Irish Language Blog

An Bliosán Gréine (Jerusalem Artichoke): Ainm Contráilte i mBéarla ach “Neamhchontráilte” i nGaeilge (An English Misnomer but Irish “Non-Misnomer”) Posted by on May 25, 2009 in Irish Language

Tamaillín ó shin (a little while ago, May 6 to be specific), I hinted at a discussion of the term “Jerusalem artichoke” in Irish.  And why not?  It’s suimiúil (interesting) on several counts: “luibheolaíocht” (botany), “logainmníocht” (toponymy), “sanasaíocht” and “bréagshanasaíocht” (etymology and pseudo-etymology), “cócaireacht” (cooking), and “eolas contráilte”(misinformation), to name just a few.


You may recall that the key to understanding Jerusalem artichoke,” the English name of the plant Helianthus tuberosus, is the Italian word “girasole” (turning toward the sun, heliotropic).  It has nothing to do with Jerusalem, which, if it were part of the phrase, would be “Iarúsailéim.”  So, if we look at the word’s history, its sanasaíocht, or in this case, bréagshanasaíocht, we find that the “girasole” element eventually became Jerusalem, through similarity of sound and the fact that so many plant and animal species are, in fact, named after geographic locations, accurate or not.  Stranger things have been known to happen, soundwise, like “sparrowgrass” for “asparagus,” or toponymically, as in Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which originated in New York, or “Panama hats,” which are traditionally made in Ecuador. 


Whether the plant actually turns to the sun or not, I will not question here, not being a luibheolaí (botanist), but if anyone can vouch for the plant’s héileatrópacht (heliotropism), I’d be interested to hear about it.   Or maybe we should ask the aptly named character, Miss Heliotrope, from the children’s book, The Little White Horse, which is one of my all-time favorites, and to judge from her recent endorsement, one of J. K. Rowling’s childhood favorites also.  Of course, Miss Heliotrope’s name comes from the color of her nose, which matches the color of the heliotrope flower, and not from any sun-turning propensities, but, sin Á.B.E.


Irish, I’m pleased to say, drops the ainm contráilte (misnomer) and simply uses “bliosán gréine” (sun artichoke) for H. tuberosus.  We’re still left with calling this sunflower an “artichoke” but that much seems irreversible.  Apparently its root is edible and tastes something like artichoke, hence the connection.  Can’t say I’ve ever tried it though.  Agus tusa?  Ar ith tú fréamh bliosán gréine riamh? (And yourself?  Ever eat Jerusalem artichoke root?).  If so, I’d be interested to know how it was prepared and I’m sure other readers would be interested too.  That might even help us work on one particularly ambiguous bit of Irish vocabulary, the verb “bruith,” which can mean to boil, bake, broil, grill, or become burnt, usually from the sun, not culinarily, which would typically use the verb “” (to burn).  So that’s our cócaireacht connection. 


The globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus), the plant we normally eat, is actually member of the feochadán (thistle) family.  Thistles and their Celtic connections could easily occupy a full blog, so I’ll save that for blag éigin eile. 


Pronunciation tip:

sanasaíocht: SAHN-uss-ee-ukht; the “kh” here represents the guttural “ch” sound, like German has in “Buch” or “Achtung” and as in the word “Chutzpah.”

bréagshanasaíocht: remember the “bréag” (false) part is a prefix, which softens or “lenites” the initial “s” of sanasaíocht to “sh,” and that means that the original initial “s” is not pronounced at all!  The “sh” sound in Irish is pronounced like an “h,” so here we have BRAYG-HAHN-uss-ee-ukht.  You may have learned that the first syllable is stressed in pronouncing Irish words, which is true, but the rule changes for compound words.  They typically have equal stress on the prefix and the first syllable, which I indicate here with ceannlitreacha (capital letters). 


You can also see this pronunciation rule for prefixes in effect in words like “seanchapall” (old horse), which would be represented as SHAN-KHAHP-ull, with the first two syllables having equal emphasis.  More examples of that later, i mblag eile, if you let me know that “comhfhocail” (compound words) are of particular interest.  Bhur mblagálaí – Róislín

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  1. kathleen:

    actually, I’d be interested to hear more about words to do with cócaireacht, of which I am sure there are many.

  2. Róislín:

    A Chaitlín, a chara,

    Go raibh maith agat as scríobh chugam. I’ll keep your interest in mind for a future blog. Meanwhile, here’s cúpla téarma eile:

    I cook food: déanaim cócaireacht (ar bhia)
    (lit. I do cooking on food)

    I prepare food: réitim bia (used for cooking or preparing food in general)

    Note that even though cócaireacht means “cooking,” it isn’t really used as the main verb in a sentence.

    And a few specific food items:
    arán donn – brown bread
    ispín – sausage
    stobhach Gaelach – Irish stew
    traidhfil – trifle

    All the best – R

  3. Róislín:

    A Hernan, a chara,
    Thanks for writing and for noticing the Panama hats reference tucked in amongst the Jerusalem artichoke paragraphs. I’m glad to hear even more of the history of the hats, and will be checking out your site soon. Once for teaching a children’s class in Irish language, I did my own translation of a picture book of hats, from Australian to yeoman’s and zippy, so maybe I’ll do a “hat blog” sometime. I’ll be sure to include more on the “hataí Panama” and to note that they are from Eacuadór (that’s the Irish spelling of Ecuador). All the best, and a tip of the hat to you – R

  4. Eoin:

    Gáire os ard!

  5. róislín:

    A Eoin, a chara,

    Tá áthas orm gur bhain tú sult as! – R

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