Irish Language Blog

Bob nó Bia – Trick or Treat Posted by on Oct 24, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Sorry, all you Bobs in the Bob Club (  This blog (“Bob nó Bia“) is not specifically about you, though I hope you’ll find it of interest if you’ve made it this far through cibearspás [KIB-yar-SPAWSS],


“Bob” is an Irish word that means “a trick” or “a target” (in games)Pronunciation is straightforward enough, but please remember it’s not quite the “ah” sound we find in the English name “Bob,” but rather the Irish short “o” sound as in “pota.”     


I should also mention that there’s another word in Irish that’s probably more widely used for “trick” in general, that is “cleas,” which also means “a feat” or “an act.”  And for talking about targets in general, we have “sprioc” and “targaid” [TAR-uh-gidj], the latter largely used in sports terminology. 


“Bia” is a word many of you will already recognize, “food.” 


No doubt a key factor in the phrase “bob nó bia” is “uaim” (alliteration), which also contributes to the tarraingteacht (catchiness) of the English “trick or treat.”  In fact, as I look for this frása in some other languages, I find a lot of emphasis on uaim.  Numerous phrases exist, although a lot of discussions indicate that the phrase is not traditional, as such.  Some contributors say something to the effect of, “Well, we don’t really say that but you could say …”  In some cases, the English phrase seems to be used in other languages.  Nonetheless, many of the samplaí are a great fóram uama (forum of alliteration):


Possible phrases for “Trick or Treat” in other languages, seachas an Ghaeilge:


Spáinnis: Truco o trato

Fraincis: bonbons ou bâton

Iodáilis: dolcetto o scherzetto

Portaingéilis: doces ou travessuras

Rómáinis: ne daţi ori nu ne daţi

Seicis: koleda při Halloweenu


Which brings me to another point.  I’ve been wondering about the Irish for “Trick or treat” for about 20 years, but never encountered the phrase in a traditional context, despite having read volumes about the Irish origin of Halloween.  So, while the phrase is certainly part of the Irish lexicon now, it remains unclear just how traidisiúnta this particular phrase is.  A quick turas ar an Idirlíon yielded only 13 searchable examples for “bob nó bia,” which showed up presumably because of how they were tagged.  The vast comparison with the number of hits for “trick or treat” in English, is, well, more or less, a foregone conclusion, but I just checked and got about deich milliún (10,000,000).


There seems to be some reverse marketing going on, regarding Halloween, in that it is an Old World custom brought to the United States.  Now it is being exported back to Europe, mostly in a more commercial sense.  I’ve talked to European adults from various countries who say that no, it was not part of their childhood.  But now it has caught on, at least in the commercial sense (pop culture costumes, special candy manufacturing, etc.).  Of course, many of these countries have their own festivities held at other times of the year, replete with cultacha traidisiúnta nó cruthaitheacha (creative), nathanna cainte (sayings), agus bianósanna.


And, by the way, Bob(s), if you’ve read this far, I probably will devote a future blog to your namesake, since there are all kinds of interesting Irish words that either equate to one of the dozen or so meanings “bob” has in English, or are borrowed from English and are, therefore, also spelled “bob.”  Now if all the Bobs in the Bob Club (Cumann na mBob?) start reading this blog, that will be quite an impressive number!  An bhfuil sibh ann, a lucht na mBob? Slán go fóill — Róislín


Nóta: na mBob [num ob, the first “b” becomes silent] of the Bobs

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  1. Rick Forbes:

    Of course, the B’ah’b pronounciation only applies to the American English regional accent, in standard English or Irish English it is a strict

  2. Róislín:

    A Rick, a chara,

    In that case, no clarification would be needed, but I wanted to be on the safe side, since many readers are American. I do wonder if there’s really any such thing as Béarla Caighdeánach, though.

    At any rate, all the best, and thanks for your interest. Róislín.

  3. Rick Forbes:

    Grma a Róisín,

    Béarla Caighdeánach would be the one spoken by English people in England.

    On a more Irish note we had a proper muinteóir in today. My head is still buzzing with all the Irish that he has stuffed into my head.

    I still like the blog, keep up the good work.


  4. Róislín:

    A Rick, a chara,

    Meadhrán i do cheann mar gheall ar an Ghaeilge, an ea? Sounds like you have a great teacher there!

    And that could be an interesting topic for a “blag sa todhchaí — different ways to say “my head is swimming, reeling, buzzing, srl.

    Thanks again for your comments, and all the best,


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