Irish Language Blog

Karros, Carrus, and Today’s “Carr” Posted by on Apr 27, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

  You might have noticed “carr” as a recent Word of the Day at  It could be easy to assume that this is a recent borrowing from English, dating to the era of, well, motor-cars.  Ach a mhalairt, a chara!  (but the opposite, my friend). 

  The word “carr” was in use in Irish long before motor-cars hit the scene.  It originally meant what we would call a “cart” today, and could also mean a “dray” (now specifically a “drae” in Irish, not that they’re used any more) or a “wagon” (which is now usually “feán” or “vaigín, the latter being “wagon,” Gaelicized.  OK, UK – “waggon” in your spelling!). 

  “Carr” is rarely used in Irish any more for an actual cart; that is usually “cairrín” (as in cairrín gailf) or “cairt.”  It is sometimes used for a cart, though, in archeological references.  Carr” also remains in some terminology for various non-motor vehicles, such as the “carr sleamhnáin” (a slide-car traditionally used in agriculture, which actually had no wheels, and more recently, a sledge or sled) and the “carr cliathánach” (jaunting- or side-car), famous around Killarney and in the film The Quiet Man.

  A “shopping-cart” in Irish, however, doesn’t use the word “cart,” but rather “trolley,” as in “tralaí siopadóireachta.”  “Trolley” is typically used for hand-pushed carts in both Irish and UK English.  What Americans typically call a “trolley” (“Clang! Clang! Clang! Went the Trolley,” etc.) would likely be a “trolley bus” (bus tralaí) or a “tram,” the latter being exactly the same (tram) in Irish. “Clang! Clang! Clang! Went the Tram” somehow just doesn’t cut it though – good thing that story was set in St. Louis! 

  All of these “carr”-related words are connected to Gaulish “karros,” which the Romans “borrowed” as “carrus,” and so have a venerable history. 

  There are a couple of terms for “car” in Irish that do not stem from the “karros” root:

  Gluaisteán: car, very literally, a moving-thing, from “gluais” (movement).  Although I used to hear and see this word more when I first got involved in Irish, its use seems to be on the decline.

  Mótar: as a word for “car,” also declining in use; it remains strong as the basic word for a “motor.”

  As for vintage slang terms for “car” in Irish, there doesn’t seem to be an abundance, probably due to their relative scarcity in early 20th-century Ireland compared to America.  For any fans out there of Nancy Drew and her 1930s “roadster,” don’t be misled by the fact that the word “roadster” does show up in English-Irish dictionaries.  The definitions offered for “roadster” don’t mean any type of car at all.  Some Irish equivalents for “roadster” are “long ar ród” (a ship in, lit. “on,” a roadstead, a “roadstead” being a body of water near shore!) and “bád róid” (a roadstead boat).  The other is “ródaí,” a person who roves the roads.  Ródaí” has recently been adapted to mean a traveling broadcasting vehicle, so is a sort of “roadster,” but not in the original sense. 

   And for even earlier American slang, “flivver” or “jalopy,” sorry, folks, you’re on your own for that one!  Slang rarely correlates from language to language.  — Bhur mblagálaí – Róislín

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  1. Una K:

    I grew up with ‘gluaisteán’ for motor car and I still love and use the word, though ‘carr’ is what’s used in all the school readers. ‘Gluaisteán’ is so much more expressive of a sense of movement. Could we start a campaign?
    Una K.

  2. Róislín:

    A Úna, a chara,

    Go raibh maith agat as scríobh. Thanks for writing. I heard the word “gluaisteán” used a lot in Donegal, less so in other parts of Ireland. I think the use of “craolachán” is a parallel situation — people tend to use the direct cognate, “raidió.”

    I agree about the sense of movement that “gluaisteán” implies. A campaign would be fun, but I’m not sure we’d make much of an inroad by this point in time. Probably the best strategy is to use the word, write it, blog it, tag it, and see where it goes from there.

    Le gach dea-ghuí – Róislín

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