Irish Language Blog

Toe Head and the Hag’s Footstep, Co. Cork; The Foot of the Sea, Co. Galway, and Other Geographical Footnotes, Plus Some More Straightforward Vocabulary Posted by on Sep 16, 2009 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Well, as promised, today’s blog has a pedal theme, hopefully not too pedantic and at least as entertaining as it is pedagogic.

Let’s start with the actual word for “toe.”  Oops, not so fast. the actual words for “toe” (I think I’ll christen this the TMTM premise in vocabulary – “the more, the merrier,” except sometimes in the first few months of study!) 


1)     méar coise, plural: méara coise, which literally means “finger(s) of the foot”


2)     ladhar, plural: ladhracha, toe, or for good measure, the space between the toes.


3)     barraicín, plural: barraicíní, is really the tip of the toe, and is used for the expression “ag siúl ar bharraicíní na gcos” (walking on tiptoe).  It’s also used for the “toe” of a golf club.


But a toe clip, for cycling, is different again: fáiscín (fastener) bairbín (toe, toe-cap, barbule)

You might have noticed the words “coise” and “na gcos” used in two of these phrases.  These both come from “cos” (foot). 

Cos” can be used in various compound words and phrases.  In place names, we have

Coiscéim na Caillí, which literally means, “the footstep of the hag.”  This place name is anglicized phonetically though, as Kishkeam.  “Céim” actually means “step,” but it can also mean “degree” or “rank,” so adding “cois” makes it clear we’re talking about footsteps. Why the change from “cos” to “cois”?  So the ending of “cos” would become slender, by adding the slender vowel “i,” and therefore match the slender quality of the root word, céim.  Remember, Irish has vowel harmony, and an “e” or “i” on one side of consonant is almost always matched by an “e” or “i” on the other side of that consonant.  The two slender vowels are “e” and “i” and they are not considered to “harmonize” with the three broad vowels, “a,” “o,” and “u.”

Cois Fharraige is actually a place name starting with a noun (cos) that here functions as a preposition (cois), meaning “at the foot of.”  “Farraige” is simply the word for “sea.”  Other similar phrases that don’t really use the word “at” but imply it are “cois na tine” (by the fire, at the foot of the fire) and “cois cnoic” (at the foot of a hill). 

And finally, and just le haghaidh an chraic really, we have Ceann Tuaithe, a headland in Co. Cork.  But “toe” and behold, (och, groan, another imeartas focal uafásach), this place name has nothing to do with toes or feet.  Tuaithe” comes from “tuath,” which means “tribe,” “country,” “territory,” or “rural district.”  But this is a typical example of how many Irish place names were semi-transliterated when they were adapted to English.  In other words, if the original Irish word sounded roughly like “toe” to an English-speaking cartographer, it would become “toe,” regardless of what the Irish means.  The standard pronunciation of “tuaithe” is more like “TOO-ih-huh” but one can sort of see how someone could hear it as “toe.” 

Slán go fóill, Róislín

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