Irish Language Blog

Horse Latitudes (without the “capaill”) Posted by on Aug 19, 2012 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

So what’s the connection between the last blog (re: Laethanta an Mhadra, aka Laethe Madrúla) and this one?  Well, admittedly it’s a bit tenuous, but I guess the semantic leap was from Laethanta an Mhadra to An Crios Calma (aka Criosanna na gCalm) via na Doldrama.  As you might have picked out, “An Crios Calma” is the Irish for the so-called “Horse Latitudes.”  And, yes, this blog will discuss the various words for “horse” (capall, each, et al.) in Irish, even though none of them occur in the Irish for “Horse Latitudes.”

Why are they called “Horse Latitudes” anyway?  A bit of a mystery, that.   I grew up hearing it was because the ships were so becalmed that horses started dying and had to be thrown overboard.   Now I see that there is an alternate explanation involving a seamen’s ritual using a straw effigy of a horse, also thrown overboard. suggests yet another explanation, the Spanish phrase  golfo de las yeguas (mares’ sea), so I see another rainy day project lurking.  But suffice to say for now that the Irish language addresses this issue with the more straightforward phrase, An Crios Calma (lit. the calm zone).

Technically speaking, the Horse Latitudes are “domhanleithid fhó-thropaiceacha” between 30 and 35 degrees both north and south, i.e. Subtropical High.  They are in the area of the trade winds and are characterized by light “baffling” (shifting, variable) winds and occasional calms.

For the Horse Latitudes, there are actually two variations of the phrase in Irish:

Criosanna na gCalm, lit. zones of the calm

an Crios Calma, the calm belt

Neither of these refers to horses (capaill, etc.)  and neither actually uses the word “latitude.”  Both are based on the word “crios,” which means “belt” or “zone,” not “latitude” as such.  “Criosanna” is the plural of “crios.”  This is combined with the noun “calm” (calms, or a calm area, in the navigational sense) or with the related adjective “calma,” which means, creid é nó ná creid é, “calm.”  By the way, this latter word isn’t the same as the more widely used adjective “calma” (a homonym), which means “brave,” “strong,” “intrepid,” or “splendid;” that’s a completely different word, as in “laoch calma” (a brave warrior).  Don’t forget, there are comhainmneacha (homonyms) go leor sa Ghaeilge!

Doldrama,” the Irish for “Doldrums” is simply an adaptation of the English, which, in turn, is based on “dull” and related to words like “dolt” or “dullard.”  The ending “-(t)rum”  is believed to be modeled on the word “tantrum,” and I wonder if words like “rostrum” and “spectrum” aren’t also part of the underlying model.

Grammatically, “Doldrama” is plural both in Irish (as well as in English), so it takes the preposition “sna” (“in the,”, for plural nouns), so we’d say “sna doldrama.”  I’ve never heard it as a noun in the singular in English or in Irish (a “doldrum”?  *doldram amháin?) — nor can I fathom how there could be a singular version of this concept, since it’s a wide area.  At any rate, it’s a zone near the equator where winds are relatively calm, and travel by sail may be slowed down.  While we typically use the phrase “in the doldrums” in English in the metaphorical sense (to be in low spirits or to feel “dull” or “becalmed”), I’m not really aware of there being much figurative use of the expression in Irish.

At any rate, before we leave this domhanleithead (latitude), let’s check out the words for “horse” in Irish.  Of course, there’s more than one (before we even get into terms such as láracha, searraigh, and pónaithe, which will have to be ábhar blag eile).   Seo an bunstuif:

capall (an capall), with “capaill” plural; cf. various Romance language words for horse starting with Latin “caballus” (cavallo, cheval, caballo, etc.) and (French-based) English words like “chevalier” and “chivalry” as well as Welsh “ceffyl

each (an t-each), with “eacha” plural, often used in a more literary sense, much like “steed” in English; cf. Latin “equus” and related words in English (equine, equestrian, etc.)

marc (an marc), with “mairc” plural, also literary, and the source of words and terms such as “marcach” (horseman), “marcach toinne” (surf-rider), “patról marcach” (mounted patrol), marcaíocht (riding in general or horsemanship), and “marcaíocht aeraíochta” (joy-riding); cf. Welsh “march” and Breton “marc’h

So there we have it, plenty of words for “horse” but none used in the intriguing phrase “Horse Latitudes.”  One way or another, they do show up, though, in predictable phrases like:

marcairtléire, horse artillery

cóiste capaill, horse-drawn carriage

eachlasc, horse-whip

eachaí, horseman (synonymous with “marcach“), with two feminine forms “baneachlach” and “banmharcach”

fear mór capaill, however, is a “horsy man” (not a “horseman”); literally it means “big man of horse,” implying “interest in” or “involvement with”

As for the non-biologically-horsy horse terms, “horseradishes,” “horse chestnuts,” and the like, that’s definitely ábhar blag way way eile.  So many possible “ábhair bhlaganna” (osna sásta <a contented sigh>).  SGF, Róislín

Nasc don teoiricyeguas“:


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