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!