Irish "maidhc"

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For years I've noticed a regular Language Log commenter whose moniker is "maidhc".  Since  LL commenters often have the weirdest, most sui generis nicknames, I usually don't pay too much attention to them (not even when it's "Bathrobe" or "siweiluozi" or whatever).  But this "maidhc" bugged me because I couldn't figure out how to pronounce it.

Somehow I suspected that it might be Irish, because it just had that look about it, particularly with the "h" and "c" in close proximity.  But that was just an intuition, so I remained stumped.

After doing a bit of Googling, I discovered that "maidhc" = "Mike", but that bothered me even more, because I couldn't figure out phonologically how to get from "maidhc" to "Mike".

Fortunately, about a week ago the owner of this captivating name wrote to me offline, asking about some wall decorations in a San Francisco Bay area Chinese restaurant.  I answered his questions, but never wrote a post because there was nothing of particular linguistic interest in the topic.  I did, however, take advantage of the opportunity to ask him about his name, and he wrote back, identifying himself as Maidhc Fintano.

Maidhc is indeed the Irish spelling for Mike. There is only one person who calls me that — my mother, but I guess she can call me whatever she wants. When she was learning Arabic she used to call me "ya walad".

How do you get there? The Irish name is Mícheál, which is not pronounced anything like Michael. So Mike derives from the English Michael. That kind of implies it comes from a bilingual community. But note that Synge has a character Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World. There was also a noted musician from Co. Clare, Miko Russell, whose name caused great difficulties to English speakers. (Pronounced "Mike-oh", but how to spell it in English?) In Irish it would be Maidhceo.

Because the vowel in Mike is actually a diphthong, you have to do the two vowel sounds separately in Irish.You start with "a", and then the second sound is slender "dh", which is pronounced like "y" in English. (Slender is adjacent to i or e.) You need to have an "i" glide in the middle to take the vowel quality from the broad "a" to the slender "dh".

Maidhc is the name I generally use for commenting.

Fintano is also Irish, kind of. It comes from the Irish name Fiontán. When I joined Flickr I had a hard time coming up with a handle because I was late to the party and anything that was close to my name had already been taken. So in desperation I seized on the name of a character in a novel I have been planning to get back to writing for the last 20 years or so. That proved successful and now I use it as my photography name. But there really was a Fintano. He was an Irish monk who went to Italy some time around 600 AD, I believe.

So it's not a surname, it's two given names. Traditionally surnames were not very useful in Ireland because in any village a lot of people would have the same surname. So normally people were referred to by their given name followed by their father's name (or mother's, depending on who stood out more) in the genitive case. Even sometimes with English names. That's what Synge was getting at with Pegeen Mike. Another example, there's a fiddler from Co. Fermanagh named Tommy Bhetty Maguire, so Betty was his mother.

Although I guess it's Maidhc "Fintano", like Lewis "Scooter" Libby, because my father's name was a boring John.

This e-mail account I use for matters related to photography and camera collecting, so it's using my Fintano identity.

That was a very full and satisfying reply, and I was grateful for it.  There were still a few loose ends, however, so I asked some of my Irish friends and scholars what they thought of "Maidhc" being equal to "Mike".

Jim Mallory, who knows a lot about all things Irish, including Old Irish literature, wrote back:

If I saw the name and had not read your e-mail, I would have thought two things: 1) I had never seen the name before; 2) but if I had to pronounce it, it would be pretty much just like English 'Mike' (I would have to check Donnchu O Corrain's book of Irish names which is at home to see if there are any other spellings). As for Fintano – well, as my number 2 son is called 'Fintan' I can deal with this. It is a first name – it means 'white/blond' – and in a recent book on the Irish language called Motherfochlóir it is listed with Finnbar as one of the two Irish names least mispronounced by foreigners. My son is specifically named after Fintan mac Bochra – consort of Cessair, granddaughter of Noah, who led an unsuccessful colonization of Ireland (it's in my Dreamtime book).

In case you were wondering, "foclóir" means "dictionary", though it's pronounced like the vulgar English epithet.

[Thanks to Clifford Coonan]


  1. maidhc said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 3:30 am

    In the Irish spelling reforms of the mid-20th century ( a lot of the -idh spellings were changed to í, but since Maidhc is not really an Irish word anyway, it has remained unchanged.

  2. johnesh said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 3:37 am

    "So Mike derives from the English Michael. That kind of implies it comes from a bilingual community."
    This is interesting. Scottish Gaelic also has "Seonaidh" from the English "Johnny" (not to be confused with the feminine given name "Seonaid").

  3. David Marjanović said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 4:32 am

    slender "dh", which is pronounced like "y" in English

    In other words, /ðʲ/ has merged into /j/.

  4. languagehat said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:46 am

    In case you were wondering, "foclóir" means "dictionary", though it's pronounced like the vulgar English epithet.

    Not sure what you mean. In the Connemara Irish I learned, it's pronounced somewhat like English "folklore" (IPA [ˈfˠɔklˠoːɾʲ]). To quote Wiktionary, it's from focal (“word”) +‎ -óir (agent suffix); I was taught it was a loanword from Latin vocābulum, but Wiktionary sez "more likely a native word from Proto-Celtic *woxtlom (compare Welsh gwaethl ('argument')), from Proto-Indo-European *wokʷtlom (compare Sanskrit वक्त्र (váktra, “mouth”)), from *wekʷ– ('to speak')."

  5. languagehat said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:47 am

    (Er, for "it was a loanword" read "focal was a loanword." I'm just glad I got all the HTML tags in the right place. When are y'all going to restore preview?)

  6. Philip Anderson said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 10:35 am


    Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru tentatively agrees for gwaethl:

    [?cf. H. Wydd. focal, focul ‘gair’; ?< Clt. *u̯ok-tlo- o’r gwr. *u̯eku̯- ‘siarad’ fel yn y Llad. vox; am ddtb. yr ystyr, cf. Cym. brwydr a’r Wydd. briathar ‘gair’]

  7. mollymooly said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

    * Similarly English pike "turnpike" is Gaelicised as paidhc. (English pike "fork", "weapon" is píce as it was borrowed earlier from an older English pronunciation.)
    * idh was changed to í only where it was pronounced [i]. Irish "Maíc" would sound closer to English "Meek" than "Mike".
    * Irish "Madhc" would sound almost the same as Irish "Maidhc" to an anglophone. But in Irish it would definitely be the wrong spelling: the /k/ is palatal not velar.


    In case you were wondering, "foclóir" means "dictionary", though it's pronounced like the vulgar English epithet.

    Not sure what you mean. In the Connemara Irish I learned, it's pronounced somewhat like English "folklore" (IPA [ˈfˠɔklˠoːɾʲ])

    Foras na Gaeilge has an online English-Irish dictionary at and the entry for "dictionary"– includes native speakers pronuncing "foclóir" in C M and U (Connacht Munster and Ulster) dialects. The first vowel in the C pronunciation sounds much closer to STRUT than GOAT to my ears.

    Richie Kavanagh's career singing ultra-lowbrow novelty songs began and peaked in 1996 with "Aon Focal Eile". This chart-topping excerescence is entirely in English except for the constantly repeated title, which is broken Irish for "One More Word". The sole purported humour in the song is the fact that the constantly repeated word "Focal" sounds rude.

  8. Craig said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

    Not being an Irish speaker myself, but having read a bit about the language, I would have guessed that "maidhc" was pronounced "make" or "mike", with the dh being more or less silent as it is in "bodhran" (the Irish drum, the name of which is typically pronounced "BOHR-un").

    There is also a curious rule called "eclipsis" which causes one of two successive consonants to become silent. An example of this is the surname of the Irish humorist Myles na gCopaleen (a.k.a. Flann O'Brien and Brian O'Nolan), which is pronounced "GOH-puh-leen", with the C completely disappearing. But I think (?) eclipsis only occurs with certain letters, and only at the beginning of a word, so it wouldn't help with the "dhc" at the end of "maidhc".

  9. Jesse said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

    This is a nice introductory video to Irish pronunciation and orthography:

  10. Philip Anderson said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

    Eclipsis is the initial mutation of one consonant, in certain contexts, but the orthographic rule is to write the root consonant after the mutated sound, e.g. gc

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

    From an anonymous colleague:

    Irish Gaelic does not have standarised pronunciation. Here, click 'C', 'M', and 'U' for the respective western, southern, and northern prounciations of

    focal (word):

    foclóir (dictionary):

    Despite the audio on this page, I have only heard [ʌ] in both words, except from Northern speakers, where there may be something more like [ɑ] .

    Yes, one of the posters points out this site and its audio, I know.

    Now here is the sentence Bhí go leor focail san fhoclóir ('There were a lot of words in the dictionary') in western, southern and northern pronunciations.

    1) Focail is plural of focal, the 'i' indicating palatalised rather than velarised /l/.
    2) Mutation caused by san ('in the') causes the original [f] in the next word to disappear. The point though is the vowel, and the vowel is unaltered.

    Once the page in question is accessed, the sentence should play automatically from a computer. From a 'smartphone' it is probably necessary to click the green sentence under 'Player'. In any case, clicking that will cause the sentence to be repeated.

    As for 'adh', I am given to understand that Irish Gaelic has the following spellings which like English 'igh' now represent vowels without consonantal elements (though for some words, not necessarily at word end.):

    abh, amh, odh, ogh: [au] (but monophthong in the north)
    adh, agh, aidh, aigh, eidh: [ai] (but monophthong in the north)
    omh: [o:]
    umh: [u:]

  12. maidhc said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:44 am

    Craig: In most Celtic languages, the initial consonant of a word will change according to various grammatical circumstances. This makes it difficult for beginners to look up words in the dictionary, because you don't know what the first letter is. In some languages (like Welsh, I think) you are on your own. But Irish is friendly to the beginner, so in the case of eclipsis, a systematic change from one consonant to another in certain grammatical situations, both the pronounced letter and the original letter are written. For the beginner, this gives guidance how to pronounce the word while also indicating how to look the root word up in the dictionary. I believe this to be a rather elegant solution.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 6:20 am

    From an anonymous colleague:

    Ireland was once a prudish country. One wonders: was it not awkward that the Gaelic for such high-frequency words as word, words, dictionary, dictionaries … was so clearly reminiscent of English 'fuck'? (The language was, after all, taught by priests, nuns, the Christian Brothers and so on).

    Click the link below to hear:

    focal (word)
    focail (words)
    foclóir (dictionary)
    foclóirí (dictionaries)
    foclóirín (wordlist/glossary)

  14. maidhc said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 5:10 am

    Victor Mair : There was a previous discussion here a few years ago, re "Irish does not have a word for fuck". It did not reach a conclusion, but was more or less abandoned. Unfortunately, because I think there was more to be said.

    The word that I have heard the most for embarrassing cross-pronunciations is "pioc", which means "pick", I guess it is an English loanword. But in the past tense it is "phioc". So how would you say "I picked"? Phioc mé Ha ha.

    There is an argument that Irish doesn't have swearwords, like perhaps some other languages (Finnish?). Because those words in Irish are not considered taboo, like we would say in English "manure" but maybe "shit" is the same word.

    I would like to see the question ":does Irish have a word for fuck" revived here.

  15. Allen Hazen said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 1:24 am

    Re: Maidhc's explanation of gc to Craig, three up.
    Another very helpful convention of Irish orthography is that, if the word is capitalized. it is the root letter and not the one introduced by the "mutation" (= change in iinitial sound of words in certain grammatical contexts in Celtic languages) that gets capitalized. As in "Poblach na hEireann" (Republic of Ireland): The basic word, Eire, starts with an e, the h is introduced by the mutation after "na".

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