Frequent commenter Paul T. sent me a link to this Irish Times column by Frank McNally, which focuses on Irish as an allegedly underacknowledged source of English words. He cites an e-mail from a reader asking about whether the slang verb “to dig,” meaning ‘to understand or appreciate,’ could be related to the Irish verb tuig, which also means ‘to understand.’ Unfortunately, he spends much of the essay pretending that the crackpot ideas of Daniel Cassidy (see this LH post) have any relation to reality, but I’m linking it here for this admirable paragraph:

Many languages have influenced English. Irish is definitely one of them. It’s just that, in every vernacular, you could find phonetic coincidences with words spoken elsewhere. Unless you can also cite examples of where, when, and (ideally) why they jumped the species barrier, you can’t assume the coincidences are more than that.

I wish more newspaper columnists could get that idea through their heads.


  1. Thanks for this. Had been considering reading the Cassidy for a while, though was put off by the title. Now will skip the hell out of it.

  2. “”to dig,” meaning ‘to understand or appreciate,’ could be related to the Irish verb tuig”: as a speaker of Brenglish, I’d never use “to dig” in that sense, viewing it as a childish attempt to sound American. On t’other hand, I am used to using “to twig” meaning to understand something. On patriotic grounds, I’ll assume it came from Scots Gaelic rather than the Irish variant.

  3. I was intrigued earlier this week to find that Irish is the source of “galore”. I sent my advisor an email titled “graphs galore” and then did a double-take at the word I’d just used, realized I had no idea where it had come from, and had to go look it up. 🙂
    Here’s the OED’s etymology, for the curious:
    Etymology: Irish go leór (= Gaelic gu leòr, leòir) to sufficiency, sufficiently, enough, go, gu to + leór sufficiency, sufficient. Now commonly viewed as Irish; in some earlier examples the proximate source seems to have been Scottish Gaelic

  4. marie-lucie says:

    A few years ago when Language Log did not yet take comments, there was a post which quoted Pullum & Huddleston’s Cambridge grammar to the effect that galore was an adjective! I wrote to Pullum expressing my doubts, but (not unexpectedly) he did not answer. I have not seen the grammar (apparently an enormous piece of work) but the Irish original seems to be a prepositional phrase, and I think that the English word qualifies as an adverb (a single word which is often the equivalent of a PP). I don’t see how this word can be considered an adjective. What do native speakers say?

  5. m-l: Originally galore was an adverb, as you say, and the unrevised OED2 gives it as such. Synchronically, though, galore is clearly an adjective, though one that is unusual because it is postposed. Extraordinaire and aplenty have the same property. Likewise junior and senior when attached to proper names.
    In various technical domains, French adjective-noun borrowings maintain French word order, as for example in heraldry: the arms of England are gules with three lions passant guardant in pale or armed and langued azure, which is half English and half French in lexis, but with French word order (note that in pale means ‘in a vertical column’ and or is always French in heraldic descriptions). There are also a large number of legal phrases with postposed adjectives, from attorney general to heir apparent to queen regnant.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I know about the archaic Anglo-French phrases, which use actual French adjectives (the heraldic terms are still the same in French) and extraordinaire (a French word, not an English one) follows the pattern, but I don’t see aplenty and galore as the same type of word. Three lions rampant could be updated as ‘three crawling lions’ (or whatever position rampant means in this context), but wine aplenty = ‘plenty of wine’, ‘wine in large quantities’, not (I think) ‘plentiful wine’. Compare this with House Beautiful (the name of a magazine), which is only stylistically different from ‘beautiful house’ and uses the same adjective.

  7. Irish leor is from Old Irish lour, according to McBain; apparently this derives from Proto-Celtic *ro-wero- “sufficiency”. I’ve always considered galore to function as an adjective, albeit unusual in that it usually occurs postpositively, as John Cowan notes – though when writing about it some years ago I found examples of a different kind of adjectival use, e.g.:
    “You all know that the best of aiting and dhrinking is provided when a runaway couple is expected; and indeed there was galore of both there.” (William Carleton, Shane Fadh’s Wedding)
    Grant Barrett’s takedown of Cassidy’s book put paid to what little impulse I might have had to read it. For a short and quite scholarly take on the influence of Irish on the English language, Loreto Todd’s Green English is worth a look.

  8. Well, extraordinaire has been used in English, and applied to English nouns, since its first known appearance in 1940, and always postposed. The OED does agree that both it and aplenty are adjectives. Searching the Oxford American Dictionary online, I find the following sometimes- and always-postposed adjectives: incarnate, proper, inclusive, notwithstanding, plenipotentiary, redux; triumphant (with abstract nouns); junior and senior (with names); designate, dowager, emeritus (with titles); minor, sharp, flat (with musical keys); and major (with both).
    In addition, postposed adjectives on the surface that are actually short for relative clauses are quite common: compare a large dog with a dog large for its breed, i.e. ‘a dog that is large for its breed’, and the difference between getting the best possible result and the best result possible (i.e. under the circumstances).
    A lion rampant is one standing on one or both back legs and pawing the air with its front legs: see the eight standard heraldic lion attitudes, viz. rampant, passant, statant, salient, sejant, sejant erect, couchant, dormant. Guardant in the English lions is a now-standard misspelling of gardant, and means ‘with head facing the viewer’, i.e. regardant in Modern French.

  9. Don DeLillo is fond of dialogue with slightly skewed expressions. One of my favorite is “by the galore,” which appears more than once in Libra.

  10. Other derivatives of PIE wērh¹- besides galore are warlock < OE wǣr-loga ‘oath-breaker’, and the many borrowings directly or indirectly from Latin vērus ‘true’, of which very is the most common.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Well, JC, I am still not convinced, even though I suppose that English experts from the OED to Geoff Pullum reason as you do. I don’t have another term to suggest though! But the quote phrase by the galore shows that not everyone uses galore as an adjective.
    Nearly all the instances of post-posed “adjectives” derive from French or Latin phrases where the adjective (or modifying noun) normally follow the (main) noun, as in envoyé extraordinaire or ambassadeur plénipotentiaire. For a noun example, consider dowager: in French this is douairière, which can be used as a main noun (une douairière) or a modifying noun (la duchesse douairière): is the English equivalent of this phrase “the dowager duchess” or “the duchess dowager”? I think I have run into the former but not the latter. Is mother an adjective in the Queen Mother (a calque of la reine mère)?. As for senior/Junior, major/minor, they are obviously Latin, and the place of sharp/flat is analogous to that of major/minor in music terminology. In short, those “adjectives” seem to be a hodgepodge of mostly foreign and foreign-derived forms, used according to still not quite assimilated noun-phrase syntax.
    I am surprised to see notwithstanding among those “adjectives” too. It is true that it can come after a noun, but it seems to me that it can be used as a preposition meaning ‘in spite of’. Absent is being used that way too, with the meaning ‘In the absence of …’ (but I don’t mean that absent shares the property of being used after a noun).

  12. J. W. Brewer says:

    DeLillo’s reported “by the galore” usage strikes my AmEng native speaker ear as odd/unidiomatic/ungrammatical, fwiw.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    And separately fwiw I vaguely remember “galore” coming up in an undergraduate linguistics class once upon a time (and/or in a textbook or other assigned reading for class) as an example demonstrating that there were a few exceptions to the general rule that adjectives in English precede the nouns they modify. This would have been quite some years before the publication of CGEL.

  14. mollymooly says:

    Whatever about “dig”, “grok” is transparently from Ir. “greaċ”, a nutshell.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    JWB, “by the galore” sounds very odd to me too, as I don’t think galore is a noun, whatever else it turns out to be.

  16. The English calque of envoyé extraordinaire is envoy extraordinary, and I didn’t mention it because it is a fixed phrase. But postposed extraordinaire in English is not part of or derived from any fixed phrase that I know of: the OED’s examples collocate it with (in order of use) binge, poet, adventurer, lover, man, fighter, fund-raiser, and a quick google adds Christmas, hair, domestic (n.), cabinet, fireplace, handyman, ghostwriter, winemaker, barber, motorhead, companion, dog walker, housewife, string, cake.
    Dowager swings both ways: dowager duchess, queen dowager. Arguably these are noun-noun compounds, though, and perhaps I should have omitted the word.
    Postposed notwithstanding was originally an abbreviation of to the contrary notwithstanding, and there a calque of Latin non obstante, a participial phrase. It is clearly able to function as an adjective, a conjunction, or a preposition in different English sentences.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Oh, I am aware that extraordinaire as a laudatory modifier can be used with just about any noun, especially (but not exclusively) about people who perform considerably beyond the usual standard for their occupations. The pattern “English noun + extraordinaire” is (becoming) fixed, not just the collocation of the French adjective with specific nouns.
    What I object to is lumping together not just true adjectives (eg “inclusive, incarnate”) but nouns and even words of indeterminate status (eg “galore”) as adjectives on the basis of one criterion, the postnominal position of these words, continuing a pattern which originated with literal translations and calques of French and Latin models which normally had postnominal adjectives. Even though the majority of the phrases in question may include postnominal adjectives, the postnominal position does not an adjective make.

  18. the postnominal position does not an adjective make

  19. I didn’t mean to suggest that DeLillo hadn’t invented “by the galore.” I’ve certainly never encountered it anywhere else.

  20. Although much of Cassidy’s book may be worthless, he has presented some interesting research on the origin of “jazz”, although perhaps not the last word on the subject.

  21. mollymooly: I don’t see how grok can be from Ir. greac a nutshell. It first appeared as an invented word in Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. I took it to mean ‘understand’, like ‘dig’, but looking back, it may also have meant ‘enjoy’. Does anyone else recall this?
    Some years back, a friend advertised a celebration of her partner’s birthday, calling him a ‘cardplayer extraordinaire’. She probably meant ‘skillful’, but I thought it really would mean ‘frequent’ in the context.
    Does anyone remember the female character Pussy Galore in one of the James Bond novels? This was real wordplay, with ‘galore’ used as a proper noun, but also in its usual role as an adjective postposed.
    ‘By the galore’ is also legitimate wordplay. Recall that Rodger C said it was used in dialogue. The character was probably a descendant of Mrs Malaprop.

  22. mollymooly: I don’t see how grok can be from Ir. greac a nutshell.
    I’m pretty sure that was a joke.

  23. Heinlein actually drops into philology for a few minutes to discuss the origin and meaning(s) of grok (apologies for the un-English punctuation, which is not original; I don’t feel like fixing it):

    «Take this word: “grok”. Its literal meaning, one which I suspect goes back to the origin of the Martian race as thinking creatures — and which throws light on their whole “map” — is easy. “Grok” means “to drink”.»
    «Huh?» said Jubal. «Mike never says “grok” when he’s just talking about drinking. He — »
    «Just a moment.» Mahmoud spoke to Mike in Martian.
    Mike looked faintly surprised. «“Grok” is drink.»
    «But Mike would have agreed,» Mahmoud went on, «if I had named a hundred other English words, words which we think of as different concepts, even antithetical concepts. “Grok” means all of these. It means “fear”, it means “love”, it means “hate” — proper hate, for by the Martian “map” you cannot hate anything unless you grok it, understand it so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you — then can you hate. By hating yourself. But this implies that you love it, too, and cherish it and would not have it otherwise. Then you can hate — and (I think) Martian hate is an emotion so black that the nearest human equivalent could only be called mild distaste.»
    Mahmoud screwed up his face. «“Grok” means “identically equal”. The human cliché. “This hurts me worse than it does you” has a Martian flavor. The Martians seem to know instinctively what we learned painfully from modern physics, that observer interacts with observed through the process of observation. “Grok” means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed — to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science-and it means as little to us as color means to a blind man.» Mahmoud paused. «Jubal, if I chopped you up and made a stew, you and the stew, whatever was in it, would grok — and when I ate you, we would grok together and nothing would be lost and it would not matter which one of us did the eating.»
    «It would to me!» Jubal said firmly.

  24. Thanks, JC, for taking us to the source!

  25. The role of the Irish in the colonisation of Mars has been woefully underappreciated. Accounts of Saint Brendan’s voyage to America describe visiting an island remarkably similar to Deimos.

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