Can I Borrow a Word?

This is an English translation of the original post “Am Faod Mi Facal Iasad?

A feature of our language, that we are all very aware of, is the loan-word.  If you speak Gaelic, you will have heard a bit of banter about words like compiutair, telebhisean and fòn.  These words obviously come straight from English.  They are clear and easy for us to understand – so why would we bother to come up with other words for them?  Almost every single language has some loan-words, often when another language has made more of an effort to describe or convey something.  As a Gaelic speaker, we get a bit more stick than we deserve for this.  It might not help that English words are peppered in the speech of many Gaelic speakers.  The truth is, though, that English (especially in the Highlands and the whole of Scotland too) is just as guilty for stealing words from Gaelic as it is the other way.

It’s not difficult to see why Gaelic words have been absorbed into English.  Gaelic was the language of the vast majority of the Highlands before English soldiers arrived for the Battle of Culloden and the subsequent penalising of Scottish culture.  Whilst people were learning English, as they were required to, they kept one or two Gaelic words that were better at showing what they meant than any English word they knew.  I’m sure that some of the Englishmen learned one or two Gaelic words themselves whilst they were here and they helped to spread these loan words.

So what are these loan words then?  My favourite is “smashing”, as you’d say when something was very good.  Isn’t this rather similar to “’s math sin” (that’s good)?  I, as well as proper linguists, think it’s too alike to be a coincidence.  Another one is when someone says “ta” instead of “thank you” in English.  “Ta” is much more likely to come from “tapadh leat” than “thank you”.  Some English idioms are also borrowed from Gaelic.  The expression: “The rain was teeming down” comes from the Gaelic word “taomadh” which means the same thing.  When someone is in a difficult situation, you would say in English they were “under the cosh”.  This makes much more sense in Gaelic, were you can actually be under someone’s “cois” (foot).

I’ve got another example I really like.  I’m sure that almost everyone’s aware that the word “whisky” came from the Gaelic “uisge” (water).  However the word “galore” also came from the Gaelic phrase “gu leòr” (enough).  As such, the name of the famous film “Whisky Galore”, set on Eriskay, also comes from Gaelic.  It’s a great piece of trivia in my opinion (and I’m aware that I’ve used a loan word there myself).

There is even a Gaelic word to be found on the periodic table.  Element 38, Strontium, is named after the town where it was first found, Strontian in Lochaber.  Like many other towns across the country, the English name of the town comes from the Gaelic “Sròn an t-Sithein” (Nose of the Fairy).  Many know that Scottish people have had a big impact on science, but fewer know that Gaelic has had some influence as well.

These are just some of the English words that have come from Gaelic.  When you look at geographical features or Scottish cultural words there are many other crossovers.  Words like ben, clan, cairn, gillie, glen, loch and sporran all come from Gaelic.

So, the next time you are in a situation where you are being ribbed about the rather daft words that Gaelic has, make sure to speak up about the amount that English has taken too.

If you’re interested in finding out more loan-words, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s website has a good page about the phenomenon and there is an article on Wikipedia with further examples.

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