The Wild Origins of the Names of Ireland's Sheep, Goats & Pigs
Last month, we took a look at the names of what is undoubtedly Ireland’s most majestic domesticated mammal, the horse, so this month it might seem like a step down to investigate the names of humbler domesticated forms, namely, the sheep, goats, and pigs. However, this could not be further from the truth, as though these three mammals are less imposing and impressive than the horses they share Ireland’s lands with, their names stand shoulder to shoulder with those of their equine neighbours, their roots spiralling down into ancient languages like a ram’s horn, revealing a cornucopia of hidden meanings, connections, and mysteries.
Ireland’s sheep, goats, and pigs are, like the island’s horses, ungulates – that is, hoofed mammals, the word ‘ungulate’ being a reference to the possession of a hoof, derived from the Latin word unguis, meaning ‘nail’. But whereas the horses belong to the great ungulate order Perissodactyla, meaning ‘odd-toed’, as its members generally sport either one, three, or five toes, the sheep, goats, and pigs belong to a different and even mightier ungulate order, the Artiodactyla, or ‘even-toed’ ungulates, whose members all possess either two or four toes, and other artiodactyls in Ireland include the cattle and deer.
In Ireland, the sheep and goats are undoubtedly the most closely related forms from this order, so it makes sense to begin with them, and we can start off with a look at some of the English words related to sheep, as these immediately intoxicate us with a heady brew of mystery and meaning.
Mystery is found in the very word ‘sheep’ itself, as though it is known to come from the Old English sceap or scep, which is derived from the Old Saxon scap from the West Germanic skaepan, this is where the trail goes cold as no one knows where this West Germanic term itself comes from. However, the complete opposite can be said of the English word which stems from the same root as the word for ‘sheep’ in most other Indo-European languages – ‘ewe’.
In English, the word ‘ewe’ means ‘female sheep’, and it derives from the Old English word eowu, the feminine form of the Old English word for ‘sheep’, eow. In turn, eow can be traced, like the word ‘sheep’ before it, to a Germanic root, in this case to the Proto-Germanic awi, but this time round the linguistic thread can be followed even deeper to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word for ‘sheep’, owi. And what is interesting about this PIE root word is that it reveals a connection between the English word ‘ewe’ and Irish and scientific terms for sheep, as both the Old Irish oi and the Latin ovis are also derived from it, and the latter is the genus name for the domestic sheep.
The full scientific name for Ireland’s sheep, Ovis aries, is, in fact, entirely derived from Latin, the latter word meaning ‘ram’. But where the English word ‘ram’ comes from is more obscure, although there are some interesting possibilities. ‘Ram’ is thought to derive from the Old English ramm, but its parent word in West Germanic is of unknown origin. However, there may be a connection with the word rammr in Old Norse, meaning ‘strong’, or perhaps with the word ramenu in Old Church Slavonic, which means ‘impetuous’ or ‘violent’.
As for the English word for a young sheep, ‘lamb’, which now rhymes with ‘ram’, it was not always so. The origins of this word cannot be traced any further than its Germanic roots, but we do know that it is only since around the thirteenth century that the ‘b’ has been silent. It seems the silence of the lambs has lasted for many centuries, then, linguistically-speaking.
The word ‘lamb’, of course, also refers to the meat of young sheep, but it is the word for the meat of the adults, ‘mutton’, which has true linguistic juiciness, unlocking flavours of Middle English, Old French, Medieval Latin, Celtic, and Old Irish. In Middle English, ‘mutton’ was also used to mean ‘sheep’, and it comes from the Old French moton, meaning ‘mutton’, ‘sheep’, ‘ram’, or ‘wether’, the last being a castrated ram. Moton, in turn, is thought to derive from the Medieval Latin multonem, meaning ‘ram’, itself probably derived from the reconstructed Celtic word for ‘sheep’, multo, which is also the source of the Old Irish word for ‘wether’, molt. Ultimately, all of these words could possibly hail from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word mel, meaning ‘soft’, presumably a reference to the softness of a sheep’s fleece.
It is clear to see from this last example how words morph from one language to another through time, their essential cores of reference sometimes remaining as durable as a diamond, but different facets of meaning being illuminated at different times or by different peoples. And we can see much the same thing when we look at the names relating to Ireland’s goats.
Take the English word ‘goat’ itself, for instance. Although today ‘goat’ can be used to refer to either sex, the word is derived from the Old English gat, meaning ‘she-goat’, which can be traced to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word ghaid-o which actually means ‘young goat’. A male goat in Old English was referred to as bucca or gatbucca, but as time passed the terms for females and males underwent a number of changes, becoming ‘she-goat’ and ‘he-goat’ in the late 1300s before altering once more into ‘nanny goat’ and ‘billy goat’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively. Today, females and males are also sometimes referred to as does and bucks, so in the latter case the old bucca still lives on.
As for the word for the young that spring from the unions of nannies and billies, ‘kid’, this is yet another term that is somewhat mysterious. Although it probably comes from a word in a Scandinavian language, such as the Old Norse kið, meaning ‘young goat’, like ‘sheep’, ‘ram’, and ‘lamb’ before it, it cannot be traced further than its Germanic roots.
Many of the kids that are born in Ireland every year gambol through fields with abandon, albeit without the true freedom their wild ancestors were born into before domestication. However, countless times over the roughly five thousand years since domesticated goats were first brought to the island, animals have escaped the shackles of their agricultural servitude and reclaimed something of their ancestral lifestyle, establishing populations in the wild, which are regularly joined by new escapees.
In many places across Ireland today, such goats haunt the wilder places that are more remote and mountainous, with the best-known herds, to name a few, in the Burren in the west, Killarney in the southwest, Glendalough and Bray Head in the east, Achill Island in the northwest, and Fair Head in the northeast. These goats living in the wild are even distinguished from their fully domesticated relatives by their name in Irish. Whereas the latter are referred to simply as gabhar, meaning ‘goat’, the former have earned the name gabhar fiáin or fiagabhar – fia, as we have seen previously, meaning ‘wild’.
However, there is an important distinction to be made between these goats and truly wild forms. As they are descended from domestic stock, technically they are not wild but feral, a word with interesting roots. ‘Feral’ ultimately derives from the Latin ferus, meaning ‘wild’, itself coming from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word, ghwer, meaning ‘wild beast’. Around 1600, ‘feral’ simply meant ‘wild, undomesticated’, but by the 1800s it had taken on its modern, more nuanced meaning: ‘wild, having escaped from domestication.’
As it happens, the Latin word ferus also turns up in relation to that domesticated mammal we galloped through languages and history with last month – the horse. As with other domesticated mammals in Ireland we have previously encountered, there is disagreement over how to scientifically classify horses. Although some regard domesticated horses as a separate species in their own right, Equus caballus, others regard them as just a subspecies of the wild horse they descended from, Equus ferus, making them Equus ferus caballus. In a recent ironic twist, Equus ferus itself, the ‘wild horse’, is now known to have no truly wild forms living on Earth today, a 2018 genetic study revealing that the Przewalksi’s horse of Mongolia, which was always regarded as the only wild relative of domesticated horses, is not truly wild at all but a feral descendant of the first horses to be domesticated around 5,500 years ago in northern Kazakhstan.
Getting back to Ireland’s goats, the same issue crops up as regards their scientific classification. Some see them as just a subspecies of the wild form they are descended from, Capra aegagrus, the wild goat or bezoar which is found from the Greek islands in the west to India in the east, making them Capra aegagrus hircus. However, most now regard them as a separate species in their own right, which bestows on them the simpler scientific name of Capra hircus.
This scientific name, Capra hircus, is absolutely fizzing with hidden meanings and connections, something which becomes immediately apparent as we delve into the origins of hircus. Hircus means ‘male goat’ in Latin, and although the origin of this word is unknown, it may be related to the Latin hirtus, meaning ‘hairy’ or ‘shaggy’, which is also related to the English word ‘hirsute’. Hirtus, in turn, can be traced to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word, ghers, meaning ‘to bristle’, and, interestingly, ghers also lies at the root of the English word ‘horror’, via the Latin horrere, which means ‘to bristle with fear’. A linguistic connection between goats and horror seems extremely apt, considering this animal’s historical associations with the devil and witchcraft.
But if hircus is the starter in terms of hidden depths, then Capra is the main course, a journey to the wellspring of this word transporting us across a linguistic landscape with countless tributaries, overflowing with connections between languages ancient and modern and the three mammals that are the focus of this post.
In Latin, capra means ‘she-goat’, and it is derived from the word for 'male goat', caper. Caper, then, can be traced further, back to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word, kapros, which according to one source also means ‘male goat’, although another gives a more general meaning as ‘male hooved animal’. Fascinatingly, this PIE root word kapros also lies at the root of the modern Irish word for 'goat', gabhar, via the reconstructed Proto-Celtic gabros, meaning ‘male goat’, and the Old Irish gabor, which can mean both ‘goat’ and ‘horse’.
This is not where the connections of kapros to Ireland’s mammals ends, though, as this word also relates to words for sheep and pigs, lying at the root of the modern Irish word for 'sheep', caora, but also the Ancient Greek word kapros, meaning ‘wild boar’.
Of course, the wild boar once roamed widely across Ireland. This powerful, brown-furred, bristle-maned beast with tusked males is known to have snuffled through Irish woods from over 9,000 years ago right up to possibly as recently as the twelfth century. However, aside from some recent human-related reintroductions of this mammal, the only pigs left on the island are the domesticated form of this species.
At this point it should be no surprise that there is disagreement over the scientific name of the domestic pig, that is, whether it should be considered a separate species, Sus domesticus, or a subspecies of the wild boar, Sus scrofa, making it Sus scrofa domesticus. In any case, if we investigate the latter name, we find our snouts once more furrowing through the rich soil of language, unearthing all kinds of linguistic truffles.
As the subspecies name, domesticus, is self-explanatory, we can begin at the opposite end, with the genus name, Sus. The word sus comes from Latin and means ‘pig’, and this term can be followed all the way to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word, su, meaning the same thing. Some have suggested an interesting origin for this PIE root word, claiming that it is ‘possibly imitative of pig noise, a notion reinforced by the fact that Sanskrit sukharah means “maker of (the sound) ‘su.’”’
Whether this is true or not, the PIE root word su appears to have spawned many words relating to pigs in different languages. These include the English word ‘sow’, meaning ‘female swine’, by way of the Proto-Germanic su and Old English su/sugu, as well as, unsurprisingly, the word ‘swine’ itself. But though ‘swine’ is now often used as a synonym for ‘pig’, the word that has usurped its place, in the past these words had more precise meanings, with ‘swine’ used to refer to adults and ‘pig’ only used to refer to young pigs. The origins of the word ‘pig’, though, are another mystery in our current exploration, and though it can be traced to the Old English picg, its deeper roots are unknown.
In any case, the PIE root word su is also the source of the Irish word soc, meaning ‘snout’ or ‘ploughshare’, the latter meaning coming from the fact that a ploughshare roots through the earth like a pig’s snout. Anyway, soc can, in turn, be traced back to the Old Irish socc meaning the same thing, and possibly to a reconstructed Common Celtic word sukko, meaning not only ‘snout’ or ‘ploughshare’ but also, simply, ‘pig’. And the notion of digging in the earth also seems to be at the heart of the species name of Ireland’s domesticated pigs, scrofa, as though this is the word for ‘sow’ in Latin, its original meaning is thought to have been ‘digger’ or ‘rooter’, coming from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word (s)ker, meaning ‘to cut’.
As for the Irish word for ‘pig’, muc, its origins are a little murkier, and though it can be traced back via the Old Irish mucc to a reconstructed Proto-Celtic word, mokkus, this root word is thought to have no deeper Indo-European roots but to have been borrowed from another language family. But if muc’s origins are somewhat exotic, it too has done some travelling, turning up in some faraway places.
For many years, linguists were puzzled by the name of the island Mykines, the most western of the Faroe Islands, around 800 kilometres north of Ireland. But as it became increasingly clear that Irish monks had reached the Faroes before a Norseman ever set foot on them, one bright spark hit upon a possible answer. It is now thought that Mykines may come from muc inis, meaning ‘island of the pigs’ in Irish, although this name may not stem from the presence of domesticated pigs on the island but from the porpoises in the surrounding waters, 'porpoise' being muc mhara in Irish, the ‘pig of the sea’.
There are many, many more things that could be said about the names of the pigs, and, indeed, about those of the sheep and goats, but it should be clear at this point that they are every bit as rich as those of their more celebrated domesticated neighbours on the island, the horses. Just as their flesh nourishes our bodies, so too do their names nourish our minds, connecting the past to the present, dead languages to living ones, and deepening the furrow of our understanding of Ireland with the ploughshare of knowledge.