Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

November 27, 2013

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of yan tan tethera only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

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Scottish words for snow

August 27, 2013

I’ll assume readers know that the “Eskimos have X words for snow” idea is essentially a myth and a hackneyed journalistic trope. So I won’t elaborate on it here, except to note that the claim is so notorious in linguistic circles that it gave rise to snowclone, a handy term for this kind of clichéd phrasal template.

It turns out, though, that there are quite a few words for snow (and, OK, ice) in Scotland.* Ian Preston sent me a recent photo he took of an art installation in the lobby of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, republished here with his permission:

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Pronouns, humans, and dormice

July 23, 2013

The kinds of things relative pronouns refer to in modern English can be divided roughly as follows:

that – things and people

which – things, but not normally people

who – normally people, not things, sometimes animals or human-like entities (“animate but not human”, says Robert Burchfield; “having an implication of personality”, says the OED)

When it comes to relative pronouns, animals often aren’t accorded the same grammatical status as people. We’re more likely to say The crow that was here than The crow who was here, though of course it varies with the speaker, type of animal, and context.

Dormouse in a house

So I was struck by a line in last week’s Galway Advertiser reporting the recent entry of the dormouse to Ireland’s ecology (we already have the wood mouse and house mouse):

Dormice are woodland animals, who nest in shrubs and hedgerows, particularly those containing hazel (as their name suggests) or brambles.

I haven’t looked into it, but I’d bet that of references to dormice in equivalent contexts, at least 95% would use that or which rather than who.

Not everyone supports this extended use of who, but it is defensible; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage quotes lines by John Updike (“the hamster who had died”) and Stanley Kauffman (“Tonto is his cat, whom he walks on a leash”) showing its literary acceptability.

Dormice of the world, welcome to Ireland – and to the Grammatical Who Club.

[image source]

Climbing Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain of Mayo

July 19, 2013

Photos, for a change. Last weekend three old friends and I climbed Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo in the mid-west of Ireland. (Croagh is an anglicisation of cruach, Irish for stack.)

The Reek, as it’s also known, has a cone-shaped peak that dominates the surrounding skyline. You can see it in the distance here on the road to Westport town, our home base for the day.

stan carey - croagh patrick mountain climb - road to westport, county mayo

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Timber, temples, and “ligging” a hedge

March 3, 2013

A few short passages from The Shining Levels: The Story of a Man Who Went Back to Nature, John Wyatt’s classic memoir of his time working in England’s Lake District. First, on how to “lig” a hedge, which the OED says is an old – and now dialectal – word for lie. (See etymology of lie.)

It was a pleasure to watch Joe ‘lig’ a hedge; for the work was his pride and joy. Hedges around where we were are a wild mixture of hawthorn, hazel, ash and holly. Laying a hedge is necessary when it grows too tall and shows gaps. Bough undergrowth is cut away, leaving the bare upright stems which are then cut only part-way through near the butt, then pulled over and layed [sic] in neat lines, occasionally being pinned firm with hazel stakes. The tools for the job are a pair of leather hedging mitts, one very sharp bill-hook, and a stone to whet it with at regular intervals.

Later one evening Wyatt and a friend are smearing a homemade concoction on tree trunks in order to attract moths for study. The substance is “a mixture of demerara sugar, a drop of ale, treacle, and a good lacing of rum”; the dialogue is similarly rich:

When we reached the first tree, George pulled the lid off his jar, and said, ‘By gow, lad, this smells about ten ‘orse power!’ He dipped in his spatula and tasted it. ‘And it tastes better than t’best Cumberland rum-butter!’

I didn’t believe it, so had to try it myself.

‘Th’art reet!’ I agreed.

Wyatt sought to convey his sense of the everyday sublime while living and working in the woods, surrounded as he was by so much natural beauty. Here, he adds a short and unexpected etymological note:

The word ‘temple’ comes from the root ‘tem’, to cut – a forest clearing. The inspiration of those who made civilization’s first temples and churches all over the world, was the forest. You can see it in the pillars, the arched roofs, the decorated ceilings. For the gods walk in the forest.

The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition, in its appendix of Proto-Indo-European roots, says *tem- had a suffixed form *tem-lo- from which we get “Latin templum, temple, shrine, open place for observation (augury term < ‘place reserved or cut out’), small piece of timber.” It’s a gratifying connection.


Words changing colour like crabs

February 25, 2013

From the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses by James Joyce:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee, listening to this synopsis of things in general, Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to.

After the noncommittal vagueness of “things in general” and “nothing in particular”, I love how the image of local crabs, so suddenly specific, transports us (and Stephen) briefly out of the human domain across to the Dublin coast and the wordless creatures alive in the sand. It’s a strange and surprising analogy and one with a hint of synaesthesia.


Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in -raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in -ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

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