Heroic feats of etymology

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The "About Us" page for the new search engine Cuil says that

Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge. For knowledge, ask Cuil.

There has been considerable discussion at the Wikipedia discussion page for Cuil about whether this is really true.

As I reported yesterday, I asked Jim McCloskey, and he responded:

I certainly don't know the word and it's not in any dictionary I have easily to hand.

There are two words `cuil' that I know. One means `enmity' or `bad attitude' or `resentment', as in

cuil aige liom
is resentment at-him with-me
"He's angry with me/resents me/has it in for me."

The other means `fly'.

But maybe it's some Old or Middle Irish word — I'd have to check the Royal Irish Academy dictionary for that.

Commenter Nick Z did check the Royal Irish Academy dictionary, and wrote that

According to the "Dictionary of the Irish Language. Based Mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials" (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy), in Old and Middle Irish there was a word coll "hazel-tree; 3rd letter of the alphabet". I don't know if this would become cuil(l) in Modern Irish; it appears as cuill only in the genitive singular in O and MIr (as expected for an o-stem noun).

There is no word cuill.

I couldn't find any words of a similar shape meaning "knowledge". cuil means "fly" (the insect). cuil, with a long -u-, means "corner, recess". cul, with a long -u-, means "back, rear". col means "wrong, infringement, violation; incest".

I also searched English meanings at eDIL (http://www.dil.ie/search-all.asp) for "knowledge" without finding anything likely.

At least in Old and Middle Irish, there doesn't seem to have been a word cuil(l) "knowledge".

Here's a link to my version of the search for "knowledge" in glosses and translations at e-DIL, and a similar search for "wisdom" . This does turn up cíall, glossed as

(a) Of persons sense, intelligence, mind [...] More particularly wisdom, good sense, skill [...]
(b) Of bodily senses [...]
(c) In a variety of more general applications intention, cause, reason, idea [..]
(d) Of words, texts, etc. signification, meaning [..] Of grammatical forms force, function, meaning [...]

Whether there's a plausible way to get from cíall to "cuil" (under whatever spelling) isn't clear to me.

The Cuil FAQ offers a more detailed version of the story, in answer to the question "What does the name Cuil mean?":

Tom Costello, our founder and CEO, comes from Ireland, a country with a rich mythology around the quest for wisdom. Cuil is the Gaelic word for both knowledge and hazel, and features prominently in ancient legend. One famous story tells of a salmon that ate nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the Fountain of Wisdom and thereby gained all the knowledge in the world. Whoever ate the salmon would acquire this knowledge.

A famous poet fished for many years on the River Boyne hoping to catch the Salmon of Knowledge. When he finally caught it, he gave it to his young apprentice Finn McCuil to prepare, warning him not to eat any. As Finn cooked the salmon he burnt his thumb and instinctively sucked it to ease the pain. And so it was Finn and not the poet who gained all the wisdom of the world. Finn went on to become one of the great heroes of Irish folklore. Any time he needed to know the answer to a question, he sucked his thumb.

As a child Tom poached salmon from the same spot on the Boyne where it is said the Salmon of Knowledge was caught.

The Wikipedia entry suggests that Finn's patronymic should be spelled "mac Cumhaill", where (as I understand it) "Cumhaill" is the genitive case of the name of Finn's father Cumhall. The etymology of "Cumhall" is disputed, but seems not to have anything to do with knowledge, hazelnuts, salmon or words spelled "cuil".

I'll await further information on the subject from experts in Old Irish, which I definitely am not. But for now, I can report that under a different spelling, Finn MacCool plays a relevant role in one of my favorite books, Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds.

At the start of the book, Finn appears in mental counterpoint to a breakfast discussion with the author's uncle, mixed with a diverse collection of other imagined individuals in a way that seems eerily appropriate for the possible namesake of a modern search engine:

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

Examples of three separate openings–the first: The Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class, sat in his hut in the middle of a firwood meditating on the nature of the numerals and segregating in his mind the odd ones from the even. He was seated at his diptych or ancient two-leaved hinged writing table with inner sides waxed. His rough long-nailed fingers toyed with a snuff-box of perfect rotundity and through a gap in his teeth he whistled a civil cavatina. He was a courtly man and received honour by reason of the generous treatment he gave his wife, one of the Corrigans of Carlow.

The second opening: There was nothing unusual in the appearance of Mr. John Furriskey but actually he had one distinction that is rarely encountered–he was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it. His teeth were well-formed but stained by tobacco, with two molars filled and a cavity threatening in the left canine. His knowledge of physics was moderate and extended to Boyle's Law and the Parallelogram of Forces.

The third opening: Finn MacCool was a legendary hero of old Ireland. Though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse's belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.

I hurt a tooth in the corner of my jaw with a lump of the crust I was chewing. This recalled me to the perception of my surroundings.

It is a great pity, observed my uncle, that you don't apply yourself more to your studies. The dear knows your father worked hard enough for the money he is laying out on your education. Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?

A bit later, the mock-heroic explanations continue, including "the attributes that are to Finn's people". Here's a small sample:

Till a man has accomplished twelve books of poetry, the same is not taken for want of poetry but is forced away. No man is taken till a black hole is hollowed in the world to the depth of his two oxters and he put into it to gaze from it with his lonely head and nothing to him but his shield and a stick of hazel. Then must nine warriors fly their spears at him, one with the other and together. If he be spear-holed past his shield, he is not taken for want of shield-skill. [...] Neck-high sticks he must pass by vaulting, knee-high sticks by stooping. With the eyelids to him stitched to the fringe of his eye-bags, he must be run by Finn's people through the bogs and the marsh-swamps of Erin with two odorous prickle-backed hogs ham-tied and asleep in the seat of his hempen drawers. If he sink beneath a peat-swamp or lose a hog, he is not accepted of Finn's people. For five days he must sit on the brow of a cold hill with twelve-pointed stag-antlers hidden in his seat, without food or music or chessmen. If he cry out or eat grass-stalks or desist from the constant recital of sweet poetry and melodious Irish, he is not taken but is wounded. When pursued by a host, he must stick a spear in the world and hide behind it and vanish in its narrow shelter or he is not taken for want of sorcery. [...] One hundred head of cattle he must accomodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers. [...] Unless he accomplishes these feats he is not wanted of Finn. But if he do them all and be skilful, he is of Finn's people.

Heroic feats of etymology are not mentioned, but perhaps they should have been.



19 Comments

  1. language hat said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 8:42 am

    Boy, that talk page displays the Wikipedia inbred mentality at its worst. "We mustn't look the word up in dictionaries, that's original research!" I added the following:

    I have studied both Old and Modern Irish and it is perfectly clear to me that the claimed etymology is based on the word coll 'hazel; knowledge' and its declined form cuill. Irish is a messy language and it's easy to get things wrong, especially when you're a businessman more interested in a good corporate name than the details of Celtic morphology. I think the sentence "Independent modern dictionary sources list the Irish word cuil as meaning fly or insect" should be deleted as irrelevant and replaced with something like "The Irish word in question is actually coll (genetive cuill)."

    But I'm not about to change the article itself, since I make it a rule not to get involved in edit wars; I try to confine my editorial attention to quiet backwaters that no fanatics will take an interest in.

    Kudos for the extensive quotes from Flann O'Brien, one of my favorites as well.

  2. Terminologia etc. : Cuil = conoscenza: etimologia forse un po' stiracchiata said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 9:23 am

    [...] invece un post su Language Log, Heroic feats of etymology, sul significato del termine Cuil: a quanto pare non è così scontato che in irlandese [...]

  3. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 9:37 am

    Fionn MacCool's is also an Irish pub in the Indianapolis area (and possibly elsewhere) that has the best cheesecake around.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 9:46 am

    Language Hat: I have studied both Old and Modern Irish and it is perfectly clear to me that the claimed etymology is based on the word coll 'hazel; knowledge' and its declined form cuill.

    I have not studied Irish of any age or kind, but looking up coll in e-DIL I find three entries, one meaning "hazel-tree" (also the third letter of the alphabet), another meaning "destruction, spoiling, injury; deflowering; violation (of a law, taboo, etc.)", and a third meaning "neck, jaw, head".

    There's nothing there that looks like it might mean "knowledge" — please explain.

  5. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    At Swim-Two-Birds also includes one of my all-time favorite similes: a character describes the poet Homer as having been "blind as the back of your neck."

  6. wally said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    'another meaning "…; deflowering; '

    and deflowering means knowledge, in the Biblical sense, right?

    There you have it.

  7. Orbis P. said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    Right, wally… And 3rd meaning is 'head'! And a head is where knowledge is! Wow, feats of heroïc etymology are FUN! :)

  8. Sili said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    A famous poet fished for many years on the River Boyne hoping to catch the Salmon of Knowledge. When he finally caught it, he gave it to his young apprentice Finn McCuil to prepare, warning him not to eat any. As Finn cooked the salmon he burnt his thumb and instinctively sucked it to ease the pain. And so it was Finn and not the poet who gained all the wisdom of the world.

    Fascinating! That's the exact same story as Sigurd's killing of the dragon Fafner on behalf of Regin. Only he gained the gift of understanding the birds, but the thumbsucking and other incidentals are the same.

    I wonder how old the original story is. And whence it came. I'll have to put on my list of stuff to reasearch next the parallels between Idomeneus and Jephtah.

  9. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers.

    I doubt that any heroic feat of etymology could match this.

  10. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

    I must say I wouldn't have expected this to be one of your favorite books, Prof. Liberman. I would have predicted it was too whimsical for American taste (not that I hold that against it myself).

  11. mollymooly said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    The Swim-Two-Birds extract includes "the dear knows", for which see Dolan's Hiberno-English archive. My comment not really off-topic since it illustrates how twisty etymology is.

  12. language hat said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    There's nothing there that looks like it might mean "knowledge" — please explain.

    Yeah, as I said elsewhere that was shorthand for coll 'hazel;' which in Celtic mythology is associated with wisdom. Sorry for the sloppiness.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Language Hat: … that was shorthand for coll 'hazel;' which in Celtic mythology is associated with wisdom. Sorry for the sloppiness.

    It's more than redeemed by Wally and Orbis P.'s exegesis of deflowering and head.

  14. zmjezhd said,

    July 30, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

    In Vendryes' Lexique étymologique de l'irlandais ancien, I found cuil 'fly; gnat' and cúil (also cúl) 'corner; nook' (in French coin, repli, cachette). The Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla by Niall O'Donaill has those two words with the same meanings, and another entry for cuil 'angry appearance'.

  15. cm said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 5:48 am

    At the root of this appears be a confusion between two distinct figures in Irish mythology: Fionn McCumhaill (Finn McCool), known to every Irish schoolchild, he of the salmon of knowledge etc. but whose name has nothing to do with hazel/wisdom, and McCuill, a more ancient and far less familiar figure, the 'cuill' part of whose name is indeed the genitive of the word for hazel.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumhal
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mac_Cuill

  16. Cuil = source of knowledge? « Word Lily said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    [...] Since the launch of the new search engine, Cuil.com, (pronounced Cool), on Sunday, it's been in the news. Well, the nonmainstream news I heed, anyway. One such story was digging deep to discern the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of the site's claim that cuil is an…. [...]

  17. Andrew Carnie said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    Language Hat has hit it on the head. Cuill is the genitive of Coll, meaning hazel (and one of the letters of the ogham alphabet. The link to knowledge here isn't linguistic, but purely cultural. To the celts (supposedly), eating hazelnuts was a means of acquiring knowledge. So while 'coll' doesn't mean knowledge, it has such associations. (As an aside, there is some dispute about whether this association really existed in Old Irish times or whether it is a product of the Romantic literary tradition of the 19th century and perpetuated by the neopagans. For references, have a look at the literature on the "interpretation" of the ogham alphabet.

  18. battlekow said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 1:20 am

    Huh. I always wondered why the Dropkick Murphys sang about "Finn MacCool" in their song entitled "The Legend Of Finn MacCumhail". Try as I might, I couldn't make the former's pronunciation match the latter's spelling.

  19. Karlonia - Power Quotes said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 5:44 am

    Apparently Cuil was not quite ready for launch during the first day or two – many medium long tail queries did not return results at all, and even general queries returned way fewer results than they should have considering Cuil's claims of having indexed so many pages already. They did improve somewhat afterward, however, and seem to be picking up more results and increasing relevance as more people have been testing out the engine.

    In the long run, I hope they get things together and perform well enough to compete with the major search engines and then maybe do some advertising. I would like to see more serious competitors to Google in order to hold their power in check and encourage more transparency overall.

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