Irish Language Blog

How to say ‘water-lily’ in Irish, without using the word ‘uisce’ (water) Posted by on Jun 17, 2019 in Irish Language

Cén t-ainm atá ar na bláthanna seo?  grianghraf: ; User:Владимир Иванов [Public domain]; téacs Gaeilge le Róislín, 2019

(le Róislín)

Intriguingly, Irish has quite a few words for water-lily.  For water-lilies in general, we have bual-lile, bior-rós, duilleog bháite, and póicín locha.  More specifically, for distinct types, we have bacán bán or duilleog bháite bhán, for the white, and cabhán abhann, duilleog bháite bhuí, and liach-loghar, for the yellow.

With compound words like this, I think it’s always fun to split them apart and see if the Irish words are really the same as the English words.   One interesting point is that so far, none of the terms I’ve found actually include the word “uisce” (water) and only one uses “lile” (lily).  Never a dull moment, when it comes to how words are formed!

So if “uisce” is the common word for “water,” what are the other words that we see in our examples?  Well, for starters, “bual” and “bior,” as we will see below.  Related terms are “b(h)áite” (drowned, submerged), “locha” (of a lake), and “abhann” (of a river).

a)) Bual, water, not very commonly used, in my experience, but it does show up in the phrases  “roth buaile” (a water-wheel), which, reassuringly, can also be expressed by “roth uisce,” with “roth” meaning “wheel.”  “Bual” also shows up in “bualchomhla,” sluice valve or sluice-gate, i.e.. a water valve or water-doorleaf, “comhla” normally being the “leaf of a door.”  A sluice gate can also, more straightforwardly, be a “loc-chomhla,” or “lock-valve,” as in canal locks.  That probably would have been familiar to all the Irishmen who traveled “Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal,” that is if they lived anywhere on the route from Albany to Buffalo (and Lake Erie).  “Bual” combines with “lile” to give us “bual-lile,” sometimes written as “buail-lile.”

b)) Bior, water, another less common word for water, as in “biorchopóg,” water-dockleaf.  It combines with “rós” (a rose), to give us “bior-rós.” Why “rose”?  Well, the European white water lily is sometimes known as the “white water rose” — that’s as much as I can tell.  Eolas ag duine ar bith eile?

Now for the “water-related” terms:

c)) Báite / bháite, drowned, submerged, as in “duilleog bháite” (submerged leaf).  This gives us a general term, duilleog bháite, and two specific types, “duilleog bháite bhán” (white water-lily) and “duilleog bháite bhuí” (yellow water lily).  The “h” is added to “báite” because “duilleog” is grammatically feminine.  “Bháite” used to be spelled “bháidhte.”

d)) Locha, of a lake, from “loch,” a lake, well known through place names like Lough Neagh (lough being the anglicized form) and, in Scotland, Loch Lomond, etc.  A “póicín” is a “small pocket” (from “póca,” a pocket) or, geographically speaking, a confined place or small enclosed patch (pocket) of ground.  So, “little lake patches,” I assume, referring to the idea that giant water-lilies, at least, look large enough to walk on.  Not that the “giant water-lilies” are native to Ireland, fad m’eolais.  I couldn’t really see calling the giant ones “póicíní”!   In English, the flower may be referred to as a “lough lily.”

e)) Abhann, of a river, from “abhainn,” a river, as in “cabhán abhann,”  another term for the “yellow water lily.”  Hmm.  “Cabhán” is mostly recognized as the Irish for the town and county of Cavan, but in its basic meaning, it’s a hollow or cavity or a little hill.  So, literally, this would presumably “little water hill” or “little water cavity.”  Hmm (again), seems to me that a hill and hollow/cavity are the opposite of each other, but, well, whatever.  It can also mean “a field,” “a valley,” or “a plain,” all of which would seem distinctly different to me.  And I’ve even seen “cabhán”  interpreted as “a hollow plain” (what’s a hollow plain?  I thought plains were quite flat!), which leaves me somewhat mystified.

And finally, with no particular water reference, we have

f)) Bacán bán, with “bacán” meaning ” a stalk of water-lily” and “bán” being the color white.   There is also  “bacán” meaning the following: one’s bent arm, a peg, a piton, a short post, a stake, a handle, a hinge, a hinge-hook, a spade threadle (!), a pothanger; the back stone of a fireplace, the projecting stones to which the súgáin (hand-twisted ropes) are fastened in thatching, and a hook for gathering seaweed.  Whether “bacán” for a water-lily stalk and “bacán” with all of these other uses is supposed to be the exact  same word is unclear, but it seems plausible, given what a water-lily stalk looks like.

g))  Liach-loghar, yellow water lily, from “liach” (spoon, spoonful, ladleful) and “loghar” (sometimes “lobhar” ) which has me a bit stumped.  The nearest interpretation for “lobhar” seems to be ” weak,” “afflicted,” “rotted,” “ailing,” or “leprous,” none of which would leap out at me as being logical folk taxonomic names for this plant.   Any chance it’s related to “luachmhar” (valuable) or “loghmhar” (bright, excellent, famous)?  I sort of doubt it but  …  tuilleadh eolais ag éinne?   Maybe I should just say it’s “The ‘Lobhar’ Spoonful” and be done with the guesswork.   Even there, I would normally use “lán spúnóige” for spoonful,” (not the obscure “liach”).  As for the “lovin’ ” part (just for fun), literally it would be “grámhar” or “ceanúil” or “geanúil,” but in this context, I would assume “spúnóg hearóine,” which gets us way way way off-topic, but, hey, it’s all good vocabulary practice and “hearóine” gives us another “tuiseal ginideach, ” to boot.

As for the “giant” part of “giant water-lilies,” given the size the “bual-lilí” in the graphic above, I find no precedent in Irish, but would assume either “oll-” as a prefix or “mór/mhór/móra” as an adjective following.  Tuilleadh eolais ag aon luibheolaí anseo?  If so, fáilte roimh nótaí tráchta.  If not, bhuel, rinne muid ár seacht  ndícheall.  SGF  – Róislín

BTW, Scottish Gaelic, at least, does have an “uisce” reference in “Lili bhuidhe ‘n uisge” (yellow lily of the water), “uisge” being a slight variation in the spelling.  And, conveniently, it also uses “lili” for “lily.”  Nice and straightforward.

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