Irish Language Blog

What’s ‘Upside Down’ in Irish?  And what about the nuthatch? Posted by on Oct 31, 2015 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Given five Irish word elements, (bun, cionn, cnó, os, snag), how would you assemble them to indicate that this nuthatch is upside down? (Grafaic: By Mdf (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Given five Irish word elements, (bun, cionn, cnó, os, snag), how would you assemble them to indicate that this nuthatch is upside down? (Grafaic: By Mdf (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as I saw the photo which I have embedded in this blog, I immediately thought, “Now that would be a fun blog topic.”  And I did look at the photographer’s description of the picture, to be sure it wasn’t just some Photoshop fun, with the picture really having been inverted.  But, in the notes describing the shot, the photographer actually says, in several languages, that, “This image is not upside down.”  Tá an frása sna teangacha eile sa nóta thíos.

So for this blog, we’ll look at the word for “upside down” in Irish and also the word for “nuthatch” (the bird).

“Upside down” is always a fun word to learn in any language, or at least so I’ve found.  In Welsh, there’s “wyneb i waered” (nice alliteration) and French offers up “sens dessus dessous.”  More alliteration–hmm, what is it about upsidedownness and alliteration?  Bhuel, sin ábhar blag eile.   If you know of any more ways to say “upside down” in other languages, please do write them in.  It would be interesting to see what they translate to, literally.

Our Irish phrase is literally “bottom over head” and it’s usually written as one, longish word, though I’ve sometimes seen it as three separate words: bunoscionn (or “bun os cionn“).  It breaks down as:

bun, bottom, foundation

os, over, above, although a more basic vocabulary word is for “over” is usually “thar” [say “har,” silent “t”] as in “thar a ghuaillí” (over his shoulders).  The word “os” tends to be used in set phrases, like “os comhair” (in front of, opposite), “os cionn” (over, above, beyond, etc.), “os ard” (openly, out loud, aloud) and “os íseal” (in a low voice, quietly, secretly)

cionn, the old “dative case” form of ceann (head), now mostly limited to set phrases (os cionn, de chionn go …, dár gcionn, thar cionn, cionn is go …, srl.)

So, an interesting point about “bunoscionn” meaning “upside down” is that it doesn’t contain any element that actually means “up” (thuas, in airde, srl.), side (taobh), or “down” (síos, sometimes “go talamh” or “ar lár,” etc.).  But it conveys the same idea.

And how about the nuthatch?

Great bird, great word.

The Irish for “nuthatch” is “cnóshnag.”  If you’re seeing this word for the first time, you might think, as I sometimes do, what’s the natural division in the compound word?  Logic tells me that it’s from “cnó” (nut) and “snag” (gasp, hiccup, and the basis of “snagach“).  “Snagach” can mean with a jerky or staccato style, which I assume is the connection to nuthatch behavior).  I doubt if nuthatches actually gasp or hiccup.  Anyway, “snagach” is related to “snagaire darach” (woodpecker) and I assume it’s because the woodpecker makes a staccato sound.  Actually, the Irish, snagaire darach, literally means something more like staccato-noise-maker of oak (darach, from dair, oak), but that specification doesn’t seem to affect how “snagaire darach” is actually used.  AFAIK, “snagaire darach” isn’t limited to birds which peck on oak trees.  The usual words for “to peck” or “pecking” in Irish are “piocadh” and “priocadh,” with “gobadh” (from “gob,” beak) as an additional choice.  As you can see, none of those three words actually forms the basis of “snagaire,” as used in Irish for “woodpecker.”  Although the nuthatch doesn’t get its food in quite the same way as a woodpecker, it apparently wedges large pieces of food into crevices in trees and then hacks away at them with its beak.  Seems like an awkward way of eating (why not just swallow a worm?), but, I guess you gotta do whatcha gotta do to eat, especially if you don’t have a “scian” and “forc” (or “ordóga is féidir a chur i gcoinne na méar“). 

Well, why did I even bring up the point of looking at the word division for “cnóshnag“?  Some Irish words seem to me to have an optical illusion effect, where the eye wants to see one syllabic division but logic or previous vocabulary study tells us that the word division is otherwise.  So, for “cnóshnag,” I constantly see the word as “cnó” with an “sh” ending (vaguely like some amalgamation of “nosh” and “gosh” and “gnash” and “Gnostic,” plus what I guess must be called a folk spelling of “nosh” as “gnosh”).  And then the second part of the word would be “nag,” which is certainly an English word, but which would make no sense here.

At any rate, that’s all mostly a pronunciation caveat, since “cnóshnag” is pronounced “KNOH-hnahg.”  The “s” is silent, leaving us with an initial “hn” sound unlike anything I can think of in English offhand.  And yes, the “c” of “cnó” and the “K” in the pronunciation guide are pronounced, just like a regular “k” as in English “cookie” or “kale.”  In other words, none of that silent “k” business English offers (know, knee, etc.).  The “KN” in the pronunciation guide is meant to be pronounced as “KN.”

To answer the original question in the caption for the picture, “cnóshnag bunoscionn,” adding the lenition of the “s” to make “shnag.”  A full sentence could be, “Tá an cnóshnag bunoscionn  and for clarification, we could add “… ach níl an grianghraf bunoscionn.”

BTW, the photographer, Mdf, comments that the photo was taken at Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada.  What a struck of luck, and probably a lot of patience and skill, to get this shot.  It looks natural and easy for the bird, but for most of us, let’s hope ár gcosa are firmly planted on the talamh, SGF — Róislín

Nóta (cur síos ar an bpictiúr i dteangacha eile):

Deutsch: Ein Carolinakleiber im Algonquin Provincial ParkKanada. Dieses Bild steht nicht auf dem Kopf.

English: White-breasted Nuthatch in Algonquin Provincial ParkCanada. This image is not upside-down.

Español: Un trepador pechiblanco en el parque provincial Algonquin de Canadá. Esta imagen no debe rotarse.

Français: Sittelle à poitrine blanche dans le parc provincial Algonquin, dans l’Ontario. Cette image est à l’endroit.

Türkçe: Bir sıvacı kuşu türü – Sitta carolinensis.

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. alan:

    Interesting info on nuthatch, incidentally we don’t have them in Ireland which makes it curious that the word is not simpler.

Leave a comment: