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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Influence of Folk Etymologies

  Something I've been giving some thought to recently is the influence of the meaning of names. Most pagans I know are at least curious about what a deity or mythic figure's name means and knowing the etymology then adds a layer of understanding about that deity. If we interpret the Morrigan's name to mean 'Great Queen' I think that must in some way influence how we understand her more generally, the same way that understanding Boinn as the 'White Cow' or Oengus as 'Unique Force' shapes how we view them. But some of the understandings of names, even the older ones, are based on folk etymology, that is on definitions that are popular with people but are actually incorrect. Nonetheless these inaccurate but sometimes widespread name-meanings have an effect and also contribute to how deities and mythic figures are perceived by adding new layers of meaning to Gods and in many cases changing how they are understood.

For example the Dagda has many names including 'Ollathair' which is Old Irish for 'great/vast/ample father'; this probably ties in, I believe, to his possession of the cauldron of abundance and his widespread fame, Yet many people today believe that Ollathair means 'All Father', based on oll's similarity with the English all (the two are basically homophones). Understanding him as a 'Vast Father' is clearly different than seeing him as an 'All Father', since one implies greatness in the sense of size or magnitude while the other is usually interpreted to imply a literal fathering of the pantheon.

Étaín's name is thought to most likely be a diminutive form of the word jealousy:  ét, jealousy; -an indicating small or little. However I have seen folk etymologies that give her name as a seed or kernel, possibly confusing her name with the word etne. Although the kernel meaning is inaccurate people find it resonates probably because of her mythology; the Goddess reborn as a woman and then transformed into a fairy queen. There is clearly a lot of difference though between seeing her as strongly tied to jealousy - a major theme in her myth - or to rebirth and the qualities of a seed - another arguable theme in her mythology.

Badb's name means 'hooded crow' primarily and can also be an adjective meaning 'deadly, ill-fated, dangerous'. However several modern sources erroneously claim that her name means 'boiling' or 'one who boils' which has led to associations between Badb and cauldrons, and even the idea of herself as deity of the afterlife and rebirth. In the same way Macha's name actually means 'hooded crow' or 'field, milking field, plain' yet some modern sources say it means 'battle' which shifts her from a more pastoral deity to a strongly martial one*. In both these examples the actual meaning and the folk etymology are at odds and the folk etymology gives a profoundly different understanding of the Goddess in question.

The Fairy Queen and sovereignty Goddess associated with county Clare, Aoibheall is an obscure figure. Her name is based in the Old Irish oibell which means 'heat, spark, flame, bright' which paints one picture of her probable nature. But a source from 1906 defined her name as meaning 'beautiful', which has a very different connotation and could lead people to draw different conclusions about her nature. One carries with it the caution we have around all fiery things, while the other is simply attractive and appealing.

One of the most well known and oldest of these folk etymologies comes to us from an Irish glossary, which told us hundreds of years ago that Brighid's name was rooted in the words 'breo-saighead' meaning fiery arrow. Of course her name comes from Brig, meaning 'high' or 'exalted', but the fiery-arrow meaning has become deeply rooted in people's minds. Its evocative and people already liked connecting her to fire so the idea that her name had a fiery meaning has appeal. It creates associations and connections that weren't there before the folk etymology though.

These are only a handful of examples but hopefully they illustrate the point I'm trying to make about the difference we see in meaning between the actual etymology from the source language and the folk etymologies we find going around. I'm not saying that folk etymology is right or wrong, good or bad, but it is something we need to be aware of. I am encouraging people to reflect on the way that what we think a name means changes how we view the being that name is attached to. We can't always know what a name means, and sometimes there's disagreement over the ultimate meaning of a name - is the Morrigan the Great Queen or the Phantom Queen? - but whether we realize it or not the meaning we associate with a name does shape how we think of that being.

*although in Macha's case she does have battle associations so the difference in understanding is more in a loss of the layers we gain from seeing her connection to the land and to abundance through cows, than an added meaning given through the folk etymology and not found elsewhere. 

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