Wednesday 18 June, 2008
An etymological Celtic knot
My thought for the day: Dictionaries are dangerous!
And when they are combined with Google and Wikipedia they are triply
dangerous. I can no longer remember why or where this particular
dictionary trek started, but here goes anyway.
On 27 May I posted some idle musings about borrowings
from Irish and Scots Gaelic. I didn't include the word
leprechaun. Well, we all know that comes from Irish and it
refers to the exclusively Irish "Little People", don't we? Well, I
know I thought I did. However, things are not quite that
The Foclóir Gaeilge-Bearla (Niall Ó Dónaill,
ed., 1977. Dublin: Oifig An tSolatháir) indeed has an entry for the word
leipreachán, but it starts: 1 = Lucharachán ...So
turning to that entry we find: Puny creature, pygmy, dwarf; elf
.....(Variants: lucharbán, luchargán, lucharpán, luchramán).
Unfortunately, this dictionary is silent on etymology, so off we go to
Chambers Dictionary. This suggests: prob OIr luchorpán,
from lu small and corpan (sic, JM), corp a body.
Well, maybe. The Foclóir Gaeilge-Bearla entry on
lucharachán also contains the instruction See also Práta,
turning to which word (meaning "potato") .....2. ~ clutharacáin,
lucharacháin, pignut. We sigh gently and turn to clutharacán
(the -in endings, by the way, are the mark of the genitive case, in case
you're interested). Here we find: = Lucharachán,
See also Píopa. So off we go to Píopa (meaning "pipe") and
discover to our delight that 4. ~ clutharacáin, ~ geancánaigh,
means "acorn-bowl". However, the word cluthar is an
adjective meaning "secret, secretive", so maybe Chambers has it wrong,
because this seems a plausible root for a word denoting a member of the
Maybe Wikipedia can shed some light. But no!
However, a link from the Wikipedia page leads us to an online copy of
Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
edited by W B Yeats. Here we read that the word lepracaun (Yeats's
spelling) derives, according to Mr Douglas Hyde, from the Irish leith
brogán, which according to Mr Hyde, means "One-Shoemaker", though
how he arrives at that conclusion I cannot see. It is true,
however, that far from being the Disneyfied "sprite or creature who
helps Irish housewives...", as Chambers asserts, the leprechaun
is usually depicted Irish folk tales as a miserly curmudgeon who makes a
fortune out of mending shoes and hides pots of gold all over the shop.
Finally, back to whence we started, and the Foclóir Gaeilge-Bearla
leipreachán. This concludes: 2. (Of figurine) Leprechaun.
Well, gee thanks!
I have no idea how long that particular
dictionarywikiwander took, but at the end of it I had no real ambition
left to investigate the Far Darrig (Irish: fear dearg = "red
man"), who, unsurprisingly, wears red, and is fond of playing gruesome
tricks on people, nor to look into the secrets of the Cluricaun, whose
favourite pastime is breaking into gentlemen's cellars and getting
plastered on their booze, which has led some to the opinion that he is
nothing more than a leprechaun on a binge. Hmmm, binge.
Now there's an interesting word. I wonder...