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The Irish Words for ‘Snowflake’ — Calóga and More! (with ‘sneachta,’ of course) Posted by on Feb 20, 2019 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow#/media/File:Snowflakeschapte00warriala-p11-p21-p29-p39.jpg, public domain; the original work: Warren, Israel Perkins, 1814-92; this image: ComputerHotline-Snowflakes: a chapter from the book of nature ([c1863)]; téacs Gaeilge agus dearadh le Róislín, 2019

Irish may not have as many different words for “snow” as the Inuit (estimated at between four and a hundred, depending on how we define “different”), but it does have a healthy range of words for “snowflake.”

The Irish word for ‘snow,’ as many of you may already know, is “sneachta,” a nice, if slightly-disguised, cognate of English “snow,” which is also related to other European words for “snow” (e.g. Schnee, sneeuw, sněžení, sne, neige, neve, nieve, and the ancient Latin “nix” and Greek “nipha”. Initial s’s may come and go in linguistic variations so the differences in the beginnings of the words are reasonably predictable to linguists).

As far as I know, Irish has one basic word for “snow” and various ways to describe it.  If anyone knows of any other core terms, I’d be glad to know.  Snow can be described in many ways, familiar enough to English speakers, such as “sneachta trom” (heavy), “sneachta éadrom” (gentle, light), “púdar sneachta” (powder, i.e. fine, snow) and “sneachta púdrach” (powdery), “sneachta briosc” (crunchy, crusty), “sneachta síobtha / séidte” (driven, blown).  A few additional useful words for this discussion would be “greallach” (mush, slush, also mire, quagmire, and thick soup) and “bogoighear” (slush, lit. soft ice).  But more on slush and mush in perhaps a future blogpost.  There’s plenty to cover just on snowflakes.

So, on to the flakes themselves.  As with English, “flakes” can refer to many different substances, and not all the Irish words for “flake” seem to be used with snow (e.g. sleanntach, scealpóg, scilteán, cladán, cnádán, among others), but we do have the following, as shown in the graphic above:

1)) calóg shneachta, by far the most widely used, in my experience.  The plural is “calóga sneachta” — note that the “shn-” spelling for the singular reverts to the basic “sn-” spelling in the plural.  Variant spelling: caileog.  “Calóga” can be used for other types of flakes, e.g. “calóga arbhair” (cornflakes).

Here are some additional words for “snowflake” that I have found but I haven’t heard any of them used very often, compared to “calóg shneachta.”  The core words (bratóg, cáithnín, srl.) all have additional meanings, which in my experience are more widely used.

2)) bratóg shneachta, a snowflake.  “Bratóg” by itself can mean “a rag.”  Plural: bratóga sneachta.

3)) cáithnín sneachta, a snowflake.  “Cáithnín” by itself can mean a small particle of anything; two other words with basically the same meaning, but different spellings, are “cáinín” and “cáinthín.”  Plural: cáithníní sneachta.

4)) fíneog shneachta, a snowflake. Curiously, “fíneog” by itself usually means “a mite,” as in “fíneog cháise” (cheese-mite).  I assume these are the mites found in cheeses like the German Milbenkäse and French Mimolette, the latter of which, as far as I know, was recently banned in the US.  Plural: fíneoga sneachta.

5)) lóipín sneachta, a snowflake.  I haven’t found much for “lóipín” itself, except “rag” or “flake” in general.  But there is a homonym, “lóipín,” meaning a white “stocking” on the leg of animal.  The word “lópa” can  mean a vampless stocking (with no “foot” and worn outside the shoe).  Connected?  Plural: lóipíní sneachta.  Variations on this phrase include “sneachta na lóipíní” and “sneachta lóipíneach.”

6)) lubhóg shneachta, a snowflake.  “Lubhóg” by itself means a “flake” or “a drop” and “sneachta lubhógach” is snow that is falling in large flakes.  Plural: lubhóga sneachta.  A variant, pretty obscure in my experience, is “,” which can also mean a tuft of wool; “lógach” is a variant of the adjective form.

7)) slám sneachta, a snowflake.  “Slám” by itself, like the obscure “,” can mean a tuft (of wool, tow, etc.) or a handful in general.  Plural: slámanna sneachta.  However, one has to be careful when using or interpreting this word, since “slám” can also be used for a fairly large amount of something, especially if paired up with “mór,” as in “slám mór airgid” (a big amount of money).

8 & 9)) slámán sneachta, a snowflake or “a small tuft of something,” almost the same as above, but of a smaller size.  Hmm, how does one measure the size of a “tuft” … or of a snowflake?  Níl a fhios agam, but  somehow a “slámán olla” (a little tuft of wool), is supposed to be smaller than a “slám olla” (a tuft of wool).  As for snowflakes, please let me know when you measure some, so we can decide which should be called “slámanna” and which should be called “slámáin“!  A “slámóg shneachta” is also “a small flake of snow,” presumably about the same size as a “slámán sneachta.”  By itself, “slámóg” can also mean an “untidy woman” — although the connection seems a little vague!

10)) spitheog shneachta, a small snowflake.  By itself, “spitheog” can mean “a small stone” or “a small particle of anything.”  Plural: spitheoga sneachta.  Variant spellings: spiothóg, spíothóg.

Those are the main examples, I’d say, but there are still a few more words and expressions of interest regarding snowflakes.

a)) “Caoba den tsneachta” can mean “snowflakes,” but I’ve never seen it in the singular.  “Caob” can mean “a lump,” “a shovelful of clay,” or “an untidy person” — what is it about snowflakes and untidiness?  Níl a fhios agam ach tá sé fíorshuimiúil (intriguing)!

b)) Another obscur-ish phrase is “copaí sneachta” for “large snowflakes.”  I can’t find it in the singular, unless “copaí” is a variation of “coipe” which itself is a variation of “coipeadh” (a lather, froth, or foam – something of a stretch to describe snowflakes, since it sounds more like a group noun, but still possible!)

c)) “Cuilithíní” would typically mean “choppy waves,” “small vortices/small vortexes,” or “small ripples,” but it can also mean “whirling flakes,” such as snowflakes, especially if the word “sneachta” follows.  One recent example is “cuilithíní boga sneachta” in a Christmas story by Ré Ó Laighléis (“Smeámh na Nollag,” published in Feasta, 2001, nasc thíos; a “smeámh” is “a breath” or “a puff”).

d)) “Lóin sneachta” (snowflake) is listed in Ciarán Ó Duibhín’s Consolidated Glossary of East Ulster Gaelic and in Ciarán Mac Murchaidh’s Focail na nUltach (naisc thíos), but I haven’t found any examples of this phrase in a natural context.  The plural might be “lónta” but if it’s related to “leoithne,” the plural could be “*lóintí” or something like that.  “Leoithne” was sometimes spelled “lóithne,” and may be related to “lóin,” which can mean either “a small quantity of anything” or “a light blast or puff of wind.”  As “a small quantity of something” it could be related to the more familiar word, “lón” (lunch, provisions), but I’m not really sure.

e)) And one more word that I have found can be translated as “snowflake” but it strikes me as somewhat unusual: “aibhleog,” which many of you may recognize as normally meaning “a burning cinder” or “a burning piece of turf.”  And for the record, I’ll say I’ve never heard “aibhleog” used for “snowflake” that I can remember.  But there’s always a first time and perhaps this will show up soon in some Gaeltacht story.

f)) Finally, there are a couple of phrases that can be translated as “snowflakes” but which literally are just based on the word “snow,” not “flakes” as such.  One is “ag biathú sneachta” (showering snow), with “biathú” also being used with “báisteach” in the phrase “ag biathú báistí.” “Biathú” typically means “feeding” (related to “bia,” food) but when it is used to describe the weather, it indicates something about the consistency of the precipitation.  For rain, we could translate this as “drizzling”: Bhí sé ag biathú báistí, Raindrops were falling/It was drizzling.   For snow, we could probably say “flurrying” as well: Bhí sé ag biathú báistí, lit. It was showering snow, i.e. Snowflakes were falling, or It was flurrying, to establish a difference from “ag cur sneachta” (snowing in general).

g)) Another phrase that can be translated as “snowflakes” but which doesn’t refer to the “flakes” as such is “cáitheadh sneachta” (whirling snowflakes, lit. a beating of snow).  “Cáitheadh” can also be used with rain, to indicate heavy rain, as in “Tá sé ag cáitheadh báistí” (It’s pouring rain), so I assume “ag cáitheadh sneachta” would mean “snowing heavily” although I haven’t seen it translated specifically as that.

Well, as so typically happens, examining one word in Irish turns out to involve about a dozen more, but as the proverb says, “Déanann mathshlua meidhréis.”  I’d still say that “calóga sneachta” is probably the most widely used of all of the phrases for “snowflakes,” but it’s interesting to know that there are so many possibilities.  Hope you found this “suimiúil.”  — Róislín


Focail na nUltach, le Ciarán Mac Murchaidh (Droichead na Banna, Co. an Dúin), retrievable at https://studylib.net/doc/7556796/abbreviations-and-references—giorr%C3%BAch%C3%A1in-and-leabhair, although the link seems to direct you to the abbreviations page, not the title page.

Ó Duibhín, Ciarán.  Consolidated Glossary of East Ulster Gaelic, www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/~oduibhin/focailnanultach.doc

Ó Laighléis, Ré, “Smeámh na Nollag,” Feasta 54 (12), 2001, http://www.feasta.ie/2001/nollaig/alt4.html

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