Irish Language Blog

An Dá Mhuirín agus an Dá Mhúirín (families, scallops, and leaf-mould, oh my! — plus ‘showers’ but that would break ‘an mhéim’) Posted by on Feb 22, 2016 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Cad í an chosúlacht atá idir an dá phictiúr seo? Leid: ní bhaineann sé leis an bpictiúr é féin ach le litriú na bhfocal atá orthu i nGaeilge. (barr, an sliogán:; bun, an grúpa daoine:

Cad í an chosúlacht atá idir an dá phictiúr seo? Leid: ní bhaineann sé leis an bpictiúr é féin ach le litriú na bhfocal atá orthu i nGaeilge. (barr, an sliogán:; bun, an grúpa daoine:

Sometimes it seems that no sooner do you learn one Irish word, than you find another one spelled in almost the same way.   In some cases, these are, in fact, dialect variations of the same word (raibh/rabh nó madra/madadh, mar shampla).   But often they are completely different words, sometimes with just a “fada” of difference.  And sometimes there are words spelled exactly the same way, “fadas” and all, with totally different meanings, just to add to the mix.

So in this blogpost, we’ll look at two pairs of words, one set is spelled identically and the second set differs from them by having a “u” fada (ú) instead of a “u” gearr (u).

As the title suggests, we have two examples with a short “u.”  Here’s an overview, then we’ll continue the discussion with a bit more detail.

1) muirín, family (an mhuirín, the family, pl: muiríneacha), which, btw, is grammatically feminine and an exception to the general rule that most words ending in “-ín” (like teachín, tigín, bóithrín, and even cailín) are masculine.

2) muirín, scallop (an muirín, the scallop, pl: muiríní)

And two examples with a long “u.”

3) múirín,  leaf-mould, vegetable-mould, turf-mould, compost, mire (an múirín, the leaf-mould, etc.; no plural because it’s a collective noun)

4) múirín, brief shower (an múirín, the brief shower; pl: múiríní)

Each word has some interesting background and comparisons.

1) muirín (family):  first, let’s note that there are at least five other words for family in Irish (teaghlach, clann, cúram, comhluadar, and muirear) and that’s not even getting into “fine” (family, clan, kin-group), as used in discussing kinship and in plant taxonomy.  “Teaghlach” is probably the one most people learn first.  This set of words is probably worthy of a blog unto itself, am éigin sa todhchaí.  I can’t help but note though, that “muirín” and “cúrám” and  “muirear” all have additional meanings related to responsibility (muirín: charge, encumbrance, burden, load; muirear: charge, encumbrance, burden, load, weight, troop, throng, household; cúram: care, charge, task, duty).  I guess that speaks for itself.

And now back to “muirín” itself.  Since most words with an “­-ín” ending are diminutives (stóirín, Brídín, Séamaisín, Seoinín, srl.), one wonders if “muirín” is also.  However, looking at some older spellings of it (muirighean or muirghin), I wonder if, instead, it’s based on “gein / gin” (conception, genesis, occasionally used for “child”).  Once the “g” is lenited (changed to “gh”), the sound would be more like “-ín.”  Many such spellings were changed during the spelling reform of the 1950s.  What the “muir” part of the word might mean, though, is beyond me.  Presumably notmuir” (sea).

And now the second “muirín.”

2) muirín (scallop) might be related to “muireachaoin,” a general Irish term for the gastropod “murex,” a type of predatory sea snail (Yikes!) although they do seem quite different in shape from scallops.   In addition, there is a somewhat dated word, “murach,” which is also defined as “murex” (presumably the “purple dye murex”) and can also mean “a type of purple shellfish” or “any type of “shellfish.”   Perhaps this “-ín” suffix is not the original ending, maybe there originally was a word like “*murachín” (hypothetically) and the “ch” disappeared over time.  Other than those possibilities, it’s not clear to me what “muirín” as “scallop” might be derived from, unless, quite speculatively, there could be a notion of “sea-born” (muir as sea + –ghin), but even I’m not  convinced of that one.  Eolas ag duine ar bith?  If “murach” looks like another completely different word you know, or if you’re wondering about the vowel harmony issue, please see the notes below.

And now for “múirín” with a long u (ú).  First, we have the agricultural context:

3) múirín,  leaf-mould, compost, etc., is, I assume, a diminutive of “múr,” which can mean “mire” or “puddle,” There is a second word for compost, but it sounds a bit new-fangled to me: meán fáis, lit. a growing medium (and no, that’s not Kathleen Goligher or her fellow spioradáltaithe after consuming Alice’s “Eat Me” size-changing cake — it’s simply decaying organic matter used to facilitate the growth of plants or crops)

If that’s not enough, we also have gnáthmhúirín [GNAW-WIRzh-een], general compost, and a lovely example of multiple lenition within one word, especially if we look at its genitive case in a phrase like “uigeacht an ghnáthmhúirín” (the texture of the general compost)

And finally, “múirín” as a weather term.

4) múirín, brief shower, a diminutive of “múr” (shower, cloud of dust, spindrift).  In my experience, “cith” is a more typical word for “shower;” at least that’s the one that gives us related words like “cithfholcadán” (a shower, that is, a shower-bath) and “tuar ceatha” (rainbow, lit. sign of a shower).  But “múirín” and “múr” certainly can also be used and are related to such weather words as “múirling” (a heavy sudden shower), “múraíl” (showery conditions), “ag múraíl” (showering).

There are actually a few more words that are worth noting here, although their usage is probably pretty limited today:

múirín na muc (lit. múirín of the pigs), a type of seaweed (channel wrack, aka dúlamán in Irish), presumably a diminutive of “múr,” as noted above, which, intriguingly, can also mean “a type of red seaweed” as well as “mire” or “puddle.”   That is, when it (múr) isn’t busy as a completely different word meaning “wall (especially fortified)” or “rampart,” which gives us a nice cognate to Latin (mūrus, wall, related to “mural,” “intramural,” etc.).  And just to keep us on our linguistic toes, there’s also “muirmhúr,” which means  “breakwater,” lit. “sea-wall.”

Finally, we’ve got one more word that could have a diminutive and enter our discussion, but I just haven’t seen it in use as such.  This is the “muir” of “muir chlúmhach,” which, perhaps a bit obscurely, can mean “common caterpillar,” or more logically, “hairy caterpillar.”  So “muirín chlúmhach” could mean “a small common/hairy caterpillar.”  Or we could make it grammatically masculine, since the “-ín” suffix usually triggers that change, and then we’d have “muirín clúmhach.”  But just to add another dimension to this discussion, there’s at least one more way to say “hairy caterpillar” (speig neanta) and there’s also a general word for “caterpillar” (bolb, pronounced with two syllables [BOL-ub]).  Furthermore, it seems that “muir chlúmhach” is actually related to the woman’s name “Máire,” since another name for this critter is “Máirín an chlúimh.”   At any rate, I can’t find any examples of “muirín c(h)lúmhach” or even “muirín an chlúimh,” so I’ll have to leave this possibility as “hypothetical” and “unattested.”   Full-sized hairy caterpillars, yes, go leor acu, but diminutive ones remain linguistically unknown.  Fad m’eolais, ar ndóigh.  Anyway, maybe in some future blog we can discuss caterpillars and variations of the name “Máire” in more detail.

Bhuel, getting back to our original tripartite “méim” (Families, Scallops, and Leaf-mould, oh my!”) plus one additional term (“Showers”), we’ve now seen four seemingly similar words, with some ideas on where they come from.  Hope you found it suimiúil.  And here’s some (sea)food for thought:

Chuaigh muirín Uí Mhurchú a fhad leis an muirmhúr ag muirínteacht muiríní go dtí gur thosaigh múirín agus b’éigean dóibh stopadh.  Chuaigh siad abhaile sa charr ach faraor, thit cuid de na muiríní ar urlár an chairr agus ní fhaca duine ar bith iad.  An chéad uair eile nuair a chuaigh siad isteach sa charr (cúpla lá ina dhiaidh sin) bhí drochbholadh ann, i bhfad níos measa ná boladh an mhúirnín sa chlós. 

 — Róislín

And by the way, if you’re wondering, “Cérbh í Kathleen Goligher?”  Ba spioradáltaí í.  Rugadh i mBéal Feirste i 1898 í.  Tuilleadh eolais fúithi anseo:


  1. Not “murach,” a completely different word, with meanings like “if not” or “only” (like “only for the fact that”), as in “Murach sin, bheinn ann” (if it weren’t for that, I’d be there) or “Murach gurb é an Luan é” (only for the fact that it is Monday).  Hmm, so … “Murach an murach, ní bheadh ruaim chorcra againn” which could also be expressed as “Murach muireachaoin na corcra, ni bheadh ruaim chorcra againn.
  2. Regarding vowel harmony, probably over 99% of Irish words follow the practice but there are exceptions.  “Teachín” is one type of exception, where adding a suffix breaks vowel harmony.  My hypothetical word “*murachín” would take the same liberty.  Other exceptions to vowel harmony include “anseo” and “ansin,” each of which can be explained by older alternate spellings (annso, inseo, annsoin, ansan, srl.) and the fact that each of these is sometimes considered to be two separate words (an + seo/so; an + sin/soin/san, srl.).

Gluais: gnáth-, ordinary; ruaim, dye; rugadh, was born

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