Irish Language Blog

Mór? Críonna? or Sean? — Grandparents By Any Other Name! Posted by on Apr 9, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

  I frequently get asked about the Irish word for “grandmother” or “grandma,” so children in Irish-American families can start using it as a pet name.  Sometimes the basic term “Grandma” has already been taken by one side of the family, so the other side may look for a different name, like “Nana” in English.  Most of the people who ask for this are the actual grandmothers, not the grandfathers, but in this blog, I’ll be an equal opportunity terminologist and assume that the male and female terms are of equal interest.  A Sheanaithreacha (grandfathers!), please take note!

  Let’s start with the formalities, “grandmother” and “grandfather.”  Most children don’t actually use these in talking with the actual grandparent but they’re useful in narrative and in general discussion.  There are three pairs of terms, each building on the words “máthair” (mother) and “athair” (father):

   seanmháthair, seanathair: based on the prefix “sean-“ (old)

   máthair chríonna, athair críonna: based on the adjective “críonna” (wise, prudent, aged).  Please note: despite the endearing bit of misinformation currently circulating on the Internet (sites will remain nameless), these terms do NOT mean “mother of my heart” and “father of my heart.”  Those phrases would be based on “croí” ([krrree] heart), not “críonna” ([KRzhEE-uh-nuh] wise).   

   máthair mhór, athair mór: based on the adjective “mór” (big, great).  I’ve mostly heard this term in Donegal. 

   For the more familiar terms, there are “Mamó” (or “Maimeo“) and “Móraí” for “grandma,” and “Daideo” for “grandpa.” 

   Using these words is one way that Irish words can be come part of a child’s life, and perhaps stimulate further study of the language later.   Needless to say, the terms can now grace mugaí (mugs), t-léinte (t-shirts), or léinte aclaíochta (sweatshirts, lit. “exercise shirts”). Or, for that matter, any other merchandise that allows you to send in customized text for printing. 

   One curious feature of all of these terms is that none of them are used to create the words “grandchild,” “grandson,” or “grand-daughter.”  So how do you do it?  Bhuel, ag bogarnach ar an aill sin (Well, hanging on that cliff), slán go dtí an chéad bhlag eile (goodbye until the next blog).   

 Bhur mblagálaí – Róislín





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  1. francilene smith:

    Will someone please call me so I can hear how to pronounce Mamó” and “Móraí”
    for Grandmom. The Irish pronunciation. 610 325 6922


  2. Róislín:

    Dia dhuit, a Francilene,

    Mamó – ma-MOH, with the stress on the second syllable

    Móraí – MOR-ee. The “aí” vowel cluster is simply “ee.”

    Note that the emphasis is on different syllables, indicated here by caps.

    Also, if you’re using these in a family context, you might want to note that “Mamó” and “Móraí” are typically used by children to the grandmother. Additionally parents might use the terms when indicating the child’s perspective, like “Give that back to Mamó, now”. Just like in English where a mother will refer to her own mother as “Grandma,” “Mom-mom,” etc. to show the child’s perspective. The more formal word, “grandmother,” is “seanmháthair” [SHAN-WAW-hir] or its variants, as discussed in the article.

    All the best – Roslyn

  3. Rose:

    Can you tell me if Marnie is also a nickname for Grandma, and if so, is it pronounced like it is spelled?

    • róislín:

      @Rose Dia dhuit, a Rose,

      Thank you for your interest in the Irish Blog. I don’t know of Marnie being a nickname for Grandma. You probably just read the previous blogs about terms for grandparents, etc., in Irish. Mamó or Maimeo would be the typical Irish words for “grandma” or “granny,” as opposed to “grandmother,” which is a little more formal (seanmháthair, máthair mhór, or máthair chríonna). I do recall “Marmee” (with two m’s) from Little Women, which the girls called their mother. I’ve read that “Marnie” comes from the Scandinavian “Marna” and means “from the sea.” I can’t vouch for Scandinavian definitions but you might want to look into that. All the best!

  4. darla:

    how would you pronounce Maimeo?

    • róislín:

      @darla mam-yoh, the “y” is in there just to give the “slender m” pronunciation, like the “m” in English “mew” or “muse.”

      One other point is to remember that the “eo” is just one vowel sound “oh,” not like “Leo [lee-oh] the Lion” or “CEO.”

  5. Jennifer:

    Please could I have the correct translation for ‘ grandfather of the heart” ? I’m getting confused looking at different websites?

    Thank you

    • róislín:

      @Jennifer Well, there are a few options, depending on what word you use for “grandfather.” Here are some choices:
      seanathair an chroí (probably the most standard), athair críonna an chroí, and athair mór an chroí. And for something more like “Granddad of the heart,” you could say “daideo an chroí.” HTH

    • róislín:

      @Jennifer Dia dhuit, arís, a Jennifer, and since I happened to be looking over this again, I thought I’d mention that “athair críonna an chroí” has some nice “near” alliteration, with the 2 c’s. I say “near” because the pronunciation isn’t actually quite the same , but it looks good in print! The “c” of “críonna has a “k” sound and the “ch” or “chroí” has the throaty “ch” sound as in “chutzpah.” Anyway, hope that info was helpful.

  6. Angela:

    Regarding the post on 31 December 2012, is it possible the names were a result of variance in dialect or an informal variance in a local county?

    My Family was split across two counties and from the history we noticed variances in several things just from being several counties away.

    • róislín:

      @Angela A Angela, a chara,

      Yes, the various words for “grandmother” and “grandfather” tend to follow a pattern: athair mór, máthair mhór (Northern, e.g. Donegal); seanathair, seanmháthair (standard); and athair críonna, máthair chríonna (Kerry, Cork). And many other words and phrases show variation as you go from dialect to dialect and region to region, including the various ways to say “How are you?,” which include Cad é mar atá tú? (Northern), Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú? (Connemara, Aran, etc.), and Conas atá tú? (Cork, Kerry, and “An Caighdeán”), for starters.

  7. Ellie Johnson:

    I called my Irish great grand mother “Magna” when I was little. She died when I was 5yo. But I don’t know why I called her that, her name was Bridget….I am now a great grandma myself & want my babes to use this term for me in her honor but I want to know where it came from…is there any Irish word close to “Magna” My great grand ma was a teacher in Ireland but I doubt she tried to teach me Latin…the nuns in high school didn’t even get very far with me.

    • róislín:

      @Ellie Johnson A Ellie, a chara,
      Thank you for writing in. The term “Magna” was a new one for me. It’s not really close to anything Irish that I can think of, and I do think there may have been some Latin involved. “Magnus, Magna, Magnum” can mean “grand” in Latin, as well as “large,” and “avunculus grandus” means “great-uncle.” Normally for “great-grandmother” in Irish, we’d say: “sinseanmháthair” [pronounced: SHIN-SHAN-WAW-hirzh.”

      If “Magna” was from the Latin, it must have been somewhat customized b/c the standard Latin for “great-grandmother” is “proavia,” with “avia” meaning “grandmother.” “Grandfather,” in Latin, is “avus” and “great-grandfather” is “proavus.”

      At any rate, I think “Magna” sounds lovely. And there’s a built-in benefit. The Irish word for “a card” is “cárta,” so if your great-grandkids are sending you a card, we could all it a “Magna Cárta.” Of course, it would really be “Cárta Magna” in Irish word order, but “Magna Cárta” sounds more fun. I saw the real thing once, in Salisbury, England, quite fascinating! Oh, and the long mark is just for the Irish word, not the actual “Magna Carta.”

      All the best, and thanks again for writing in.

  8. róislín:

    @Names for old Grandfather and Grandmother - Parenting -Children, problems, school, daycare, behavior, age, teenagers, infants - City-Data Forum Feicim gurbh í seo do cheist. Tá an ceart agat. Úsáidtear “Grandma” agus Grand(d)ad i mBéarla na hÉireann. Seanathair, seanmháthair, srl. i nGaeilge na hÉireann.

    Dúirt tú:
    12-18-2010, 11:16 PM Hopes, Senior Member, Join Date: Jan 2007
    12,491 posts, read 8,897,338 times; Reputation: 4703

    Quote: (Originally Posted by Amelorn) My grandparents are mostly Irish, so it’s Grandma and Grandad (it should be Granddad, but we don’t use that spelling) as used in the British Isles.

    I don’t think those are Irish names. / My mother’s parents were both 100% Irish, straight off the boat as children. / We called them Grandmother and Grandfather. / If you look up Irish names for grandparents, none of your names or my names are listed.

    Mór? Críonna? or Sean? — Grandparents By Any Other Name! | Irish Blog

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