Flannel trousers are not English!
One of the facets of English that makes a job working with dictionary data so interesting is its readiness to appropriate loanwords from other languages – seeing the etymology of a familiar word such as ‘ketchup’ for example, and finding it probably has its origins in Chinese.
Everybody needs good neighbours
We see plenty of loanwords that have come to English from our European neighbours. It sometimes feels as though one can barely utter a sentence without using words of French, German, or Italian origin. But English has some closer (geographically at least) linguistic neighbours than that, given that Great Britain is home to three other native languages: Cymraeg (Welsh), Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic), and Kernowek (Cornish). Many of us have probably been offered a tiddy oggy (a type of Cornish pasty) when on holiday in Cornwall; it helps to know the difference between dynion (Gents) and merched (Ladies) when nature calls in a Welsh pub; when on holiday in the Highlands, who hasn’t gazed over a few Scottish lochs; the politically-minded have become aware of names in politics such as Ynys Môn or Na h-Eileanan an Iar but where have the other native languages of our island found their way into everyday English?
Identifying English words with origins specifically in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Cornish can sometimes be difficult, due to their common linguistic influences on Middle and Old English. Our lexicographers will often give examples from more than one Celtic language as possible roots. Thus while bard, for example, is clearly a Celtic word, we offer the Scottish Gaelic bàrd, Irish bard, and Welsh bardd each as possible origins for the Middle English word. Other words with similar multiple Celtic etymologies include brock, down, mine, tor, and truant.
In looking for indigenous non-English loanwords of unambiguous origin, we find ourselves facing a much smaller choice. Some are obvious, as in the whole lexicon of directly imported landscape-related words. Scottish Gaelic gives us words like cairn, inch, kyle, and of course the aforementioned loch, while Welsh and Cornish have given us cwm and elvan respectively. One might expect that the Welsh word for a lake, llyn, would have entered the English language in the same way as the Scottish loch, but even though we might refer to a Welsh lake by name as for example Llyn Trawsfynydd, in English we still call it a lake.
Other words come to us with a strong geographical connection. There are whiskies made in other countries but it is as a Scottish product that whisky, from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha or ‘water of life’, is chiefly identified. Metheglin, a spiced mead that takes its name from the Welsh meddyglyn, ‘medicinal liquor’, is probably less familiar but if you’ve managed to visit Wales without sampling a piece of bara brith, ‘speckled bread’, at a tea room you really have missed a treat!
Wildlife provides us with a few easy-to-spot examples. Among Scottish Highland birds we have the ptarmigan and the capercaillie, both from Scottish Gaelic, and from Cornish we get the wrasse, a fish (although it is related to a Welsh word gwrach meaning ‘old woman’), while fluellen, a small flowering plant, comes from Welsh. A more everyday word might surprise some English speakers – penguin may have come from the Welsh pen gwyn, ‘white head’.
Tales of the unexpected
One plant whose name might be expected to come from Welsh, though, has no connection to Wales at all. The Welsh onion hails from Asia, and gets its name from the German welsch, or ‘foreign’.
For this writer, the joy of reading etymologies is in finding the unexpected. Most of the words mentioned so far have made their origins fairly obvious in their sound or meaning. As a relative layman in terms of language research, the words I found most interesting while searching were those whose usage in English is so widespread that their Celtic origins came as some surprise. Scottish Gaelic gave us gob, slogan, and kerfuffle (well, probably), while from Welsh we receive corgi and probably flannel. Such discoveries make dictionary data come alive.
The future’s bright
Of most interest in a study of English words from Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish is the fact that we have a constantly evolving language. It is probably not an overstatement to say that all three languages are in a healthier state now than they have been for many decades: most Welsh people under forty will have learned their language at school, while in Scotland the devolved Scottish government has expanded the scope of Gaelic education. The number of Cornish speakers may be significantly fewer than the number of Welsh or Scottish Gaelic speakers, but their language was revived from extinction over the twentieth century and has now been recognized by the British Government as well as the European Union. Thus all three languages have the potential to have even more speakers than ever who are proud to use them as well as or instead of English. I for one look forward to whatever new loan words these bilingual English speakers will bring into English, and I am sure my lexicographer colleagues will be finding enough evidence to include them in our dictionaries in years to come.
Of course, little mention has been made here of Irish Gaelic. But that would be a whole other blog piece …
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
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