Irish Language Blog

May Day, Mayflies, Mayweed Posted by on May 1, 2010 in Irish Language

Last year at this time we discussed the various forms of the Gaelic word for May,  Bealtaine in Irish, Bealtuinn in Scottish Gaelic, and Boaldyn in Manx Gaelic.  May 1st (Lá Bealtaine) is traditionally the first day of summer in the Celtic calendar.

Here are a few other Irish terms containing the word “Bealtaine.”

1. cuil Bhealtaine, mayfly.

2. cuil Bhealtaine fhásta, adult mayfly (with “fásta” lenited since “cuil” is feminine)

You might recognize “cuil,” or the variant “cuileog,” as being related to Latin “culex” (gnat, mosquito).  As for the relationship between “cuileanna” (flies), “corrmhíolta” (gnats, mosquitoes), and “muiscítí” (mosquitoes), sorry, but I’ll leave that to the feithideolaithe (entomologists).  I can only observe, that from a language viewpoint, it’s not uncommon for there to be some blurring in meaning as words travel through time and space.  If gnats, flies, and mosquitoes are all annoying flying insects, that’s generally enough of a reason for there to be some linguistic overlap.  We can see the connection to Latin “musca” (fly) in the Irish “muiscít,” (mosquito, lit. little fly) but not in the Irish for “fly” itself (cuil, cuileog).

A further caveat, as we translate the word “cuil,” it’s important to remember that there is a difference of US vs. UK English involved here.  “Gnat” in America refers primarily to small flies, especially biting types like “punkies” or “no-see-ums” (and there’s a study in etymology!), and in the UK, it primarily refers to mosquitoes.   From an etymological (not entomological!) viewpoint, a mosquito is simply a “small fly,” so it makes sense, more or less, for Irish “cuil” (fly) to be related to “culex” (gnat, mosquito).

3. lus Bealtaine mara, sea mayweed.  This is one of several types of mayweed but it’s the only one I’ve found that actually contains the word “May” in Irish.  Other types of mayweed that don’t refer to “May” in Irish are rayless mayweed (aka pineappleweed), scented mayweed, and scentless mayweed.  In Irish, these are “lus na hiothlainne,” “fíogadán cumhra,” and “meá drua,” respectively.  Interesting that the “May” element drops out completely and that none of these are based on the usual words for “weed,” which include “fiaile,” “luifearnach,” or “lustan.”  “Lus” normally means “herb” or “plant.”

So, what started out as welcoming in the Celtic summer has ended up mostly as a discussing of insects and weeds!  C’est la vie, is dócha!  In fact, for the lucht garraíodóireachta and the lucht campála, these are pretty much iconic summer issues.

Check back next May when there may be something more festive in the blog, like the decorating of the May Bush or Maypole dancing.  Meanwhile, cá bhfuil mo smíste cuileog?

Nótaí: Bhealtaine [VAL-tin-yeh] of May, lenited when following a feminine noun, so the “B” changes to “Bh”], cumhra [KOOR-uh] fragrant; iothlainn [IH-lahn] haggard, na hiothlainne [nuh HIH-lin-yeh], of the haggard]; smíste [SMEESH-tcheh] swatter

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