IRISH CELEBRATIONS AND DERIVATIONS: A ST PATRICK'S DAY GUIDE TO WORDS
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
St Patrick’s Day may be a day of merriment – and occasional reckless behaviour in pubs – but there’s a lot more to it than shamrocks, green shirts and Guinness! So, in the spirit of the day, it’s time for a quick look at the history of St Patrick himself, the day of celebration, and the ways that the Irish language has influenced English.
Patrick – pre-sainthood – was a Christian missionary and bishop in 5th century Ireland. He was born in Roman Britain, the latest in a line of men of religion. However, he only really came into religion himself upon finding God as a slave shepherd after being kidnapped and taken to Ireland. That’s the very, very simplified version, of course – you can easily learn more with a bit of a Google if you’d like to fill in the gaps. Or visit a good history website.
According to sources, Patrick died on the 17th of March – so Irish and other folk alike celebrate St Patrick’s Day on that date. Festivities and feasts have been happening on St Patrick’s Day for over 1000 years at this point – though the big celebrations that happen these days mostly grew out of the Irish diaspora, rather than in the motherland. Nowadays, celebrations can be seen anywhere from Ireland to Argentina to Malaysia – even on the International Space Station!
Emerald Isle English
Since this is a wordy place, it seems only appropriate to tie-in some relevant lexicographical bits and pieces. So here’s a collection of words we use in English that have Irish origins – it’s not all leprechauns, that’s for sure!
Let’s start with the more obvious ones. ‘Whiskey’ – not going to surprise anyone. The phrase that we get the word from is uisce beatha, which directly translates as ‘water of life’. A poetic but not inaccurate way of looking at it! ‘Shamrock’ comes from seamróg, referring to the plant. The particular connection with St Patrick’s Day relates back to Patrick using the three-leafed flower as an allegory for the Holy Trinity of Catholic tradition.
Irish speakers are sometimes described as having a ‘brogue’ – this usage is presumed to have come from the type of shoe (and the people who wore them), which in turn comes from bróg, meaning ‘shoe’! Also within the realms of vocalisation comes ‘banshee’ – the shrieking fairy woman seen as an omen of death. The word comes from bainsídhe, meaning ‘female fairy’.
Then there are the words you’ve probably never connected with anything in particular – so here are a few surprises! ‘Slogan’ has evolved a fair bit over time – while it’s used now as a particular phrase attached to a group or organisation, it comes from sluagh-ghairm, which describes ‘a battle-cry used by Gaelic clans’.
‘Bog’ has Irish roots too – from bogach. Both words have the same meaning – a wetland – though as far as we know, bogach hasn’t taken on the lavatorial tones that ‘bog’ has over in the UK. And ‘clock’ – Old Irish Clocc (bell) led to Old High German glocka and then back into English’s ‘clock’ via Flemish. Whew!