10 Irish Words and Their Origins for St. Patrick’s Day

Since we’re stuck inside and all of the parades have been canceled, I have an alternative for you this fine St. Paddy’s Day: a parade of Irish words and their origins! Some you’ve met, some you may not have, but all are worthy of a toast.

“Ireland” (or “Irish”) itself is originally from the Old Irish Eriu (also Eirinn or Erinn in different forms), which you may recognize from the phrase “Erin go Bragh,” literally “Ireland till the end of time.” Its PIE root means “fertile,” or literally “fat,” so if we’re being tongue-in-cheek about it, Ireland could be literally said to be named “fatland.”

“Lephrechaun” comes from the Old Irish luchorpán, meaning “small-bodied, from “small,” and corp “body.” It’s also possibly tied to the pre-Roman pastoral festival Lupercalia, whose lore was spirit-centric, in which leprechauns may have been “little Lupercali.” ( More information about the connection to Lupercalia and Greek lore can be found here. )

The word “galore” comes from the Irish go leór, which more modestly means “enough” or “sufficiently.” (Side note: This makes Pussy Galore’s name far less licentious and more just… adequate.)

“Smithereens,” as in “blown to smithereens,” was originally “smiddereens,” from the Irish smidirin, meaning “little fragments.” It is formed of smiodar, “fragment,” and the diminutive suffix -een, which also appears in names like “Colleen” (literally “little girl”).

“Ogham” is the name of 20-character ancient Irish and Celtic alphabet, perhaps named after its creator or a Gaulish deity. Another possibility is that the name comes from the Irish og-úaim meaning “point-seam,” referring to the seam made by the point of a sharp weapon. This would make sense because all of the letters are formed by adding lines to a center line, or seam. All of the letters are also believed to be connected to and named after a type of plant or tree, such as beith “birch”, fearn “alder”, saille “willow”, and duir “oak.”

“Hubbub,” originally spelled “whobub,” is thought to be of Irish origin, perhaps from the Old Irish battle cry “abu!” from buide, meaning “victory!” or from the Gaelic exclamation “ub!,” which was a cry of contempt.

In the term “bandy-legged,” describing a person or animal with bent knees, “bandy” refers to a bent stick used in the Irish field game also called bandy. Nowadays bandy is a game typically played on ice, while “shinty” is closer to the field game. (Note: I don’t know much about either of these sports, so I’m happy to be corrected here.)

“Shamrock” has nothing to do with shams or rocks, but instead comes from the Irish seamrog, diminutive of seamar, meaning “clover.”

The spirit called a banshee originally appears in Irish folklore as a type of fairy who was believed to foretell death with her eerie song. The word is a phonetic spelling of the Irish bean sidhe, meaning “female of the Elves.”

“Shelta” (also known as “the Cant,” “Gammon,” or “Tarri”) is a secret language used by Irish Travellers, tinkers and gypsies, based on Irish and Gaelic. The meaning of its name is unknown, which may be intentional: It’s an example of a “cryptolect,” or a dialect that intentionally excludes others from understanding it.

Bonus:

Many words for different types of spirits in many languages more or less mean “water of life.” The English word “whiskey” is no exception, specifically deriving from the Gaelic uisge beatha, formed of the Old Irish uisce “water” and bethu “life.”

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