Bristle of Delusion.

The Irish writer and documentary-maker Manchán Magan has featured here a number of times (e.g., 2007, 2017, 2020), mostly for entire essays; I’m citing the March edition of his Substack newsletter for just one paragraph, but I like it:

Mayo Books also published Focail na mBan (Women’s Words), a book of Irish words for vagina, vulva, periods, etc that I did with 30 artists in November 2023. Some of my favourite words from that were Ribe an tsiabhrán – Clitoris (a colloquial, euphemistic term). Its literal meaning is bristle of delusion, or hair of derangement, or tuft of mental confusion. Pis/Pit – Vulva. Roe. Pea. A shell-less crab. What you say to attract a cat’s attention. Faighin – Vagina. Scabbard. Sheath. Shell.

I can’t help but think of a dustman’s dumpling. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Faighin is presumably just borrowed from Latin (like Welsh gwain.) It looks suitably ancient as a loan. I wonder if it was actually borrowed via Brythonic?

    Gwain primarily means “sheath”, as you’d expect, though it’s the anatomical word for “vagina.” It also means “foreskin.” Wales has always been committed to equal opportunities.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    “Bristle of Delusion” would be a great name for a band, as the kids say. When you google it all you get is a newspaper story centered on an interview with Magan, who is described by the journalist as “one of those bright, rejuvenating, esoteric people, a Birkenstock-wearing beacon of love, courage and curiosity.” Which some might find rather offputting. But the relevant paragraph from that story, with some overlap with your block quote, is:

    ‘During his research for 32 Words for Field, he discovered more than 40 Irish words for penis and began to wonder about the lack of recorded words for women’s genitalia and bodies. He joined forces with women artists for an upcoming exhibition and accompanying catalogue called Focail na Mban. The words and phrases they have illustrated are fascinating. Breall, for the clitoris, which also has the unfortunate translation of “blubber lip” or “ugly protuberance” or “someone prone to blundering”. Ribe an tsiabhrán is another name for the same body part which translates, hilariously, as “bristle of delusion” or “tuft of mental confusion”. Faighin is vagina, a “scabbard or sheath”. Bléin mná is a woman’s groin or crotch. “It literally means a woman’s cove or cave.” Clais is a word used for vulva which means gully or gash or ditch. And Riasc rúnda is a brilliantly apt phrase to describe the vagina – the literal translation is “secret marsh”. He hopes when the project is launched it will encourage women in Gaeltacht areas and elsewhere to gather and pass on other forgotten or lesser-used Irish words.’

  3. primarily means “sheath”, as you’d expect

    Yes, a source of amusement for Russian 12 year-olds is the discovery that vlagalische (Slavonic noun of place for putting in) “vagina” apart of meaning “vagina” and literally meaning “a place for putting in” is also where heroes hold their swords.

    (I guess if someone says “penis sheath” one’s first thought will be about koteka etc…. and another meaning is animals’ foreskin)

  4. As for clitoris my favorite is the line from Wikipedia that clitoris was repeatedly rediscovered over the centuries. One immediately thinks of all those learned men over the centuries and the circumstances of rediscovering. Eureka!

  5. By “sheath” I first thought you were talking about nambas.

  6. We do understand that all those “spears” and “swords” (and in the case of Arabian nights, “cannons”) of heroes, like Gandalf’s Glamdring, are euphemisms, don’t we? We’re grown-ups, after all (or aren’t we?).

  7. German Scheide is the neutral word for “vagina” and also means “sheath”. As does Latin vagina, which is probably the source of that polysemy in the European languages that show it.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    probably the source of that polysemy in the European languages that show it

    This particular polysemy is not seen anywhere in Oti-Volta, at any rate.

  9. It looks suitably ancient as a loan. The Latin sense-transfer from sheath to ladypart is post classical; so, regardless of how old the Celtic sheath-sense borrowing is, the ladypart-sense is a modern … calque? reborrowing? analogy? Can you have a one-component calque?

    Is there any language where sheath “condom” and sheath “vagina” are the same word? Could get confusing.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    GPC reminds me that the Latin vagina also means “shell, pod, husk.” This is evidently a loan from proto-Oti-Volta *wak-, as seen in Mooré wákà, plural wagse, Moba wāgl̀, Mbelime wɛ́kídè “bark, shell” and the derived Nawdm verb wagdg- “shell out, peel.”


  11. ktschwarz says

    “one-component calque”: the linguistics term is apparently semantic loan. Examples given there include French extending souris to include computer mouse.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    French extending souris to include computer mouse.

    That’s nothing, English speakers extended “mouse” to include computer mouse. Every word that does not designate a thing-in-itself is a semantic loan. After thousands of years of talking, though, it’s hard to tell what is a thing-in-itself and what is a thing-for-others.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    A familiar one in linguistics is the Latin casus in the sense “grammatical case”, which is modelled on the similar technical use of the Greek πτῶσις.

    Cicero actually advocated this specifically as a general strategy for rendering Greek terminology, as being preferable to outright borrowing. Would-be language purists often try to do likewise.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    It tends to happen a fair bit in Bible translation. A case I’ve mentioned before is the Kusaal word kikirig, which can mean either a protective spirit closely associated with a human being (in some sense, actually part of the human being, as they are part of your siig “life force”) or a basically hostile independent spirit that gets its kicks from leading travellers astray in the bush.

    The 1976 Bible translated “demon” as kikirbɛ’ɛd “evil kikirig“, but cultural imperialism has advanced enough since then that the 2016 version just uses kikirig.

    It reminds me somewhat of Microsoft’s,_extend,_and_extinguish

    [It’s good to remember, what with Gates’ shameless attempts nowadays to burnish his reputation as a “good billionaire”, just how he actually made all that money.]

  15. David Marjanović says

    Ah yes, the bad old times of MSHTML…

    A familiar one in linguistics is the Latin casus in the sense “grammatical case”, which is modelled on the similar technical use of the Greek πτῶσις.

    Passed on, of course, to German: Fall “fall, case” – both the legal and the grammatical meanings of “case” of course.

    Also Zufall “random, coincidence” – in Latin that’s casus as well.

  16. From Mary Wellesley’s LRB review of Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words by Jenni Nuttall (Virago, 2024):

    When​ my daughter began to talk about her body and the bodies of others, I wondered what word we should use for female genitals. I had been taught the term ‘front-bottom’ as a child. Very little needs to be said here about how stupid this is. My husband and I opted instead for ‘vulva’. It’s functional, but it does sound strange in certain contexts. My daughter recently asked me if the Beatrix Potter frog, Jeremy Fisher, had a tail or a bottom. I wasn’t sure and opted for bottom. Sensing that I was discussing a human animal, she asked if he had a vulva. I felt this would be a very personal question for Jeremy, but I went ahead and said that Jeremy Fisher does not have a vulva. (Letters should be addressed to the editors.) Would that she and I were instead drawing on the rich lexicon of earlier English words for female genitalia, words I’ve encountered reading Jenni Nuttall’s Mother Tongue. One of the earliest terms for both the vagina and the womb is the Old English word cwitha. I shared this with my best girlfriends. They said it sounded like a lovely village in Wales, filled with men of melodious voice. This seemed apt.

    If we reclaim ‘flowers’, then perhaps we can also reinstate some earlier words for female anatomy. In Helkiah Crooke’s 1615 Mikrokosmographia, which the bishop of London tried to ban, the labia majora are described as ‘wings’ and the labia minora as ‘nymphs’. ‘Clitoris’ is a Greek-derived word first used in the 17th century. It’s rather pedestrian by comparison with some of its alternatives, such as the 14th-century regional dialect phrase ‘kiker in the cunt’. The ‘kiker’ here isn’t related to kicking but seems to mean ‘tilter’, possibly recalling the tilt of an erect penis, or it could just mean ‘chickpea’. Another medieval term called it the ‘hayward of the corpse’s [body’s] dale’. In this analogy, the vulva is the valley or pasture, and the clitoris is its overseer. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hayward as an ‘officer of a manor, township or parish, having charge of the fences and enclosures, esp. to keep cattle from breaking through from the common into enclosed fields’. It is hard not to enjoy the idea of the clitoris, the seat of pleasure, as the overseer protecting the dale from encroachment, especially from lumbering cattle.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    This may (or may not) be the place to note that the Welsh word cont is not obscene, despite being borrowed from an English word that may be familiar to the more raffish kind of Hatter. (Presumably it had not yet become obscene in English at that point, either. GPC says it’s borrowed from Middle English.)

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    Filled with men of melodious voice –I believe Ms Wellesley is imagining very small men. Even so, the image is like those brought to mind by certain jokes about Katy Price I have seen but would like to forget….

  19. I learned from the review the word shonky, as in Isidore of Seville’s made-up etymologies. I think the NAm equivalent may be janky?

  20. The Latin sense-transfer from sheath to ladypart is post classical
    What’s your source for that? Lewis & Short have an example from Plautus, which would rather be pre-classical. This could be a meaning that doesn’t show up with classical writers and then re-surfaces again in later texts.

  21. Pseudolus

    noctu in vigiliam quando ibat miles, quom tu ibas simul,
    conveniebatne in vaginam tuam machaera militis?

    is presumably an ad hoc metaphor and not an actual then current lexical sense.

    There aren’t any ladyparts immediately involved, either, as neither Harpax nor Simia (whom Ballio and Simo think they are berating, disguised as Harpax) had any. I suppose it’s possible Plautus had P-in-V as the original metaphor and this is a second-level metaphor of that.

    The Oxford Latin Dictionary just qualifies this quotation with “—(obsc.)”

  22. P-in-V

    reminded me “tongue-in-cheek”

  23. @MMcM: Thanks for the context. The question with this is how many classical texts we would have where we would expect unambiguous use of the “ladypart” meaning. Although if the naughtier poets don’t use it, that absence could mean something. Do your sources give any more details on with which authors and since when that meaning is clearly attested for vagina?

  24. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary only references this passage in Plautus. That work may well be out-of-date now. Though we didn’t have it fifty years ago as schoolboys, working out all the dirty words in Latin. Or declining case forms of the Greek agentive -ίς suffix. And giggling at Roman infidelity as, “lays of Ancient Rome.” All the while pretending that our teachers didn’t know what we teenagers were up to. And vice versa.

  25. We have so few colloquial texts from ancient Rome it is probably impossible to prove that “vagina” did not have a sexual connotation to late Republican Romans, for example. Look at the number of English words whose derived anatomical sexual meanings are clear to us in context but would be opaque to future generations who might only have access to the collected works of William F. Buckley, some Harry Potter novels, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Atlas Shrugged”, the King James Bible, various economic and agricultural textbooks, and the poetry of Bob Dylan: staff, rod, bean, cavern, mound, balls, hole…

    Possibly even such obvious sexual words (to us) as cock, dick, pussy, and ass might be opaque as obscenities if only a random selection of formal, religious and children’s texts survive from our time.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    We do have some Latin graffiti. Like the immortal IRRUMA MEDICOS.

    [Patients have always had unrealistic notions about what modern medicine can actually achieve. This inevitably leads to a certain dissatisfaction in some cases, which in extreme situations can even lead to non-payment of fees.]

  27. Consider the brighter possibility: the physician was successful, and collected the fees.

  28. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary … That work may well be out-of-date now.

    Oh, fuck.

    And I’m reading this;-(

    VAGINA. — In obscenis, pro cunno aut podice.“, dicit. And the same quote: « Noctu in vigiliam quando ibat miles , tum tu ibas simul ? Conveniebatne in vaginam tuam machaera militis ? »

Speak Your Mind