teachers and friends, and also with her parents. Even in a normal English speaking secondary school, she continues with Irish lessons every day. 

“Unlike most European languages, Irish is not a language based on Latin, and therefore it is very different to those languages, has different grammar, rules, and pronunciations.”

Aoife is very aware of her land’s language influence on English, and the reasons why these languages are so linked to each other: “it’s due to Ireland being colonised by Britain”. This historical period led to the anglicisation of many Irish words, for instance the names of counties, towns, and local surnames, that are more famous today in their anglicised form. 

7 English words with Irish origins

“County Kerry was known as Ciarraí, Galway was Gaillimh, Mayo was Maigh Eo, Limerick was Luminigh,” Aoife quotes. But more recently, it also happens the other way around: “Irish is an extremely old language, and so for modern things like technology there are no Irish words. Words were created, similar to the English counterparts: television becomes teilifís, radio becomes raidió, phone becomes fón.”

However, the adaptation of Irish words in English is not the only way Ireland influenced the English language. A few English words come directly from Ireland, but not because the country’s language has been anglicised. Sometimes, its history and folklore also helped create words you can use in your everyday life. 

 

4 English words from Irish origins you can use daily 

 

Boycott: I had to really dig into history to find the Irish origins of this word. Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English land agent in Ireland in the 19th century, who got ignored by other people in County Mayo because he worked for an absentee landlord and evicted tenants as part of his job. Irish people avoided and ignored him – without violence – as a form of protest, and his name became the word we used today. 

 

Hooligan: “In Ireland, calling someone a hooligan is a bit of a funny way to say they’re acting stupid or crazy,” Aoife says. This word is commonly used to describe a certain kind of violent football (or soccer) supporter, but it supposedly comes from an Irish family in England linked to rowdy affairs, made famous through music hall songs. A certain Patrick Hooligan is also mentioned in a book by Clarence Rook, The Hooligan Nights.

Whiskey: it’s not surprising to see that this word has Irish origins. It’s the anglicised version of the Irish word uisce, which means water. “In Irish, whiskey is translated as uisce beatha, which literally means water of life!” Aoife explains. Irish monks traveled around the world and came back to Ireland with the technique of distilling perfumes, which they modified to produce a drinkable spirit.

She uses this opportunity to promote Irish culture: “Riverdance’s Cloudsong has “uisce beatha” as lyrics, you could interpret the meaning of the song to be about a woman, or even whiskey if you really wanted to. I would recommend everybody trying to see Riverdance at least once in their life, Irish or not!”

Smashing: the expression “it’s smashing” comes from the Irish version “is maith sin”. “I wasn’t actually aware that this word came from that Irish saying,” Aoife says. In Irish, “maith” means “good”. But the student adds: “I don’t use it because it sounds a bit formal and British to me.” Funny coincidence. 

 

3 English words related to Irish folklore and history

 

7 English words with Irish origins

Shamrock: the story says that Saint Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to local pagans during the Christianisation of Ireland. It comes from the Irish word seamróg.  Aoife tells me that “before St Patrick, the Celtic Druids had a meaning for the shamrock. It was originally associated with the Celtic goddess Ana or Anu, with the three leaves representing her status as the maiden, mother, and crone of Ireland.”

Banshee: probably popularised among teenagers by the TV show Teen Wolf, a banshee is a female spirit in Gaelic folklore. “Bean means woman and means ‘fairy’ or just ‘she’, however bean sí does not mean fairy woman,” Aoife explains. “The banshee is a messenger of death, a much more sinister creature. Sídhe means otherworld, so another translation could be otherworldly woman.”

Leprechaun: another word coming from Irish folklore is leipreachán. Leprechauns are a kind of fairy, “short little men with red hair, green clothes, and a little hat on,” as Aoife describes them. However, she mentions that “referring to Ireland as the land of the leprechauns is a bit insulting as it kind of makes Ireland seem foolish, a bit ridiculous, and old fashioned. It’s quite stereotypical and clichéd – we are not all ginger farmers who love the drink!”.

 

Due to the links between Great Britain and Ireland, it’s not surprising to see that there are English words with Irish origins, and there are even more that the few quoted here. The knowledge around Irish folklore and the popularity of Saint Patrick’s Day around the world also helped popularise a few words that directly come from the Irish language. And you, did you know all these words had Irish origins? Let us know in the comment section! 

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About the author

Laurine Tiran

I'm a French student doing a Master's degree in International Politics at the University of Toulon, France.

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