Another Illusion Shattered: "leprechaun" not native Irish

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So we learn from this article:

"Leprechaun 'is not a native Irish word' new dictionary reveals", by Nuala McCann BBC News (9/5/19)

Leprechauns may be considered quintessentially Irish, but research suggests this perception is blarney.

The word "leprechaun" is not a native Irish one, scholars have said.

They have uncovered hundreds of lost words from the Irish language and unlocked the secrets of many others.

Although "leipreachán" has been in the Irish language for a long time, researchers have said it comes from Luperci, a group linked to a Roman festival.

The feast included a purification ritual involving swimming and, like the Luperci, leprechauns are associated with water in what may be their first appearance in early Irish literature.

According to an Old Irish tale known as The Adventure of Fergus son of Léti, leprechauns carried the sleeping Fergus out to sea.

A new revised dictionary created from the research spans 1,000 years of the Irish language from the 6th to the 16th centuries.

A team of five academics from Cambridge University and Queen's University Belfast carried out painstaking work over five years, scouring manuscripts and texts for words which have been overlooked or mistakenly defined.

Their findings can now be freely accessed in the revised version of the online dictionary of Medieval Irish.

Checking the etymologies for "leprechaun" in several major dictionaries of English, this new knowledge hasn't yet gained general acceptance outside of the world of Celtic language studies:

OED

Written lupracán, lugharcán, lugracán, in O'Reilly Irish. Dict. Suppl.; in the body of the Dict. it is spelt leithbrágan, doubtless by etymologizing perversion, the sprite being 'supposed to be always employed in making or mending a single shoe' (leith half, bróg brogue); O'Reilly also gives luacharman as a synonym. In some modern Irish books the spelling lioprachán occurs. All these forms may be corrupted from one original; compare Middle Irish luchrupán (Windisch Gloss.), altered form of Old Irish luchorpán (Stokes in Revue Celtique I. 256), < lu small + corp body.

American Heritage Dictionary

[Irish Gaelic luprachán, alteration of Middle Irish luchrupán, from Old Irish luchorpán : luchorp (lú-, small; see legwh- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots + corp, body, from Latin corpus; see kwrep- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots) + -án, diminutive suff.]

Patrick Sims-Williams, who is Professor of Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth University in Wales, sent the following unpublished note around to members of the press (Irish Times) on St. Patrick's Day in 2012, but nobody seemed interested then:

Leprechauns Not Native to Ireland, Say Researchers

Researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales and at the National University of Ireland, Galway have concluded that leprechauns were a 'medieval mistake'.

New research by Simon Rodway, Michael Clarke and Jacopo Bisagni, published in the journal Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, traces them back to the Roman Luperci. The Luperci were bands of aristocratic youths who ran naked through ancient Rome in the festival of Lupercalia on the 15 February. In the fifth century A.D. St Augustine of Hippo compared the Luperci with the Greek werewolves who were believed to change from men into wolves by swimming through a lake in Arcadia. Two centuries later Irish scholars misunderstood Augustine. They thought he meant that the Luperci were an ancient non-human race. Because they could swim they were supposed to have survived Noah's Flood and taken refuge in Ireland. So in medieval Irish legends the leprechauns or 'little Luperci' still lived under water. The wolf connection was soon forgotten and eventually the 'little Lupercus' became the familiar land-dwelling leprechaun of modern Irish folklore and tourism.

Professor Patrick Sims-Williams, the editor of Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, said: 'It is an unexpected solution to an old problem. We hope people won't be disappointed.'

Should leprechauns be banned from St Patrick's Day parades? 'Perhaps it's time for them to take a break', said Sims-Williams, 'maybe in Italy, where they came from'.

Patrick Sims-Williams is Professor of Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth University in Wales. Dr Rodway also teaches in Aberystwyth while Professor Clarke and Dr Bisagni teach in Galway in Ireland.

References:

Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 59 (Summer 2010):  SIMON RODWAY, Mermaids, Leprechauns, and Fomorians: A Middle Irish Account of the Descendants of Cain.

Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 63 (Summer 2012): MICHAEL CLARKE, The Lore of the Monstrous Races in the Developing Text of the Irish 'Sex Aetates Mundi'.

Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 64 (Winter 2012): JACOPO BISAGNI, 'Leprechaun': A New Etymology.

ISSN 1353-0089; full list of journal's contents at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/cmcs.html

See also Patrick Sims-Williams, 'Leprechauns and Luperci, Aldhelm and Augustine', in Sacred Histories: A Festschrift for Máire Herbert, edited by John Carey, Kevin Murray, and Caitríona Ó Dochartaigh (Dublin: Four Courts, 2015), pp. 409-18.

Faraor!  Will we ever look upon the wee folk the same way again?

[h.t. Don Keyser; thanks to Jim Mallory]



21 Comments »

  1. Theophylact said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 7:49 am

    Faith and begorrah!

  2. Cervantes said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 1:29 pm

    I'm not sure why this is so surprising or disappointing. In general myths, legends and associated words travel among cultures, and get transformed in the telling and retelling. The myth is no less Irish just because it didn't come to an Irish person out of nowhere, wholly formed in a dream. Various stories from various cultures resemble stories in Genesis, notably the flood, as is well known. Roman myths and Gods are derived from Greek myths that have older origins. And so on. So what?

  3. Peter S. said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 2:34 pm

    I agree with Cervantes.

    The legend of the phoenix seems to be based on the lesser flamingo, which nests on the very hot and caustic Lake Natron in Tanzania, 3300 km south of Egypt, which introduced the phoenix legend to the Western world.

    Compared with that, the 1900 km journey leprechauns made from Rome to Ireland, a millennium later, is a mere walk in the park.

  4. Sean Fearnley said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 3:57 pm

    The Roman myths don't derive from Greek myths; they share a common origin.

  5. Richard Hershberger said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 5:41 pm

    Lupercalia was a splendid festival, and is long overdue for a revival.

  6. Chris C. said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 6:26 pm

    @Sean Fearnley — It's more complicated than that, but I hesitate to expound in a forum inhabited by some who doubtless know a lot more about the subject than I do.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 7:27 pm

    Well, there's a p in the word; its chances of having native origins have always been negligible.

  8. Alex said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 8:06 pm

    Totally disagree.

    The root for Leprechauns is Chinese according to World Civilization Research Associaton (世界文明研究促進會)

    :-)

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 1:52 am

    "The root for Leprechauns is Chinese"

    And not Basque after all?

  10. GH said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 9:59 am

    @Sean Fearnley:

    I probably know less than Chris C., but I'll take the plunge anyway:

    The explanation for why many aspects of Roman mythology are nearly identical to Greek is not that they derived from a common origin, but that the Romans adopted the Greek myths wholesale, identifying the Greek gods with their own through the process of interpretatio graeca. That this could be done relatively readily may have had to do with a distant common origin, or with the strong influence of Greek culture on Rome for hundreds of years beforehand (though it seems to have been a slightly awkward fit in some cases).

    So Roman gods that don't have a Greek counterpart, such as Janus, have relatively few myths associated with them—at least myths that predate the adoption of Hellenic mythology.

    It's often also said that this happened because the Romans had little divine mythology of their own, their native religion being more focused on ritual than on elaborate narratives, and what mythology they did have more concerned with the legendary history of their city (Romulus and Remus and all that) than with the gods. The prestige of a Greek education in Roman society must also have played a part, both in the process of adoption itself and in the choice of myths and versions that have been transmitted to us.

    At least that's the story I have always heard. I'm sure the full truth is more complex, but if that isn't in broad strokes what scholars believe, I would appreciate a correction.

  11. Chris Button said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 5:40 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    That's put down to a process known as metathesis whereby it has been flipped from the end

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 10:34 pm

    Doesn't it seem strange that the word has one accepted spelling and pronunciation in English, while it seems not to in Irish, the language it was undoubtedly taken from?

    I don't see how this new alleged discovery changes much. The older etymology given already asserts that the word is not really 'native Irish' in the sense of having exclusively Celtic roots.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  13. philip said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 2:13 am

    Leprechauns were always for tourists: it's the Tuatha Dé Danann we Irish recognise as our supernatural co-habitants of the island.

  14. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 4:25 pm

    Leave it to the etymological monomaniac Isaac E. Mozeson to find the true origin of leprechaun, as well as of English accelerate, alleviate, carnival, elevate, and other English and non-English words such as Finnish vikkela you never knew came from the Hebrew root קל (kl).

    He was debunked in professional circles almost thirty years ago (see below) but etymological naifs still fall for his nonsense.

    Gold, David L. 1990. "Fiction or Medieval Philology (on Isaac E. Mozeson's The Word: The Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Source of English)." Jewish Linguistic Studies. Vol. 2. Pp. 105-133.

    Gold, David L. 1995. "When Religion Intrudes into Etymology (On The Word: The Dictionary That Reveals The Hebrew Source of English)." In Kachru and Kahane 1995:369-380.

    Kachru, Braj B., and Henry Kahane, eds. 1995. Cultures, Ideologies, and the Dictionary: Studies in Honor of Ladislav Zgusta [= Lexicographica: Series Maior, vol. 64]. Tübingen. Max Niemeyer Verlag.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 9:56 pm

    From Clifford Coonan:

    Leprechauns were always more of an Irish-American thing when we were growing up, but this brings it right back.

    For us, fairies were a big deal — fairy forts, rings, daoine sídhe which I think were fairy hills. And they supposedly came from Iberia, which was the land of the dead, strangely. I wonder if the Tarim Mummies were the real Tuatha Dé Danann

  16. Chris Button said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 7:32 am

    Surely inscriptional forms of Chinese characters deserve the award for having some of the most fanciful interpretations out there. Most concerning is that many of those interpretations are mainstream…

  17. Philip Anderson said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 7:34 am

    @Chris Button
    Metathesis doesn't explain the alien 'p', it just provides an explanation for the alternation between 'luprachan' and 'luchrupan' forms, either of which could be the original.

    In neither proposed etymology is the 'p' "native Celtic", since a key feature of the Celtic languages is the loss of Indo-European 'p'. The traditional etymology quoted derives 'corp' from a different Latin loanword.

    I would go with the modern research, but I wonder if the other form was metathesised under the influence of a false etymology?

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 7:04 pm

    From J. P. Mallory:

    In the earliest mention the leprechauns drag the Ulster king Fergus down to the shores of Loch Rudraige where he will have to fight a sea monster. So, for the hell of it, I attach a photo of the Loch (it is actually Dundrum Bay on the south Down coast with the Mournes in the background).

  19. Chris Button said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 8:06 pm

    @ Philip Anderson

    Sure, that's what I meant by metathesis. But if we're talking about the presence of a "p" anywhere in the word, then why should one of its constituent parts having come a Latin loanword have any bearing on whether its actual coining was native to Old Irish or not? Note, I'm not arguing in favor of any particular etymological explanation, just wondering why the presence or absence of "p" should necessarily have any bearing on the discussion?

  20. Philip Anderson said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 7:10 am

    @Chis Button
    Fair point, it could be a word coined in Irish, Including an element that had previously been borrowed. But at the very least we can deduce that the word is no older than the arrival of Latin in Ireland, and a direct borrowing becomes much more likely.

    The people named may of course be older, although in general the fairies everywhere have diminished, and those who took Fergus out to sea were unlikely to have been the "little people" of today and the traditional etymology.

  21. Θoⲙac said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

    The unfortunate story began in 1438 when Shaun, who was a very short man, was found to have developed leprosy. "Shaun the leper", or, "leper-Shaun" as some called him is what's said to have caused the confusion. Back when entertainment was sparse for the poor, imaginations ran rampant and rumors quickly became twisted. "Leper-Shaun" became "leprechaun" and omitting the leprosy focused instead on his stature. The rest is history!

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