The 50 Most Beautiful Words in the Irish Language

The 50 Most Beautiful Words in the Irish Language

A Curated Selection of Inspired Terminology

Words, the Irish Language, Translation — and Why We Should Careshutterstock_100975504

Words are so much more than a mere compilation of letters or characters. Each word is a reflection of the people who created it, the community or culture from which it came, and in its purest form, a message that someone wanted to share with another person.

That’s why translating words from one language into another is so challenging. Transferring the essence of word from one culture to another is very difficult. Translators use various techniques to get the meaning across by focusing on the message, not the words.

To celebrate the beauty and complexity of words, and to highlight the importance of translation, Smartling is proud to present 50 of the most beautiful words in the Irish language. Irish (also known to people outside of Ireland as Gaelic or Irish Gaelic) is spoken by about 1.6 million people with varying degrees of fluency. Usage of the language has been in decline, but Irish was spoken quite widely in fairly recent memory. For example, there were nearly half a million people speaking Irish in the United States in the 1890s. About 36 million Americans have Irish ancestry, and many of their grandparents and great-grandparents spoke Irish.

Today, you can use Facebook in Irish and can even watch a soap opera in Irish (with English subtitles if you don’t speak it). Technology is breathing new life into languages that might have otherwise had less chance of survival.

Ireland has always been an important country for language, and today, it’s one of the most important hubs in the world for translation and localization.

All of us here at Smartling hope you’ll enjoy this collection of Irish language terms, selected for you with care by Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh, an Irish translator who lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Aimsir (AM-shir) – Weather, time, season. THE ELEMENTS THAT SURROUND US.

This is the Irish word for an ever-popular topic with which to make small talk in Ireland. Its earlier meaning, ‘time’, occurs in a proverb which translates as ‘time is a good storyteller’.

Aisling (ASH-ling) – Vision, dream, apparition. OUR DESIRE AS IMAGE.  

This word is used of a popular eighteenth-century  poetic genre in which Ireland appears to the poet in a vision in the form of a woman who speaks to him of the current state of the nation. The word is now popular as a personal name.

Aoibhneas (EEV-nass) – Bliss, delight. FILLING OUR SENSES.

This word generally refers to the joy we feel from external things such as music, song, scenery and good weather, and may be contrasted with áthas (AW-hass), which is joy arising from internal considerations.

Baile (BAL-yeh) – Place, home, homestead, farmstead, village, town. WHERE WE COME HOME.

This Irish word is probably the most commonly occurring term in Irish placenames and is usually anglicized as Bally.

Bean an tí (BAN-a-TEE) – The woman of the house. SHE WHO CARES FOR EVERYTHING.

Schoolchildren who lodge with families in Irish-speaking parts of Ireland quickly learn the centrality of this person in their life. Her counterpart, fear an tí (FAR-a-TEE) ‘the man of the house’, may also be encountered. Both terms can also be used to denote ‘the master of ceremonies’ at an event.

Beatha (BA-ha) – Life, livelihood, food, sustenance. THAT WHICH SUSTAINS US.

One of the uses made of this Irish word is in salutations, such as ‘your life and your health to you’. It also occurs in a surname meaning ‘a son of life’, one variant of which has given us the anglicized form Macbeth, as found in Shakespeare.

Blas (Bloss) – Taste, flavour, accent. BEAUTY THROUGH TASTE.

This Irish word is used in a proverb that translates as ‘a small amount is tasty’, a notion perhaps better suited to a country like Ireland than the concept that ‘bigger is better’. The word can also be used of speech – one says in Irish that there is a lovely flavour on a person’s speech if their accent is good.

Bó (Boe) – Cow. PARTNERSHIP IN NATURE.

The cow has been central to Irish rural life for many centuries and the Irish word for it occurs as an element in many place and river names. Looking up at the stars, the Milky Way is called ‘The Way of the White Cow’ in Irish.

Bua (BOO-a) – Victory, talent, virtue. CARRYING THE DAY.

One of the sayings in which this Irish word is used may be translated as ‘Bring victory and a blessing!’, in other words, ‘Best wishes!’

Cara (KA-ra) – Friend. OUR CONNECTION TO ONE ANOTHER.

This Irish word occurs in the quintessential way of addressing someone at the beginning of a letter – the formula may be simply translated as ‘O friend!’

Ceol (Kyol) – Music, song, vigour. THE RHYTHM WITHIN US.

This word conjures not only music but the conviviality that is a central element to Irish life. The idiom ‘you are my music’ essentially means ‘Bravo!’

Comhaltas (COAL-tas) – Co-fosterage, friendship, membership. LEARNING TOGETHER

This word is used in the title of the Irish traditional musicians organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (COAL-tas KYOAL-tory AY-ran) ‘Association of Musicians of Ireland’, which is very often referred to, by way of a blend of the first two words, as Ceoltas (KYOAL-tas).

Comhar (Core) – Combined work, mutual assistance, partnership. THE POWER OF WORKING TOGETHER.

Originally meaning co-operative ploughing between neighbours, this Irish word now evokes the general notion of co-operation and shared work.

Comhluadar (CO-loo-der) – Company, family. THE HARMONY OF BEING TOGETHER.

This Irish word primarily describes convivial company, namely people conversing pleasantly together, but may also refer to family.

Craic (Crack) – Entertaining conversation, high-spirited fun. THE SERIOUS WORK OF PLAY.

Although originally a borrowing from Middle English, this word has been borrowed back into the English of Ireland in its Irish-language spelling, and is felt to denote a uniquely Irish variety of boisterous fun.

Dáil (DAW-ill) – A coming together, a consultative gathering. A MEETING OF MINDS.

This word can denote a tryst or a meeting of various sorts but is best known now as the title of the principal chamber of the national parliament, Dáil Éireann (‘the Assembly of Ireland’) or simply the Dáil.

Dathúil (DA-hoo-il) – Good-looking. A PLEASURE TO THE EYES.

This Irish word literally means ‘coloured’ or ‘colourful’, and is used to describe beauty and comeliness of appearance.

Dóchas (DOE-hass) – Hope. BRINGING FAITH TO THE FUTURE.

This Irish word conjures a sense of trust, belief, confidence and optimism, and is used in the title of a number of Irish organizations and institutions.

Draíocht (DREE-oct) – Magic, enchantment. THAT WHICH IS UNSEEN.

This Irish word for magic once specifically denoted the secret lore and arts of the druids of pre-Christian Ireland and Celtic society.

Dúchas (DOO-hass) –  Birthright, heritage, native place, innate quality. THE DRIVE WITHIN .

This Irish word sums up what we are born with. One of the many proverbs in which it occurs translates as ‘instinct is stronger than upbringing’.

Éire (AY-ra) – Ireland. OUR ISLAND HOME.

The name of the country. The English form ‘Ireland’ derives from it and the poetic form ‘Erin’ is based on its dative and genitive forms Éirinn and Éireann. The land-goddess of the country had Éire as one of her names in medieval tradition, and writers represented Éire as one of three sisters, the others being Banbha (BAN-va) and Fódla (FOE-la), who also appear as personifications of the country, and are occasionally encountered in Modern Ireland in titles etc.

Fadó (Fodd-Oh) – Long ago.  WHAT CAME BEFORE.

This Irish word is used in a variety of phrases that can be used to begin a folktale, and corresponds to the English ‘Once upon a time’.

Feis (Fesh) – Feast, celebration. REJOICING TOGETHER.

Etymologically, this denotes the act of spending the night, especially with another  person, hence ‘espousal’, and by extension was used of a festival held in honour of the marriage of a king, including symbolic marriage to the sovereignty goddess. The most famous of these in early Ireland was the feast of Tara. The word is now generally used with reference to festivals or competitions of music or dance.

Fios (Fiss) – Knowledge. KNOWING AND UNDERSTANDING.

If you want to say you know something in Irish you say you have its knowledge, namely knowledge of it. If you leave out the ‘its’, the sense is ‘prophetic knowledge’. The word is used in the title of Geoffrey Keating’s monumental history of Ireland (1634), which translates as ‘A foundation of knowledge about Ireland’.

Flaithiúil or Flaithiúlach  (Fla-hool, Fla-hool-ock) – Generous, princely. THE GIFT OF GIVING

This word, which is still often used in the English of Ireland, contains the element flaith ‘lord’, who in medieval times was expected to be munificent. Nowadays, generosity is not confined to the upper echelons, and it may be noted that Ireland was ranked the most generous country in Europe and fifth most generous in the world in the World Giving Index 2013.

Foinse (Fwin-sha) – Fountain, spring, source AT THE BEGINNING

This evocative word was used as the title of an Irishlanguage newspaper, which is currently only available online.

Gael (Gale) – An Irish person, a Scottish highlander THE ESSENCE OF IDENTITY

This word speaks to the shared heritage of Ireland and Scotland – and indeed to our more distant Celtic cousins, the Welsh, as the word itself is thought to derive from the Welsh word gwyddel ‘raider’, a sense which resonates with the fact that our patron saint, Patrick, was abducted as a slave from Britain in the fifth century.

Gaisce (GOSH-ka) Weapons, feat (of arms), bravado AT OUR BEST

This word is used as the title of the President’s Award, Ireland’s national challenge award earned by young people between 15 and 25 for participating in several activities, in which context it is best translated as ‘great achievement’.

Inis (IN-ish) – Island THE LAND SURROUNDED BY WATER

No longer the common Irish word for ‘island’, this word survives mostly in names, such as Inis Fraoigh (‘Heathery Isle’, anglicized Inishfree), County Sligo, made famous by the poem ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by William Butler Yeats. The word occurs also in the old appellation Inis Fáil, a poetic name for Ireland, a term that was used in a speech by US President Bill Clinton in Dublin in 1995.

Fáilte (FALL-tcha) – Welcome OPENING UP WITH ENTHUSIASM TO THOSE WHO APPROACH

This Irish word, originally meaning ‘joy, bliss, happiness’, occurs in a traditional salutation which translates as ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’.

Leannán (LAN-awn) – Lover PERFECTION IN OUR HEARTS

To say that love is blind in Irish, one says ‘a lover sees no fault’. This was one of the words used by the professional poetic class in medieval times to metaphorically describe their noble patrons.

Meitheal (MEH-hull) – Working party JOINING OUR EFFORTS TOWARD A SHARED GOAL

This Irish word refers to the tradition of a group of neighbouring farmers coming together for a number of days to reap corn, pick potatoes, etc. No pay was involved but the recipient of the help was expected to provide hospitality.

Meas (Mass) – Estimation, opinion, esteem, respect A SENSE OF GRAVITAS

This Irish word is still encountered in the English of Ireland. ‘They have great meas on him’, for instance, means ‘they have great regard for him’. It is also used in a formula for signing off a letter, namely Is mise le meas (ISS-MISHa-leh-MASS), which translates as ‘It is I, with respect’, and which may be seen occasionally in the letters pages of English language newspapers in Ireland.

Misneach (MISH-nock) – Courage, spirit, hopefulness PUSHING FORWARD THROUGH UNCERTAINTY

This popular word occurs in a proverb meaning ‘The man of courage has never lost’, in other words, ‘fortune favours the brave’. The word itself seems to have the effect of adding encouragement to a conversation when introduced.

Muiceanach idir Dhá Sháile  (MWICK-in-ock-idder-gaw-haw-lya) – A hog-backed hill between two arms of the sea IDENTITY IN A NAME

This west of Ireland placename is impressive in both its original Irish form and in its anglicized dress, Muckanaghederdauhaulia, a form which appears in Georges Perec’s 1978 novel, La Vie mode d’emploi (the English translation is entitled Life, A User’s Manual), where it is visited and painted by the hero, who believes it to be the longest port name in the world.

Pléaráca (PLAY-raw-ka) – Revelry, boisterous merrymaking A PARTY YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS

This word speaks to an element of Irish culture that goes back a long time. It occurs in the title of an eighteenth-century poem which was set to music by the famous harper Turlough O’Carolan and translated by Jonathon Swift as ‘O’Rourke’s Feast’. It begins: O’Rourke’s noble fare / Will ne’er be forgot / By those who were there / And those who were not.

Plámás (Plaw-mawss) – Flattery, soft talk, cajolery A FEW SWEET NOTHINGS

This is the art of flattery, Irish style. It may sometimes involve empty praise but it’s still nice to be on the receiving end of it.

Saoi (SEE) – Wise and learned person WISDOM THROUGH INSIGHT

Though this word is rightly reserved for the more eminent among us, a proverb reminds us that a saoi is not wont to be without fault, or, to put it another way, ‘Homer sometimes nods.’

Saoirse (SEER-sha) – Freedom, liberty BEING WHO YOU ARE

This word, which expresses a noble idea, originally referred to the privileges enjoyed by the nobility. Nowadays, it is an ideal sought after and expected by everyone and has become popular as a first name.

Scéal (Shkayle) – Story, account, narrative, tale, piece of news, state of affairs TELLING THE TALE

Storytelling – scéalaíocht (SHKAYLE-ee-ockt) – is an art that has always been appreciated in Ireland. Long-windedness, however, is not, and there are several intriguing ways that describe narratives that suffer from this ailment, one example being ‘the story of the eight-legged dog’.

Sceitimíní (SKETCH-a-meeny) – Excited feelings, fits of rapturous excitement BUBBLING JOY

If you are really excited in Irish, you say that these are on you!

Sláinte (SLAWN-tcha) – Health, soundness, completeness MAY YOU BE WELL

This Irish word can be used in various ways when making a toast, one of which is simply to exclaim Sláinte!

Slán(SLAWN) – Health, soundness; healthy, safe GO IN SAFETY

This Irish word can be used in various ways when saying goodbye to someone. One may simply exclaim Slán!, or Slán agus beannacht! (Slawn OGG-uss BAN-ockt), which means ‘farewell and a blessing’.

Sona (SUN-a) – Happy, lucky, fortunate MAY FORTUNE SMILE

The primary sense of this word is ‘happy’ and may be used, for instance, in wishing someone a happy birthday. Its less dominant sense is found in a proverb indicating that luck is largely a matter of opportunity and may be translated as ‘the lucky man waits for the lucky moment.’

Spleodar (SPLYO-dar) – Glee, joy, vivacity, exuberance PLAYFULNESS

One of the many Irish words for fun, this one seems to exude its sense and has been used for the title of a number of organizations and events.

Suaimhneas (SOO-iv-nass) – Peace, tranquillity, quietness, rest CALM COMFORT

This popular Irish word encapsulates the sense of serenity that is much striven for in modern life.

Taisce (TASH-ka) – Store, treasure, hoard THAT WHICH WE VALUE

This Irish word can be used as a term of endearment, as in A thaisce! (a-HASH-ka), meaning ‘My darling!’. It is also used with the definite article, i.e. An Taisce (un-TASH-ka), as the title for the National Trust for Ireland, an NGO with a public interest mandate relating to the environment.

Taoiseach (TEE-shock) – Leader, chief, ruler, prime minister FIRST AMONG US

In origin, an adjective meaning ‘first’, it came to denote a chieftain in medieval times. Nowadays, it is used exclusively as the title of the Irish prime minister.

Uachtarán (OOK-ter-awn) – President ONE WHO RISES THROUGH EXCELLENCE

This word contains the element meaning ‘cream’, that which rises to the top.

Uisce (ISH-ka) – Water THE SOURCE OF LIFE

Something which seems to fall from the sky endlessly in Ireland. Naturally, it has captured the Irish imagination. Its flowing underground has given rise to a metaphorical term for ‘intrigue’. Uisce beatha, ‘the water of life’, was originally anglicized to usquebaugh and variants thereof, and later shortened to ‘whiskey’.

Now that you know the 50 most beautiful words in the Irish language, take a look at the list of the top Irish slang terms we compiled.

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