Irish Language Blog

Leaves, Limes, Lambs, and Goosefoots and Goose Feet: An Irish Language Botanical Discussion Posted by on Sep 17, 2016 in Irish Language

An faoi theile mar seo a scríobh Coleridge "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison"? Wondering how this is a "lime" tree, if you're not Irish or British? Léigh leat le fáil amach! (grafaic: By Bruce Marlin [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

An faoi theile mar seo a scríobh Coleridge “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”? Wondering how this is a “lime” tree, if you’re not Irish or British? Léigh leat le fáil amach! (grafaic: By Bruce Marlin [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

(le Róislín)

Plant names are probably intriguing in every language, and Irish is no exception.  When people first start Irish, they probably learn the more basic ones, ones that readily identifiable in nature, like “nóinín” and “caisearbhán.”  Even easier for the Anglophone learner are the ones that are similar in both languages, like “rós,” “tiúilip,” and “cróch” (or “crócas”).  Got those?  Freagraí thíos (a).

But the more you explore the topic, the more “casta” it becomes.

After writing about “duilleoga” (leaves) and “duilliúr” (foliage) and related words in Irish for the latest blogpost, I got to thinking about all the plants that have “-leaved” or “-leafed” in their English names.  I initially thought that there would be a nice, one-to-one correspondence between the English and Irish (using some form of “duill-“) here, since after all, we’re speaking of something fairly scientific, aren’t we?

But then there’s folk taxonomy (tacsanomaíocht na ndaoine, or should I say, daontacsanomaíocht?), always a fascinating topic!

So I hunted up all the Irish plant names I could find that have “-leaved” or “-leafed” in their English names.  I found 83 in my first attempt; there may well be more.  I figured we’d be constantly looking at terms like “miondhuilleach” and “mórdhuilleach,” according to the actual plant.  But, lo and behold, only eight of the plants I found, out of 83, had this kind of correspondence.  The others used completely descriptions, not using any form of the word “leaf.”  Some were still based on physical appearance, just not the “leaf” aspect.  Others were based on folklore, legend, and imaginative interpretations of a plant’s shape or its potential use in some fairy-tale-like animated landscape, like the English “foxgloves” (Digitalis purpurea) actually being considered “gloves for foxes” or a “Jack” actually being in the “pulpit” of Arisaema triphyllum.

Eventually this blogpost will probably turn into another mionsraith (mini-series), but for now, we’ll just look at a few of the Irish plant names that do include some aspect of “-duill-” and maybe take a gander at some others (dare I say “among the goosegrass” or “among the goosefoots,” and, yeah, I just double-checked, “goosefoots” is the plural for the various plants called “goosefoot”).

First a little review from last time.  “Leaf” is “duilleog” and there are three adjectives which can mean “leafy” (duilleach, duilleogach, duilliúrach), but of these three, only one, “duilleach,” occurs regularly in actual plant names as the element for “-leaved” or “-leafed.”

So which plant names actually do include “-d(h)uilleach“?  Here are a couple and more will have to follow in another post:

teile mhiondhuilleach, small-leaved lime (tree).  That’s “lime” as in Latin “Tilia,” also known as the “linden tree,” not “lime” as in “crann líomaí,” from which we get the citrus fruit.   This type of  “teile” is also known as “little-leaf linden” and “small-leaved linden.”

teile mhórdhuilleach, large-leaved lime (tree), again of the genus “Tilia,” not the genus “Citrus

This use of the word “lime” may be surprising to some American readers, but “lime” for “linden” has venerable literary associations.  One or the other of these lime trees was probably the inspiration for Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” since citrus trees don’t usually thrive in the Somerset area where he wrote the poem, at least not outdoors.  And Coleridge’s poem then became the inspiration for, well, let’s game it, which 1995 Irish play?  English-medium, that is, no translation yet, fad m’eolais.  Leid: scríobh Conor McPherson é.  Freagra thíos (b).

Almost done, for today, but since I mentioned looking at at least one other plant name, besides, this “-leafy/-leaved” batch, here’s one more for good measure, getting back to that goose imagery.

lus coise gé, goosefoot (lit. “plant of foot of goose”), an interesting example where the basic concept is the same in both English and Irish

Errmm, that is, when we mean genus “Chenopodium” in general.  “Goosefoot” can also be applied to another plant, also known as “lamb’s quarters,” which we find almost the same in Irish, but as “ceathrú chaorach” (lit. “sheep’s quarter,”  not “lamb,” which would use “uain“).  .

So how do we know which goosefoot we’re talking about?  In English, when “goosefoot” is used to mean “lamb’s quarters,” it is sometimes called “white goosefoot.”  Now, that brings up some interesting questions.  Does the white refer to the goose?  The foot (are geese’s feet ever white)?  Or to some aspect of the plant itself, which might have a white tone to the green leaves, kind of like another plant, “lamb’s ear”? And how would we fit “bán” (white) into the phrase “lus coise gé,” if we had to?  Barúlacha?

And I ask you, in what other language would we be asking when does “goosefoot” mean “lamb’s quarters”?  I feel like I’m in the middle of a Beckett play.  Or maybe Alice’s Wonderland.

At any rate, even if you don’t regularly discuss plant names, there are a few good take-away terms here for beginners, aside from the flower names mentioned above (nóinín, caisearbhán, rós, tiúilip, cróch/crócas): teile: lime tree (Genus Tilia, not Citrus); duilleach: leaved; mion-: small, mini-; cos, foot; , a goose; ceathrú, quarter, a quarter of; caora, a sheep; caorach, of a sheep; uan, lamb; uain, of a lamb

So, whether you’re just starting Irish, talking botany, discussing animals, or comparing Coleridge’s tether to McPherson’s late 20th-century angst, I hope this post will prove both fun and useful.  SGF — Róislín

Freagraí: a) nóinín, daisy; caisearbhán, dandelion; rós, rose; tiúilip, tulip, and cróch (crócas), crocus.

b) This Lime-Tree Bower, by Conor McPherson, which btw, was also made into the movie Saltwater, 2000. When I saw the play, there was no reference to Coleridge in the program notes, which sent me scurrying through the cyber-literary universe looking for the explanation of the unusual title. So it has been indelibly printed in my mind now!

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Keep learning Irish with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

Leave a comment: