Irish Language Blog

Nature Words in Irish, pt. 6: Ferret to Herring (following ‘acorn’ to ‘crocus’) Posted by on Oct 31, 2019 in Irish Language

(le Róislín), Ib Rasmussen [Public domain], téacs Gaeilge le Róislín, 2019

If you’ve been following this blog series, you probably know the drill by now.  The last few blog posts in this series have featured Irish words for nature terms, ranging so far from “acorn” to “crocus.”  What’s special about these particular words?  They are the Irish equivalents of the 50 or so nature words stricken from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) about 10 years ago to make room for tech words like “block graph” and “broadband.”

Previous blog posts in this series have outlined the issue.  As the public became aware of the removal of these nature words from the OJD, people from all walks of life complained about the underlying message that the dictionary seems to advocate — that “screen time” is more important for today’s children than time spent outdoors exploring nature and learning the environment in as hands-on a way as possible.  The question that arose in my mind, as soon as I read of this controversy, was what would have happened if these words  had been removed from an Irish language dictionary.  Or if comparable words had been removed from Oxford’s Australian and New Zealand dictionaries for children.  So I’ve been compiling a list of the Irish versions of the removed words and trying to imagine a dictionary without them.

Of course, it’s true that the OJD has a fixed word limit and its target audience is 7-year-olds, but I think the underlying issue is quite important — what words get into dictionaries and which ones don’t?  Online dictionaries, by definition, can be more comprehensive than physical books, since paper, binding, storage, and shipping are no longer issues, but even there, memory and file size may be issues.  Nevertheless, the removal of the nature terms seems to be a high price to pay for the inclusion of “block graph” and “broadband.”  At any rate, here are some of the removed words with their Irish equivalents in the common, plural, and genitive-case forms.  Today’s post covers ferrets, gerbils, goldfish, hamsters, herons, and herrings.  The next installment in this series will pick up with “holly.”

ferret: feiréad: an feiréad, an fheiréid, na feiréid, na bhfeiréad

gerbil: seirbil: an tseirbil, na seirbile, na seirbilí, na seirbilí

goldfish: iasc órga: an t-iasc órga, an éisc órga, na héisc órga, na n-iasc órga

hamster: hamstar: an hamstar, an hamstair, na hamstair, na hamstar

The next two words, heron and herring, get especially interesting in the Irish context.

heron: corr réisc: an chorr réisc, na coirre réisc, na corra réisc, na gcorr réisc.  “Réisc” means “of the marsh/bogland/moor.”  This term refers specifically to the gray heron, aka “corr ghlas” (here “glas” means “gray,” though “glas” often means “green”),  “corr mhóna” (of the turf/peat) , “corr éisc” (of the fish), and “corr riasc” (related to “réisc,”  meaning “of the marshes/boglands/moors”).  Curiously, “corr réisc” and “corr éisc” sound almost identical so interpretations may vary when we simply hear the sound.  There are also a few alternate names for herons,  such “Síle na bPortach” and “Nóra na bPortach” and “Máire Fhada.”  Mh’anam, sin a lán ainmneacha!  Agus is ainmneacha cailíní na leasainmneacha sin go léir.  Cad a shílfeadh corr réisc fhireann den chás, meas tú?

North American readers might want to note that the familiar Blue Heron (Great or Little) isn’t native to Europe, and so far, I haven’t found an official Irish term for it.  I assume it should have “g(h)orm” in it, but one can never second-guess taxonomical terms.  A few people have tweeted about it in Irish, basically using the obvious “corr ghorm mhór” (nasc thíos).

Corr” can also be used for stork (“corr bhán,” which, however, is also known as “storc bán,” clearly closer to the English).  “Corr” also means a “long-necked person,” logically enough.  Additionally, “corr” is a word to watch out for  since there are three other words spelled “c-o-r-r” in Irish: a) corr, an angle  b) corr, a sand-eel, sometimes followed by “ghainimh” or “shéana” or  “ghobach” and c) corr, odd. tapering, occasional, the latter as in “corrdhuine” (an occasional person) and “éan corr” (a rare bird).

So, “corr” is not only important as an aspect of Irish fauna, but also as a reminder of the prevalence of “comhghraif” (homographs) in the language.  And finally, herring:

herring: scadán: an scadán, an scadáin, na scadáin, na scadán and when it’s kippered, it’s “scadán leasaithe” (lit. improved), and pickled, they are “picilte.”  This fish also gives its name to the “national anthem” of Tory Island (Amhrán na Scadán, nasc thíos) and to one of the most popular tweed patterns, “patrún cnámh scadáin” (herring-bone pattern), which has been worn by characters as varied as Mr. Toad in The Wind and the Willows, Henry Callahan in Dirty Harry, and Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders, not to mention such real-life personages as Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Eddie Redmayne, and Jefferson Hack (naisc thíos).  Tweed-weaving, btw, was reported in 2012 as being a £10 million industry for the Outer Hebrides (Scotland), total population currently under 28,000 (nasc thíos).  So, tweed, and by extension, the pattern and the word “herringbone” itself can contribute to providing employment on a remote island, helping young people remain in their Gàidhealtachd community if they choose, instead of being forced to emigrate for jobs.

Metaphorically, “scadán” can also mean “a thin man.”  So, among other reasons to keep these nature terms active, we also have the fun and poetic use of various nature terms (corr, scadán) to describe human characteristics.

So, looking both at Tory Island and Scotland’s Isle of Harris, we can safely say that the herring/herringbone/herringbone tweed vocabulary cluster is vitally important to the economy and culture.  Let’s leave herring in the dictionary!  And of course, if I had my druthers, all these words would stay in the dictionary, specifically, the OJD, as mentioned above.  But if I had to pick and choose, I’d probably take my list of 50 nature terms and 50 tech terms, and pick the top 25 each for nature and tech.  And at least balance it that way and let readers know how the dictionary had been edited/updated.

It’s not that I think these words, or the others in the series so far, are in imminent danger of being deep-sixed, as far as _Irish_ dictionaries go.  But it is a cautionary tale.  And hopefully the discussion as been a good way for learners to expand their vocabulary, from the near obvious (na hamstair) to the always intriguing situation of multiple words for the same specific thing (corr x 5 for herons + 3 leasainm!).  What a piece of work is man[kind] … How infinite in … vocabulary!  SGF — Róislín


Blue Herons,

Herrings  1) Amhrán na Scadán,, and there are many other links to this song, if you look online; 2) fashion: and and for fun, you might like to try; 3) population and economy of Outer Hebrides: and .  If we just consider the Harris area of Lewis and Harris, Harris being the epicenter of Harris tweed production, the population is probably about the same as it was in 2001, namely 1,916 people (that is the last year for which I can find a report specifically for this part of the island ( and per, last edited on 24 November 2019).

iarbhlaganna sa tsraith seo (nature words)

‘Bluebell’ or ‘Broadbrand’: Which Word Should Be in a Children’s Dictionary? — A British Example and Irish Question Posted by róislín on Aug 20, 2019 in Irish Language

Nature Words: Should They Be in a Children’s Dictionary or Not? Let’s Consider the Irish Word “dearcán” (acorn) Posted by róislín on Aug 31, 2019 in Irish Language

Nature Words: the Irish for ‘almond’ and a baker’s dozen of related terms Posted by róislín on Sep 18, 2019 in Irish Language

Nature Words in Irish, pt. 4: blackberry, budgerigar/parakeet, buttercup (and bluebell in review) Posted by róislín on Sep 30, 2019 in Irish Language

Nature Words in Irish, pt. 5: Catkin to Crocus (following up on acorn to buttercup) Posted by  on Oct 17, 2019 in Irish Language

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: