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Foclóir or Folklore?

Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh writes: For writers, social media represents an indispensable testing ground where tentative thoughts may be tried out on an instantly interactive public. If it gets liked, is shared, or starts to trend, it might well be the stuff of literature. Get it in writing! Rupi Kaur developed material on Instagram, for example, which later was to make a literary success of Milk and Honey, an excellent debut collection from the original Instapoet. Darach Ó Séaghdha chose Twitter for his The Irish For project. It was originally undertaken as a means for him to “reconnect” with the Irish language.

The @theirishfor brand did exactly what it said on the tin, typically tweeting phrases beginning with the phrase “the Irish for”, with a discussion of the word continuing into the “thread”. Followers were amassed at a mighty rate, and the account was soon suggesting its own neologisms to the “voting public on Twitter”, a sign of a growing belief in that particular platform as a forum for negotiating the devolution of democracy to the internet. Indeed, it is telling of today’s times that one of the highest accolades to grace the sleeve of the bestselling and cheekily titled Motherfoclóir, the first of Ó Séaghdha’s two books to date, is expressed in terms of a boast that Blindboy Boatclub was part of the @theirishfor’s Twitter “following”.

The word Motherfoclóir itself is a neologism, as well as being a good example both of an interlingual pun and a highly suggestive portmanteau. “Foclóir” is the Irish for “dictionary” and is not to be confused with an English expletive to which it bears a somewhat sensationalistic resemblance.

Motherfoclóir the book mirrors much of the earlier Twitter content. The first appearance of the eponymical refrain “the Irish for” informs the reader that “the Irish for Donegal is Tír Conall [sic]”. All well and good, except that “Tír Conall” should be “Tír Chonaill” and is actually a rather nuanced toponymical term which encompasses only part of the overall landmass of Donegal, or “Dún na nGall” as a Gaeltacht native from that county might have said ‑ had they been consulted. Speaking of counties, the Irish for Clare is given its genitive case form “an Chláir” instead of the nominative “An Clár”. The implications of this error are better appreciated through comparison with an equivalent situation in English: imagine if someone explained to you that Shannon Airport was in “Clare’s”.

For a book owing its origins to a series of Twitter entries, it’s slightly unsightly for the Irish equivalent of the word “tweet” to be misprinted as “tvúít” (recte: “tvuít”) in Motherfoclóir. A double fada is what is at issue here, and a preponderance of the same error throughout seems rather incongruent with reminders on both the front and back cover of the book to the effect that “a fada can make all the difference”. In fact, even there, right there in the blurb, “fáil” is said by way of example to mean “hiccup” whereas “fail”, without the fada, means “destiny”; actually, the exact opposite is true. Major fada fail!

This is not the only oversight on the cover; we are warned not to confuse the word “Taoiseach” with the Irish for “extremist”, which should be “antoisceach”, but here is misspelled “antioisceach”. This typo falls foul of a schoolboy rule of thumb which Kneecap, in delivering their brand of Belfast Gaeltacht Quarter rap, famously have sworn never to infringe: “brisim achan riail seachas focan caol le caol” (that is “I break every rule except that of ‘slender with slender’.”). Meanwhile, there isn’t a single typo in English, despite there being so much more of it in the book.

Foclóireacht is the Irish for lexicography, a tidy term referring to the compilation of dictionaries, or the study thereof. There is a long tradition of Irish language lexicography, reaching as it does back to before the ninth century, when Sanas Chormaic was written by the bishop-king Cormac Mac Cuileannáin. The text is a glossary which is remembered as the earliest vernacular language dictionary in all of Europe. With Motherfoclóir, Ó Séaghdha has tweeted himself right into this tradition, taking time on his way to cast a critical eye over his lexicographical peers, past and present.

A rare reference to the contemporary Irish lexicography of focloir.ie gives way to Ó Séaghdha’s dismissal of their translation of “chick flick” as “scannán rómánsúil do mhná” (“romantic film for women”) because it is “a bit on the nose”. Apparently, Irish terms are compelled to be as “punny” as their English equivalents; or to have some alternative kind of retweet value at least. There is something of the “noble savage” attitude to Irish in all of this.

Ó Séaghdha is happy, for example, when Irish words conform to outdated Anglocentric notions of Gaelic folkloric quality. The repurposing of “turscar”, which once meant “dead seaweed” but now operates as a quaint translation for “junkmail”, is often recalled by Ó Séaghdha as a precedent for a terminological practice which personally I would see as trying to put the folklore in “foclóir”. Ó Séaghdha is correspondingly unimpressed with such modern features of Irish language terminology as choosing to transliterate English “laser” to give Irish “léasar”.

In a damning appraisal of an instance of the voluntary work done by the Irish Language Terminology Committee, “léasar” is smugly cited by Ó Séaghdha as “an instructive example of how not to do loanwards”. Come on Darach, it’s “lazer” in Turkish, “láser” in Spanish and “lesa” in Yoruba! What is with this expectation of Irish that every single new word contain esoteric references to Celtic folklore?

Folklore, in fairness, is class, and Pádraig S Dinneen’s highly eccentric Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla is a sterling repository in this regard. Ó Séaghdha’s folkloric approach to the Irish language naturally led to a vast majority of the words for Motherfoclóir being taken from Dinneen’s dictionary. The problem, however, is that the first edition of Dinneen’s Irish-English Dictionary was published as early as 1904, and had included words of Middle and even of Old Irish with the express intent of aiding Gaelic Leaguers in their study of poetry from bygone centuries. Many of the words given in Motherfoclóir therefore are not only irrelevant to contemporary speakers of Irish but entirely unintelligible to them. Sure the bean an tí will only be laughing at you!

Rather than making a conscientious disclaimer, for example, about the original context of Pádraig Dinneen’s archaic words, it is Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, the most recently published Irish-English dictionary, that Ó Séaghdha accuses of being “dated”. At least Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla accompanies obsolete words with the abbreviation “Lit.” as in the case of the word “meabhlach”, in which entry the ancient meaning “disgraceful” is given alongside its current meaning, “attractive”.

“Who thinks like this anymore?” exclaims an exasperated Ó Séaghdha who, having disregarded the clear instruction that one of the meanings was now obsolete, now rallies against the perceived existence of two opposing meanings for this word. And thus he arrives at the false conclusion that the Irish language is guilty of an inhibitive, old-fashioned worldview by which all that is “attractive” is also “disgraceful”. This is an unfortunate take, because the truth of the semantic evolution of “meabhlach” is rather more interesting than the point made here in Motherfoclóir. Its passage from “disgraceful” to “attractive” smacks of a kind of ugly duckling transformation which might alternatively have been repackaged as a parable of philology empowerment.

As part of a discussion of words of Irish which have no direct equivalent in English, the “1977 Ó Dónaill Foclóir” stands charged by Ó Séaghdha with not having included the “modern use of craic as meaning highly informal fun”. Fun fact: “craic” is actually an English word which long ago was incorporated into Irish rather than the other way around. To say that “craic” doesn’t have an equivalent in English, then, is a bit like the apocryphal story whereby George Bush mocked the French for not having a word for “entrepreneur”.

Ó Séaghdha’s lay criticisms of expert lexicographers know no bounds. In tow, too, is the legendary Bishop O’Brien whose Focalóir Gaoidhilge-Sax-Bhéarla (1768) is caricaturised in Motherfoclóir as having drawn inferences from superficial similarities between Hebrew and Gaelic languages that “don’t stand up to scrutiny”. This amounts to no more than the pot calling the kettle black. Ó Séaghdha himself makes a facetious association between “checkmate” which comes from the Farsi phrase meaning “king who is dead” and the Irish for “ivory”, from which material chess pieces used to be made. However, this connection is based on the mere coincidence of Ó Séaghdha’s having misread Irish “dead” (that is”‘tooth”, “ivory”) as English “dead”, and thus, a whole new specimen of “superficial similarity” was born. A fada can indeed make all the difference.

What could otherwise have afforded a valuable insight into a unilingual English speaker’s perspective on the Irish language has been tainted by overtones of cultural appropriation arising from a complete disinclination to engage with the actual Irish language public. Constructive criticism generously levelled at some of the more misguided tweets from @theirishfor, for example, is bitterly dismissed in Motherfoclóir as having emanated from “purists”, “gatekeepers”, “the translator’s frying pan”, “exasperated sighs from the linguistics faculty”, or from “seething rage at the other end of the internet”.

You’ve heard of Instapoetry, now hear of fake news foclóireacht!

Considering this aversion to the experts, the unabashed Anglocentrism, the dependence on Twitter, and a bizarre passage from the book in which choosing between translation methods is likened to ways to cook a steak, I have no option but to hereby consign Motherfoclóir to the category of fake news foclóireacht. These harsh words enter a tradition of rigorous criticism in Irish lexicography, preceding at the same time the imminent appearance of a third book in this @theirishfor series. Ná habair faic go gcloise tú a thuilleadh.

Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary can be consulted online at
Bishop O’Brien’s Irish-English dictionary, published in Paris in 1768, can be consulted here:


Dr Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh has taught at Uppsala University, Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Notre Dame and Concordia University in Montréal. He now lives in Brussels, where he works as a translator for the European Commission. He is the author of The West Limerick Man Who Wrote a Dictionary and Focail agus Foclóireacht T. O’Neill Lane.