Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla.

Alf MacLochlainn’s “Father Dinneen and His Dictionary” is a wonderful account of the origin and nature of Foclóír Gaedhilge agus Béarla / an / Irish-English dictionary, being a thesaurus of the words, phrases and idioms / of the modern Irish language./ Compiled and edited /by / Rev. Patrick S. Dinneen, M.A.,/Hon. D.Litt. (Nat. Univ. of Ireland). There’s a nice comparison with the OED, which had a significant influence on the Irish dictionary:

The typical OED entry consists of a list of the variant forms in which the headword has appeared, explanation(s) of its meaning or meanings, separated and numbered if necessary and supported by dated occurrences, and a derivation. The explanations can be discursive. Thus, for example, the third meaning recorded under ‘kitchen’ reads as follows: ‘Food from the kitchen; hence any kind of food (as meat, fish, etc.) eaten with bread or the like, as a relish; by extension, anything eaten with bread, potatoes, porridge, or other staple fare to render it more palatable or more easily eaten. Thus butter or cheese is ‘kitchen’ to bare bread, milk is ‘kitchen’ to porridge. Chiefly Sc. or north Ir. (=Welsh enllyn)’

The entries in Dinneen’s Foclóir are broadly comparable and consist typically of an array of meanings of the headword (only very rarely separated by numbering), illustrative phrases, often including extracts from songs or poems and occasional references to cognates or early Irish forms. We note too a characteristic use of that little word ‘as,’ in OED’s ‘as meat,’ above. Dinneen resorted to it to extract himself from difficult corners in which he found himself as a result of his consistently giving verbs in the first person singular of the present indicative. So the unlikely ‘milsighim I dawn’ requires the qualification ‘(as the day).’ Similarly ‘gabhluighim, … I fork as a road,’ and, making distinctions which might appear unnecessary ‘clithim, I copulate, as swine’ but ‘doirim, I copulate, as cattle.’

Dinneen’s illustrative citations suffer in comparison with the dated quotations which distinguish the OED. In Irish there was no significant printed tradition and therefore few datable occurrences to cite. Dinneen’s quotations from poets are necessarily from editions of their works published long after their floruits and he frequently falls back on the vague ‘early’ or ‘recent’.

This paragraph is quite delightful:

If a special bag for hens to lay eggs in should strike us as a strange object, what are we to make of such surrealist concepts as a gaunt rabbit (‘spiodal’), goats’s honey (‘mil gabhair’) or dead man’s spittle (‘blinn’)? There is an anecdote which might explain some of these more bizarre entries. The distinguished Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was on the staff of University College, Dublin, while Dinneen was a student and was the victim of practical jokes. He was an informant for Joseph Wright, compiler of the standard English dialect dictionary and students allegedly presented him with fake locutions for communication to Wright, asserting that they had heard them in their native places throughout Ireland. If Dinneen was one of these jokers, he may in poetic justice have later been a victim, for, his biographers tell us, many fake lists were sent to him when he had turned lexicographer. Tantalisingly, they do not identify any such hoax items and they do not assure us that Dinneen identified them all.

And the following passage reminds me of Dahl’s great dictionary of Russian:

The exuberance of the information pouring out forces us to realise that inside Dinneen’s Foclóir there is another book hidden. The information, for example, that eating cabbage affects the way in which your pee works in tucking frieze is certainly above and beyond strict dictionary needs, a gratuitous addition to the simple explanation of what ‘maothachán’ is – ‘maothachán … an emollient liquid for steeping, esp. suds and urine stored for … washing new flannel, tucking frieze, etc. (the consumption of cabbage affected its emollient qualities).’ But this nugget of information would form an interesting part of an entry in some encyclopaedia describing traditional crafts, in this case weaving – and the book hidden inside Fr Dinneen’s great dictionary is just such an encyclopaedia. It is an encyclopaedia of the manners and customs, lore and skills, of the pre-industrial society which survived in Dinneen’s home place (4), Sliabh Luachra, on the bare Cork-Kerry border, and in the other parts of western Ireland where the Irish language was still the vernacular. By cool design or in response to some inner compulsion, Dinneen was loath to miss the opportunity to record the way of life of that Irish-speaking community.

That it was an encyclopaedia of rural life becomes obvious when we see, for example, under ‘seanfach’ not only the meaning of the word – ‘a heifer from three to four years (without calving)’ – but a full classification of cows from ‘laogh,’ a young calf, through ‘gamhain,’ ‘colan’ and so on, complete with distinctions by age and fecundity. Numerous references to potatoes include, under ‘scrios,’ a detailed description of a particular form of tillage: ‘ … prátaí do chur fás., to sow potatoes covering them in the beds with a light coating of soil (the first step in sowing potatoes the third consecutive year, the old furrow is made the middle of the new bed, and the surface of the middle part of the old bed constitutes the scrios for the new bed; this method of tillage is called ath-riastáil, while the tillage of the previous year is called ath-romhar …’

Dahl is likewise fascinated with traditional ways of life and will take the opportunity of a relevant word to list a whole catalogue of related items or events. MacLochlainn’s essay ends with “examples of entries in which the explanation goes far beyond what is needed to explain the headword”; I posted about a parody of a Dinneen entry here, and I am happy to see that the Twitter feed I posted about here is still active. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Google ‘tucking frieze’ and you’ll get even a bit more color – Irish ladies doing some sort of footpedaling chore while only partially clothed.

    But you won’t learn what tucking frieze actually means. From the description, the best I can figure is that It might mean stretching woven cloth to pull the nap in. But that’s just a guess. Anyone know?

  2. Frieze, says the OED, is ‘a kind of coarse woollen cloth, with a nap, usually on one side only; now esp. of Irish manufacture’. Tuck has as its oldest living sense (before that it meant ‘torture’) ‘dress or finish (cloth) after it comes from the weaver, esp. to stretch on tenters’. The OED adds ‘now local’.

    A tenter, before you ask, is ‘a wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking’. The cloth is held in place by hooks (typically bent nails), naturally known as tenterhooks, from which the metaphor on tenterhooks ‘in (painful) suspense’ comes.

  3. Urine as a fixative in dying was seen as a sign of Ireland’s barbarism by some 16/17C English commentators who didn’t realise that it was industry best practice of the time.

  4. Jim (another one) says:

    “Urine as a fixative in dying was seen as a sign of Ireland’s barbarism by some 16/17C English commentators ”

    People who put milk into tea do not get to call other people barbarian. They make themselves ridiculous when they do.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    People who put milk into tea do not get to call other people barbarian.

    I’ve had tea in England. Without milk and sugar it plainly cannot be drunk.

    Even the Earl Grey bags I bought in a supermarket in Scotland are each as strong as at least 3 of the Earl Grey bags you can buy here. I don’t need milk with that, but still lots of sugar.

  6. You need to order weak tea.

  7. I shudder at the idea of milk in tea, but my wife drinks it that way. Life is full of mysteries!

  8. Urine has been used for tanning animal hides since ancient times. Consulting wikipedia, I find that tanners also made use of feces and animal brains.

    This kind of thing makes me wonder if the most important early human invention wasn’t beer. C’mon boys, let’s all piss on the dead buffalo, said a bunch of drunk Egyptians one day.

  9. It’s interesting that the easiest method for crude tanning of hides is to use salt. (When I worked at Boy Scout camp, the handicrafts staff experimented with tanning the hides of the rats and squirrels we caught in the kitchen traps. Its was gruesome but informative.) But until relatively recent times, salt was far too precious a commodity to be wasted on curing hides. Once something that had to be mined and trekked across the Sahara desert, salt is so cheap now (coming from the ocean) that we can afford to spread it on our roads.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Salt is still mined a lot – by pumping water through and boiling it later, a much cheaper method than going in and hacking around by hand.

    This kind of thing makes me wonder if the most important early human invention wasn’t beer. C’mon boys, let’s all piss on the dead buffalo, said a bunch of drunk Egyptians one day.

    O hai! I maded you an internets, and I did not eated it.

  11. Charles Perry says:

    At the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies in the Sixties, one of the Lebanese instructors styled himself a “man of letters” and put on obnoxious airs about his supposed status. To get back at him, some of the students convinced him to include “atomic egg” (baida dharriyyah) in the English-Arabic dictionary he was compiling. He ended up trying to buy back all the copies of the book,.Gave up none of his airs, though.

  12. I just checked my Dictionary of Syrian Arabic (1964) to make sure it wasn’t in there — it’s not, fortunately!

  13. A work of similar character is Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary (Faclair Gàidhlig Gu Beurla Le Dealbhan). The illustrations include a handsome portrait of the author playing the Highland pipes. Useful vocabulary items are provided such as the names for different parts of a spinning wheel, the names of different types of notches in an animal’s ear (to indicate ownership) and how to call a dog when its name is not known. It’s as much a folklore collection as it is a dictionary. It came out in the first decade of the 20th century.

  14. There were giants in the earth in those days.

  15. Please, how do you call a dog when its name is not known?

  16. Just don’t call it Late for Dinner.

  17. “Here, dog! C’m’ere doggy! Over here, little/big fella!”

    Or something like that. I am not a dog person.

  18. JC: I think you missed this in maidhc’s comment on Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary: “Useful vocabulary items are provided such as the names for different parts of a spinning wheel, the names of different types of notches in an animal’s ear (to indicate ownership) and how to call a dog when its name is not known.” (Emphasis added.) I must admit I too am curious.

  19. No, I didn’t miss it, I just interpreted Catanea’s “you” rather literally. But then, I speak English but not Scots Gaelic.

  20. Catanea: Please, how do you call a dog when its name is not known?

    According to Dwelly, “a chuilidh!”

    (“Cuilidh” is defined as Cellar, hollow, lockfast place, press, retreat, sanctuary, treasury, treasure in the first definition. The second definition is “Call to a dog when its name is not known”.)

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