Irish Language Blog

When Is Something “Horse” Not Something “Horse” (Téarmaí mar “Raidis Fhiáin,” srl.) Posted by on Aug 22, 2012 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

raidis fhiáin

In the last blog, discussing the “Horse Latitudes” (Criosanna na gCalm), we also briefly addressed the “horselessness” of the Irish term “raidis fhiáin” (horse-radish) and the inclusion of the word “horse” in the term “cnónna capaill” (horse-chestnuts).  Neither the radishes nor the chestnuts  really involve actual horses, even though “cnónna capaill” refers to them.  Can one ever predict whether a form of “capall” (or “each” or “marc,” two other words for horse in Irish) will be part of a phrase that starts out with “horse” in English?  My inclination is to say “no” in regard to predictability, but to say “let’s go for it,” regarding a general inquiry.

This blog will be divided into four sections: A) more actual horse-related vocabulary, B) words that have the element “horse” in both English and Irish, but aren’t about horses as such, C) words that have the horse element in English but not in Irish, and D) one example, at any rate, of a term associated with horses by analogy and which can be found both with “capall” and without it!

A) Compound words that actually have to do with horses (usually based on “capall,” sometimes on “each” or “marc“).  The last blog had a few examples, like “cóiste capaill,” “baneachlach,” and “marcairtléire,” and here are a few more.

crú capaill, horseshoe

umar capaill, horse-trough (thanks again, Anna Sewell!)

each-chumhacht [AKH-KHOO-wukht], horse-power (and there’s a good workout for your voiceless velar fricatives, the sound previously discussed in blogs such as, with “a chroí” [uh khree], for example)

marc-chlaíomh, a sabre, lit. a horse-sword (not all sabres were used by cavalry, but their primary use was by mounted soldiers)

B) Words that have the element “horse” in both English and Irish, but aren’t about horses as such.  The connection is usually through folklore, association,  or by analogy (in shape, etc.).  In these cases, “capall” seems to predominate over “each” and “marc.”  Examples include:

cnó capaill, horse-chestnut, lit. “horse-nut” (note that “castán,” which means “chestnut,” is not part of this phrase).  The horse-chestnut was (is?) believed alternately to have healing powers or to be toxic to horses (!), and I leave the rest of that quandary to the eitnealuibheolaithe on the list, if you’re out there!

creabhar capaill, horse-fly (i.e. the biting type), lit. “horse-woodcock.”  Note that this isn’t based on the ordinary word for a fly (cuileog).  “Creabhar,” on its own, can be “woodcock” (the bird), a gadfly, or the “cleg fly” (a specific type of horse-fly, also known as a “claig“).

eireaball capaill (or “ruball capaill“): this is literally a horse’s tail or the plant “horsetail” (Equisetum, horse + bristle), not to be mistaken for “mare’s tail” (Hippuris), which is similar-looking.  There are at least 30 species of this plant, including giant, dwarf, smooth, and rough — too much for this blog to cover in detail!

C) Words that have the “horse” element in English but not in Irish

These Irish terms contain no word for “horse” but are still loosely associated with the animal, in terms of legend, sound, shape, etc.

raidis fhiáin, horse-radish, lit. wild radish.  Someday I’ll check how many languages around the world use “horse” to describe “horse-radish.”  Welsh, for starters, does not; the standard term, at any rate, is “radys poeth” (hot radishes).  Ahh, a new dimension for Luna Lovegood!   In Scottish Gaelic, it’s “meacan-ragum.”  Oh, now I also see “meacan-each” (“root of horse”) for the Gaelic!  Both bases covered!  And, lámha in airde anyone who wanted to know the Latin for “horseradish”!  Well, here it comes, Celtic connection and all, and it’s … horseless  — “armoracia,” basically meaning “by the sea” (ar + mor in today’s Breton, Welsh, or Cornish), referring to the north-west coast of Gaul, where the plant grew freely.  In modern French, the basic name is “raifort,” but it has other names such as “moutarde de allemande” (German mustard) and “cran de Bretagne” (“Breton notch”? — any insight there, a Bhriotánacha?).  Back to horse territory, it’s also known in French as “radis de cheval.”

gáire gáifeach: horse-laughter, a guffaw, lit. loud, exaggerated, dangerous laugh.  The sound may be like seitreach (neighing) or cuachaíl (whinnying), but that’s not enough to put the actual word “horse” in the Irish phrase

bolmán [BOL-uh-mawn], horse-mackerel or jack mackerel or scad.  The basic word for “mackerel” is “ronnach,” which has even made it heavenward, in the phrase “spéir ronnach” (a mackerel sky), but not into the horsy set.  Instead, “bolmán,” a completely different word , is used for horse- or jack mackerel in general , for “mackerel scad” (!) and various other types of scad, such as “big-eyed scad” (bolmán mórshúileach), Indian scad (bolmán Indiach), and even “false scad” (bréagbholmán [BRzhAYG-WOL-uh-mawn].  At least one species of horse mackerel, the Atlantic, was named from the belief that other fish could ride on its back.  <gnúsacht díchreidimh!>.  I assume that was when  the smaller fishes’ fins needed a rest (!).

binse sábhaóireachta, saw-horse, lit. bench of sawing

cliath éadaí, clothes horse, lit. latticed frame of clothes (for drying clothes on)

D) To wrap up, here’s one example, at any rate, of a term associated with horses by analogy and which can be found both with “capall” and without it — a reminder of how flexible language can be!  There are two phrases in Irish for “white horses,” referring to breakers or waves, as used, to great effect, in the Lord of the Rings movie (all Arwen/Glorfindel controversies notwithstanding):

capaill bhána, lit. white horses, with “bhána” [WAW-nuh] as the plural form of “bán” (white); this rarely occurs in the singular (IMThF, ar a laghad), but if it did, it would be “capall bán.”

bristí bána or bristeacha bána, lit. white breakers, based on the verb “briseadh” (to break).  This would probably be even less likely to be used in the singular, but if needed, it would be “bristeach bán.”

So that’s four degrees of “horseness” with some reasonably common Irish vocabulary words.   Suimiúil, nach ea?

Next rainy day project?  A translation of the Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers?  Cleití Capaill?  Hmmm, any relation to or use in feathering the proverbial “nead gearráin.”  That’s considered the Irish equivalent to a “mare’s nest.”  But I have to admit, I’m stumped there.   A “mare” is actually “láir” in Irish.  “Nead gearráin” literally means “a gelding’s nest” (say what now?), so I’m sure thereby must have hung some sort of tail, or at least an explanation.  And even if there isn’t, it’ll give us a reason to keep talking horses.   Next blog — horses, from searraigh to staigíní?  Slán go “foal”, Róislín

Gluais: díchreideamh, disbelief; foclóirí, a lexicographer; gnúsacht, a grunt; searrach, a foal; staigín, a worthless creature, especially an old horse or nag.  Actually, I don’t like calling any animal, young or old, “worthless,” but thus sayeth an t-ollfhoclóirí.


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