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‘S é an séasúr é! ‘Tis the season! So let’s do a little holiday terminology. Some of these phrases are quite well known but all are interesting when looked at from a translator’s perspective.
Nollaig Shona! or to be more specific “Nollaig Shona dhuit!” (to one person) or “Nollaig Shona dhaoibh! (plural). Or “Nollaig Shona duit” (or “daoibh”), depending on dialect.
So, here the word for “happy,” comes from “sona.” It becomes “shona” [HUN-uh] because “Nollaig” is grammatically feminine.
But for “Happy New Year,” the most typical phrase is “Athbhliain faoi mhaise!” or sometimes “Athbhliain faoi shéan is faoi mhaise!” No “sona” or “shona” at all!
For “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” and “Happy Easter,” the phrases are usually “Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig” [the blessings of the feast-day of Patrick] and “Beannachtaí na Cásca” [the blessings of Easter]. No “happy” as such at all at all!
For “Happy Birthday to you!” we return to “sona” in the phrase “Lá Breithe Sona dhuit!” And it’s not “shona” as I frequently see on the Internet. “Sona” changed to “shona” with “Nollaig” because “Nollaig” is feminine. “Lá” is masculine, so we stick to the basic form, “sona.”
And just to balance out the mix, the phrase for a “happy death,” (death in the state of grace), the phrase is “dea-bhás.” The basic meanings of the prefix “dea-“ are “good” and “well.”
So the moral of the story is don’t simply look up the word “happy” in an English-Irish dictionary and assume that the first meaning you find fits all the contexts. It just doesn’t work that way!
“Ach cad faoi ‘merry’?” a deir na Meiriceánaigh. Fairly straightforward, I guess. In Irish, one is simply wishing that the Christmas will be “happy,” not “merry” as such, which would be “meidhreach.” Depending on what you mean by “merry,” it can also be understood as “súgach” (tipsy, hmmm) or “croíúil” (full of heart).
As confirmation for avoiding “meidhreach” for a Christmas greeting, I note that there is only one example of it in my recent Google search. And there it is incorrectly spelled, missing the “h” it would need to show lenition because it’s modifying a feminine noun. “Nollaig shona,” on the other hand, has about 145,000 hits, at least in the first go-round.
As for Santa’s “Ho! Ho! Ho!,” there’s no traditional Irish precedent that I know of. One could use “Hóigh!”, but that leans more to meaning “hoy” or “ahoy.” We could also consider “Á! Á! Á!,” since “Á!” as an interjection can express mirth. But it doesn’t quite work for me. Aside from other considerations, “á” can mean too many other things in Irish. It seems more like saying, “Ah! Ah! Ah!,” and sounds more like the prelude to a sneeze. Then there’s “ho hó!” for “Oho!” (note there is only one long mark). But then Santa doesn’t really say “Oho! Oho! Oho!” That would become an impressive “Ho Hó! Ho Hó! Ho Hó!” But checking for that online simply takes me to the website for Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Short-circuited Google, I guess.
So on that note, I’ll leave you till the next holiday blog, coming up soon. – Róislín
P.S. There’s a cute oversized (about 18” by 24”) book by Cáit Ní Dhuibhir called Daidí na Nollag, but Santa doesn’t say “Ho! Ho! Ho!” anywhere in it. Just “Nollaig Shona duit, a Liam!” Liam beag answers back politely, “Gurab amhlaidh duit, a Dhaidí na Nollag!” More on that construction níos moille.