Irish Language Blog

An Dréadal agus an Roithleagán Rotha: Cineálacha Caiseal Posted by on Dec 14, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

A dréadal (plural: dréadail) is a version of a type of caiseal ([KASH-ul] spinning top) also known as a “teetotum” in English.  Interestingly, while the word “dréadal” seems to be a recent adaptation in Irish, the Irish word for “teetotum,” roithleagán rotha, has been around for a good while.  As have teetotums in general — one is depicted in Brueghel’s famous painting, Children’s Games, from 1560.  Téarmaí suimiúla gach ceann

Dréadal” can be spelled “dreidel,” “dreidle,” or “dreydl” in English and comes from the verb “dreyen” (to turn).  On each of its four sides is a litir Eabhraise that gives the instructions for what the player is to do (take everything in the “pot,” take half, etc.).  The four letters also form a sentence meaning “A great miracle happened here.”

While this blog isn’t primarily concerned with sanasaíocht an Bhéarla (English etymology), it’s interesting to note the origin of the word “teetotum,” if only because it’s completely different from the Irish word for the same object.  The side with “T” stood for “totum” (all, i.e. player takes all) and the other three sides had A (aufer, take one piece), D (depone, put a piece in) and N (nihil, nothing).  The “tee-“ part just seems to be a prefix added for emphasis.  

That is quite different from the Irish “roithleagán rotha.”  The basic meanings of “roithleagán” include “circle,” “little wheel,” “twirling” or “wheeling.”  I might point out, though, that the more ordinary words for “circle” and “wheel” are “ciorcal” and “roth,” respectively, with “rothán” for “little wheel.”  In fact, if we consider “roithleagán” simply as a wheel, we’d have a rather repetitive phrase, since “rotha” simply means “of a wheel.”  So “roithleagán rotha,” the Irish for “teetotum,” very literally means “circle of a wheel,” “little wheel of a wheel,” or “twirling of a wheel,” etc.  

I wouldn’t say “roithleagán” is really widely used in Irish, but it does also show up in the phrase “roithleagán ró,” which is variously translated as “merry-go-round” and “whirligig.”  How “roithleagán rotha” came to be used for a teetotum, which is four-sided, not round, is thar m’eolas (beyond my ken). 

Finally, we have the word “caiseal” (spinning top, in general), which has perplexed me for years, and still does.  The primary meaning of “caiseal” is “stone fort” and it can also mean “boundary wall” and “castle” in chess terminology (but not in everyday terminology, which uses “caisleán”).  While those three meanings have a clear continuity, “spinning top” seems completely unrelated.  Of course, there is that folktale where Fionn Mac Cumhaill turns his castle-like home on a mountain peak around so it catches the best light at different times of day,* but somehow I think that the traditional Irish caiseal (stone fort) wasn’t meant to be spun around!  It’s a widely recognized word, since it’s the origin of the place name Cashel, in Co. Tipperary.  There’s also a “Cashel” in Ontario and one in Minnesota, and even one sa tSiombáib, although that one comes from “caiseal” as a surname, named after Rowan Cashel, who was a Major in the Rhodesian Regiment of the 1st South African Brigade in the WWI era.  The surname “Cashel” in Irish is Ó Caisil.  But the connection of “caiseal” to a spinning top” seems obscure, unless somehow the verb “cas” (twist, turn, wind) has gotten enmeshed in this thread of meaning that, on the surface, would seem to derive from “castle,” “castellum,” etc.  

Anyway, that’s a bit of background to the dréadal.  While the dréadal seems to be holding its own in this era of electronic toys, when children seem to rarely play with such a simple toy as a spinning top, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child play with a non-dreidel teetotum.  Or seen one for sale.  I guess I should Google Toys “R” Us next.  Or better yet, go into an actual store and ask what aisle the teetotums (teetota?) are in. 

One last point of interest (I hope!).  On my eternal quest to find interesting uses of Irish words in online contexts, I looked around a bit for dréadal, but almost nothing came up.  I did find several dozen references, though, to “Tracy Reese Dreadal Skirts,” spelling “dreadal” presumably as an English word, with no long mark.  I understand that Reese is a highly successful and celebrated fashion designer, known for her “retro-chic,” but I don’t know how the word “dreadal” fits that picture.  I doubt there’s any connection to dréadail as such.  Anyone know?  I couldn’t find any fashion industry term “dreadal” that would seem like a cineál sciorta (type of skirt).  Curious!  SGF–Róislín

Nótaí: roithleagán [RIH-lyag-awn, the “t” is silent], Eabhrais [YOW-rish] Hebrew; Eabhraise [YOW-rish-uh] of Hebrew; roth [ruh] wheel; rotha [RUH-huh] of a wheel; an tSiombáib [un TCHIM-baw-ib] Zimbabwe; sciorta [SHKIRT-uh] skirt

*Perhaps the prototype for the revolving summerhouses one sometimes sees in the UK, which are perched on rotating turntables?  I’ve never seen one in the US or noticed one in Ireland.  


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