Foclóir Farraige.

Claudia Geib writes for Hakai about a new dictionary project:

Sitting amid the bric-a-brac of generations of seafarers before him, fisherman and museum curator John Bhaba Jeaic Ó Confhaola of Galway, Ireland, tried to describe a word to interviewer Manchán Magan. The word, in the Irish language, was for a three-bladed knife on a long pole, used by generations of Galway fishermen to harvest kelp. Ó Confhaola dredged it from his memory: a scian coirlí.

“I don’t think I’ve said that word out loud for 50 years,” he told Magan.

It was a sentiment that Magan would hear again and again along Ireland’s west coast. This is a place shaped by proximity to the ocean: nothing stands between the sea and the country’s craggy, cliff-lined shores for roughly 3,000 kilometers, leaving it open to the raw breath of the North Atlantic. Many cities and towns here have roots as fishing villages and ports, and for generations, to speak Irish in them was to speak of the sea.

A sarcastic person might be described as tá sé mar a bheadh scadán i dtóin an bharraille (like a salted herring from the bottom of a barrel). To humble a braggart was an ghaoth a bhaint as seolta duine (to take the wind out of their sails). Each community developed its own vocabulary: words for every sort of wave, every tide, and every shift in weather; for the sea’s sounds, its plants, and its creatures; and for the tools and tricks a mariner used to make a living on the ocean’s surface.

Yet this unique vocabulary is slowly disappearing. Early last year, Magan—a writer, documentary filmmaker, and connoisseur of the Irish language—began collecting coastal words from towns along the west coast, in an effort to preserve them. […] Supported by funding linked to Galway’s designation as a European Capital of Culture for 2020, Magan spent February and part of September recording stories and sayings in Ireland’s Atlantic communities. The recordings make up the Foclóir Farraige, or Sea Dictionary: an online database of recordings and definitions sorted by their regional origin. Magan also recently published a selection of words in an illustrated book. […] Magan gave his dictionary an alternative name: Sea Tamagotchi, for a game popular in the late 1990s that challenged users to keep digital pets alive. It’s a reference to Magan’s hope that the dictionary might inspire people to adopt and nurture some of these largely forgotten words. […]

A coastal Irish speaker, walking the beach at night, might have equally expected to hear stranach (the murmuring of water rushing from shore), or the whisper of caibleadh (distant spirit voices drifting in over the waves). They knew the ceist an taibhse (the question for the ghost)—a riddle used to determine if someone they met along the way was human or supernatural. Many words describe ways of predicting the weather, or fishing fortunes, by paying attention to birds or wind direction; to the sea’s sounds; or to the colors in a fire. […]

Few people, including Magan, expect that the words of the Foclóir Farraige will return to everyday use. As Ní Shúilleabháin puts it: “I’m a realist; every language changes.” Yet she also sees the urgency in Magan’s work, as dominant languages subsume smaller tongues around the world. “In an increasingly homogenous world … I think it’s very important to maintain cultural intimacies,” she says.

If you’re wondering about the magazine’s name, the About page says:

The name Hakai is inspired by Hakai Pass which is within the Hakai Lúxvbálís Conservancy, one of the largest protected marine areas on the west coast of Canada, located about 400 kilometers north of Vancouver.

Thanks, Ariel!


  1. It would be interesting to learn about taboos. In many sea-going cultures, there are certain taboos, like words you shouldn’t say while in a boat, or prohibited activities (whistling, for example).

    In Ireland, many fishermen never learned how to swim. Also, there was a reluctance to help people who were drowning. It was thought that the sea demanded a life, and if you saved someone, the sea might take someone else from your family. These beliefs varied a lot over time and from place to place, of course.

    There was also a lot of folklore about seals.

    I suppose some of the rare words are tied in with such beliefs.

    I remember one time I was walking by the sea on the west coast of Ireland, and I fell in with one of the locals, and he and I were chatting (in English). He reaches in his pocket and pulls out some stuff, and says “Would you like some duileasc?”. This is a kind of seaweed called “dulse” in English, which is often eaten in Ireland as a snack. So clearly this wasn’t something he had bought in the shop in a plastic wrapper, he must have collected it himself.

    Not bad for a salty snack, and probably healthier than Taytoes.

    Maybe I was lucky to have experienced artisanal dulse before some big company moved in and started selling it in vending machines.

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    The phrase “tóin an bhairille” (could mean “arse-end of the barrel”) is worth a comment. The other possibility would be “bun an bhairille”. Looking at the corpus of contemporary Irish, the “tóin an” expressions are used in what I would describe as slangier or less measured prose than the “bun an” expressions.

  3. probably healthier than Taytoes

    There’s no E in Taytos, other than E621.

  4. Is John Bhaba Jeaic Ó Confhaola any relation to Baba O’Riley?

  5. Bhaba is genitive of Baba, a hypocoristic of Bairbre [=Barbara], presumably John’s mother. I doubt if she is related to Meher Baba or Terry Riley.

  6. But what about Baba Ram Dass?

  7. To humble a braggart was an ghaoth a bhaint as seolta duine (to take the wind out of their sails).
    Does this count as a sign of a unique relationship to the sea? After all, the phrase exists as well not only in wave-ruling English, but even in land lubber German (jemandem den Wind aus den Segeln nehmen).

  8. Lars Mathiesen says

    tage vinden ud af sejlene (på nogen/noget) = mindske eller fjerne kraften i nogens bestræbelser; komme nogen/noget i forkøbet according to the dictionary — ‘diminish the effect of someone’s efforts; anticipate someone.’

    So it’s not just taking someone down a peg, it can be very abstract — the example given was some economic development reducing the voter appeal of a government plan. (It’s still a very concrete tactic in sailboat racing, though. The opposite of slipstreaming, in a sense).

  9. Land-lubber Germans? What about the Hanseatic League? Why, even the word lubber has a very low German look to me…

  10. @Lars: The German phrase can be used like the Danish.
    @Stephen: But those guys spoke Low German, while I’m talking about Standard (High) German. 🙂

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Here is the first attestation I could find in Hansard (he prefaces it with “to use the common expression”)

    Here is the first in the DTA corpus:

    For Dutch I found earlier similar expressions:

    Tegen ymand in den wind leggen. Dat is, zich tegen hem kanten. ‘t Schynt genomen te zyn van een schip dat met zyne zeilen aan een ander den wind onderschept en belet. Zo steken ook schippers malkanderen de loef wel af; dat overgebragt word tot andere dingen, waar in de een den anderen verkloekt,   TUINMAN 1, 147 [1726].

    Hy neemt hem den wind af, ontleend van zulke zeilen, waardoor men eenen anderen, den wind dien hij noodig heeft om voorttekomen, ontneemt, beteekent Spreekw. hij berooft hem van zijn voordeel,   SPRENGER V. EIJK, Spreekw. Scheepv. 151 [1835].

    But someone might have earlier finds. I did not check the Irish phrase, as I think it is probably taken from English.

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