Irish Language Blog

Ó ‘Uncail Oscar’ go garmhac Fhionn Mhic Cumhaill: The Irish Roots of the Name ‘Oscar’ Posted by on Feb 25, 2015 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Fionn Mac Cumhaill, seanathair Oscair (By Stephen Reid ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Fionn Mac Cumhaill, seanathair Oscair (By Stephen Reid ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Hmm, I was going to continue writing about “bombogenesis” and the guairneáin associated with aimsir gheimhriúil, but the timely topic of the Oscars was too tempting!  The last blog (nasc thíos) addressed that subject, and we’ll return to it in another blog or two.

So, “Oscar” was the grandson of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and “Oscar” was also the name of Margaret Herrick’s uncle.  Who was Fionn Mac Cumhaill and who was Margaret Herrick?  Well, they’re a world apart in terms of biography, not to mention the fact that Fionn is fictitious while Margaret Herrick was a very real person.   So let’s take a gander at their respective backgrounds, and then look at the various forms of the name “Oscar” in Irish (vocative, genitive, etc.).

And let’s keep in mind the question–what do the two Oscars have in common around this time of year?  As we all know, the “Oscar” is the name of the figurine given to Academy Award winners.   But why don’t we just say “Academy Award” or “Award of Merit” and leave it at that?

A popular and widely held account of the origin of the Academy Award’s nickname attributes it to Margaret Herrick, who was, at the time, a librarian working at the Academy of Motion Pictures Library.  Later she became its Executive Director and eventually the library was named after her.  In 1931, she is believed to have said that the Academy Award statuette “looks just like my Uncle Oscar,” and the phrase has lived on.

That segues nicely into the name “Oscar” itself.  Although widely considered to be Scandinavian or Germanic, the name has clear Irish roots.

One of Ireland’s major heroic epics concerns Fionn Mac Cumhaill, his son “Oisín” (little deer or fawn), and his grandson Oscar.  Oisín’s name means “little deer” or “little fawn” and the name “Oscar” is related, being based on “os,” which today is a somewhat literary word for “deer” or “fawn.”  These days, the ordinary word for “deer” is “fia,” and “oisín,” the diminutive of “os,” is usually specifically “fawn.”  Starting in 1760, hundreds of years, maybe a thousand, after the origin of these tales in oral storytelling, the Scottish writer James Macpherson created a literary version of the tales.  The cast of characters included “Fingal” (Fionn), Ossian (Oisín), and Oscar, as well as many others whose names may be familiar but which Macpherson spelled differently,  such as Dermid, Connel, Fergus, and Cathba.

How does all this relate to the probable reason why Margaret Herrick’s uncle was named “Oscar”?  Macpherson’s works were translated into many languages in the late 18th century, including Danish (1790) and Swedish (1794-1800).  The rest is, as they say, history.  King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway (1799-1859) was named after the Oscar in Macpherson’s works, and the name has continued in popularity in that area ever since then, including Oscar II (1829-1907), Prince Oscar Bernadotte (1859-1953), Count Carl Oscar Bernadotte of Wisborg (1890-1977), and more recently, Fredrik Oscar Bernadotte of Wisborg and  Count Bertil Oscar Bernadotte of Wisborg.

Aside from the royalty connection, there are countless other Oscars, including the original Oscar Mayer (1859-1955), Oskar Schindler (1908-74, of Schindler’s List), and Oscar Brand (the folksinger, born 1920).  As a fictitious character, we have Oscar the Grouch (Sesame Street, born, as it were in 1969, and presumably timeless).  And there are at least three famous cats named Oscar, each of whom has a full and fascinating story of his own, one being a “cat bitheonach,” one allegedly able to predict básanna othar, and one a cat loinge ón Dara Cogadh Domhanda (WW II), who was allegedly “unsinkable” (further references below).

There is a somewhat contradictory belief that the name Oscar was introduced by the Vikings to Ireland, where it gained popularity.  How this might possibly dovetail with the original being based on the Fionn Mac Cumhaill legends is fairly problematic, since oral versions of the Fionn – Oisín – Oscar stories may predate the Viking raids on Ireland.  Bhuel, that will have to be another puzzle for some rainy day research.   For right now, suffice it to say that the name “Oscar” is well known in Irish language circles because of his role in the Fenian (Fionn) epics and its international popularity is probably due to its prominence in Sweden and Norway.

Having said that, I can’t say I’ve really met that many men from Ireland named Oscar, let alone Gaeilgeoirí a bhfuil an t-ainm ‘Oscar’ orthu, but I’m sure they’re out there.  Duine ar bith acu ar an liosta seo?  Of course, Lady Jane Francesca Agnes and Sir William Wilde paid tribute to the name by using it for their son, Oscar, one of Ireland’s leading writers.   And his second name, of his four forenames (!), appropriately enough, was … an cuimhin leat or can you guess?  Freagra thíos.

So one way or another, the name “Oscar” owes its general popularity to Irish legend, albeit through a somewhat convoluted path, from Fionn Mac Cumhaill to James Macpherson to Oscar I and II of Sweden and Norway.  Presumably some stage of that chain influenced the parents of Margaret Herrick’s uncle to name him “Oscar,” and so today we not only have “Oscar” as the name of the figurine but also “Oscar” as a reasonably popular name in general circulation.

And how about the actual usage of this name in the Irish language?  “Oscar” is a fairly straightforward word.  If you’re talking directly to an Oscar, the name predictably becomes “Oscair,” as in “Dia dhuit, a Oscair.”  And if you’re talking about something that belongs to Oscar, the spelling is the same as with direct address, as in “ascaill Oscair” (Oscar’s armpit).

The word “oscar” (lower-case) also has a more generic meaning in Irish, “warrior” or “hero,” although this is mostly in literary usage.  “Laoch” and “gaiscíoch,” and to perhaps a slightly lesser extent, “curadh,” are the more typical words for “hero” and “warrior”.  It’s hard to say, at this point in time, whether “oscar” became a generic noun because of “Oscar” the hero, or whether Oisín’s son was named “Oscar” because the word “oscar” as “hero” already existed, adding some word play or symbolism to the derivation from “os” (deer).

Curiously, there’s another word “oscar” in Irish which is completely different, meaning “leap,” “bound” or, in swimming, “a stroke.”  But for “leap” and “bound,” at any rate, there is some more basic vocabulary:

a leap: léim, preab, troslóg, bocléim,

a bound: léim, preab, abhóg, bocléim

Is there really much difference between a “leap” and a “bound”?  Ábhar blag eile!  Irish uses “as cuimse” or “as miosúr” for “by leaps and bounds,” so there, at any rate, we don’t really have anything to base a comparison on.  Further thoughts, am éigin sa todhchaí.

Instead of “oscar” for a “stroke” in swimming, current usage seems to favor either “béim,” as in “béim bhrollaigh” and “béim bhrollaigh béal in airde,” or the word “snámh” itself, whose basic meaning is simply “swim.”  For example, “crawl stroke” is “crágshnámh” and “butterfly stroke” is, quite logically, “snámh féileacáin.”  “Bang” is also used for a swimming stroke, but as with some other words we’ve discussed in this blog, I don’t recall hearing it used much.

As an adjective, we have “oscartha,” which has the following meanings: heroic, strong, powerful, lithe, agile, loud

And there’s yet a third word “oscar” in Irish, but I think this one has really fallen out of contemporary usage:

oscar, now usually spelled “uscar,” a jewel or ornament, but with either spelling, I’d say it’s not common today.  “Jewel” is usually “seoid” and “ornament,” at least in the sense of “decoration,” is usually “maisiúchán” or “ornáidíocht.”

Agus na mná?  Apparently, some languages have a feminine form of the name (Oscarina, Oscarine) but I don’t recall a feminine form in Irish.  Can’t say I’ve ever met anyone with these names, but here are a few interesting examples of feminine forms:

Oscarine, a toy rabbit (Lapin Oscarine) at

“Oscarina …,” a cartoon series by Carolita Johnson (

Oscarina, an orphan orangutan featured at an animal sanctuary (;  she was originally believed to be male, and was named “Oscar” by her rescuers, but it turned out she is female.

So now, like me, every time the Academy Awards roll around, and people start talking “Oscar,” you’ll be thinking not only of the latest heart-throbs, but also of Oscar Mac Oisín, Oisín Mac Finn, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and Cumhall Mac Trénmhóir, and the rest of the family, but the genealogy goes on for too long for aon bhlag amháin. SGF– Róislín

Freagra: “Fingal.”  Seo an t-ainm iomlán: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.  Mh’anam!

Leabhair faoi chait a bhfuil/raibh an t-ainm “Oscar” orthu:

Oscar: The Bionic Cat: A Heart-Warming Tale of Feline Bravery , by Kate Allen, 2013

Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, by David Dosa, M.D., 2010

Ships’ Cats in War and Peace, by Val Lewis, 2001 (Oscar aka Oskar aka Unsinkable Sam, i measc a lán cat eile)

Nasc don bhlag faoi “bhuamaigineas” (bombogenesis): (An bhfuil Gaeilge ar an bhfocal ‘bombogenesis’? (Is there an Irish word for ‘bombogenesis’?) Posted on 21. Feb, 2015 by róislín in Irish Language

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  1. Susan Kaup Kelley:

    I’ve just found your interesting blog about Oscar.
    My son, Daniel Niall Connolly Kelley named his son Oscar Connolly Kelley.
    Oscar is now seven years old. His mother is Chinese and they all live in Hong Kong!
    We were surprised at the choice of the name and had no idea there was an Irish derivation.
    Dan described the story of Fionn and told us Oscar meant warrior.
    Now I’ve read about the ‘friend of the deer’ meaning and this led to a quite heated exchange with a dear friend. My friend says Oscar must be Scottish because, he says, there are no deer in Ireland.
    Yet I remember there was a type of large deer with imposing antlers in Ireland in more primitive times.
    Wouldn’t these deer have been present at the time of the development of the Fionn Mac saga?

    • róislín:

      @Susan Kaup Kelley A Susan, a chara,
      Thank you for reading the blog. That’s an interesting question. There was, of course, an animal called in Irish “fia mór na mbeann” (lit. big deer of the antlers) and in English, either “Irish Elk” or “Irish Giant Deer,” but that would be way to early for the Fionn saga. The Irish Elk were actually found across northern Europe and the most recent remains date to about 8000 years ago in Siberia, where conditions must have resembled the Ice Age. That seems too far back for any kind of a detailed cultural memory, but stories have evolved around the bones that have been dug up. BTW, these extinct elks are not the same as the North American elk (wapiti).

      As for regular deer, red deer are found in Ireland but are not real common. Another thing to keep in mind is that Ireland was much more forested when the Fionn saga started circulating, so more woodland animals would have been living there. Hope this helps

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