Irish Language Blog

Seanfhocail Fhrithráiteacha: An Béal Binn vs. An Roth Díoscánach, and What’s So Bad about Moss Anyway? Posted by on Nov 10, 2009 in Irish Language

We recently looked at the proverb “Is binn béal ina thost” (It’s sweet, a mouth in its silence).  As hinted at last time, there is also a proverb expressing the opposite sentiment, that is, the advantages of being a squeaky wheel, “Faigheann an roth díoscánach an ola.”


So that starts us off with a breakdown of proverbs that are “i leith ciúnais” or at least favoring circumspection, or “in éadan ciúnais,” that is, against silence / in favor of speaking up. 


A. I leith ciúnais (in addition to “Is binn béal ina thost”):

1. Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón.  It’s often a person’s mouth broke his nose.

2. Soitheach folamh is mó torann.   An empty vessel makes the most noise.

3. Is ciúin iad na linnte lána.  Still waters run deep. 

4. Is é an dias is troime is ísle a chromann a ceann.  The heaviest ear of corn bows its head the lowest (not explicitly about silence vs. talking, but expresses basically the same idea as “Still waters run deep”).

5. Más maith leat síocháín, cairdeas, ‘s moladh, — éist, feic, agus fan balbh.  Rather hear than speak (lit. if you want peace, friendship and praise, then listen, see, and stay silent).

6. Ní dhéanfaidh an chaint an obair.  Talk won’t get the work done. 

7. Ní bheathaíonn na briathra na bráithre. Words don’t fatten the monks. 


B. In éadan ciúnais (in addition to “Faigheann an roth díoscánach an ola”):

1. Is minic ciúin ciontach.  Often the silent one is guilty.

2. Is ionann toil ‘s éisteacht.  Silence can indicate agreement, whether intended or not. 

Neither of these last two are actually strong advocates for being outspoken; they’re really just saying that silence can be misunderstood, so if you want to clarify things, disagree, or prove your innocence, you may need to speak up.  Consequences if you don’t?  Well, just consider the outcome of one of my favorite songs, “The Long Black Veil.”  Do you remember the consequences of silence for that song’s protagonist?  Of course, there was a special agenda there (bean an chara a b’fhearr a bhí ag an fhear), but even when the judge asked “Son, what is your alibi?” the innocent protagonist remained “ina thost” though he knew it meant his life.    


As regards the “roth díoscánach,” this proverb doesn’t necessarily recommend that someone should be a “scaothaire” just for the sake of it.  But rather, that if you have something that needs to be said, go ahead and say it.  Or maybe not.  Maybe being a “roth díoscánach” is, in some people’s opinions, just being a “pian sa tóin,” claiming disproportionate privileges, perhaps trying to have one’s cake and eat it too, or as might be said in Irish, having “an craiceann agus a luach.” 


Hmm, I think it’s not completely coincidental that we have ocht seanfhocal i leith ciúnais and only trí sheanfhocal ina éadan.  While this by no means an exhaustive survey, I will note that the first eight came readily to mind, while the second batch of three took some hunting.  Most of these are internationally known proverbs, so I won’t say that any of them express Irish “national characteristics” as such, but it does seem far easier to find Irish proverbs advocating silence than to find ones that promote cabaireacht (talkativeness). 


It’s not unusual, though, to be presented with contradictory wisdom in proverbs (cooks vs. heads being yet another example).  Then there is “Ní thagann caonach ar chloch reatha,” which is famously athbhríoch (ambiguous).  As far as the rolling stone (cloch reatha) dilemma goes, some people will think that acquiring moss (caonach) is desirable and some think it is undesirable.  If moss is undesirable (a sign of stagnation and decay), then it’s good to roll, move about, work hard, and stay moss-free.  That’s the interpretation I grew up with.  But later I learned that the moss could represent acquisitions and worldly goods, and in that case, it’s good not to roll around too much, dilly-dallying here and there and shilly-shallying over life’s decisions.  Rather, one should work steadily in one place, be resolved, and at least get something, even if it’s only moss. 


As for bun agus barr an scéil (the be all and end all) in meaning of proverbs in general, I’ll leave that to the “seanfhocaleolaithe” (paremiologists), since it’s really their “báillíocht.”  Full disclaimer, I just improvised the Irish term for “paremiologists” since I couldn’t find it in any dictionary, ní nach ionadh.  There are plenty of precedents though, in terms like “eolaithe” (scientists in general, or, if you will, ”ologists”), bitheolaithe, eipidéimeolaithe, srl.  I suppose one could go for the root of the word and try something like “paréimeolaithe” but that seems a little beyond beyond.  If anyone has a better suggestion for “paremiologists” or knows an official Irish equivalent, please send it in to the “comments” at  Go raibh maith agat!


Nótaí: Frithráiteach, contradictory; éadan, forehead, opposition; linnte, pl. of linn, pool; lána, pl. of lán (not “lána,” a lane); is troime, superlative of trom, heavy; is ísle [iss EESH-leh], superlative of íseal, low; beathaigh, feed (vb); briathar [BREE-uh-hur], verb or word; bráthair [BRAW-hirzh] brother (religious); scaothaire = gaotaire = windbag (you remembered that from last time, right?). 

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


  1. ma/ire:

    Ta/ ple/isiu/r orm a bheith ag foghlaim na seanfhocal. GRMA

  2. Mise Áine:

    Suimiúil, mar is iondúil!

  3. Róislín:

    A Mháire agus a Áine,

    Go raibh míle maith agaibh as bhur léirithe. Tá mé buíoch díbh (nó mar a deirtear sa Tuaisceart, “buíoch daoibh”!). Róislín

  4. John Hopkins:

    Is su/il liom maith agat.

    do chara Sean

    Is m’ainm i gaeilge Sean Oibicin. Is maith liom peann ainm dom

  5. Róislín:

    Dia duit, a Sheáin,

    Go deas cluinstin uait. An bhfuil ainm cleite (pen-name) agat? Interesting to note that “ainm cleite” (pen name) literally means “name of feather,” from the time of the “pinn chleite,” is dócha. Nom de plume!


Leave a comment: