What’s in a name?


by Paul Kavanagh


The origins and meanings of the names of Scottish languages

The study of word origins is called etymology, the word comes from a Greek compound that can loosely be translated as “the truth of words”.  With their immense respect for the tradition of written Greek, the ancients believed that the first recorded meaning of a word was its only authentic meaning. This is called the etymological fallacy, and it’s a belief which is still widespread today.

In fact the only true meaning of a word or a name is what modern speakers of the language using the word believe that word to mean.  For example in modern English the word gay means ‘homosexual’ for the majority of speakers.  The older meaning ‘joyous, festive’ is now largely obsolete.  But even ‘joyous’ isn’t the original meaning of the word gay, which possibly goes back to an Old High German word gahi ‘pretty’ which was later borrowed into mediaeval French where it was influenced in form and meaning by the Latin word gaudium ‘joy’.  Even later the word was borrowed from French into English where it changed yet further in both form and meaning.  Linguists cannot trace the word any further back than Old High German gahi but the Old High German word itself must descend from some earlier form of the word which is now lost.  This word may have meant pretty, but it could quite possibly have meant something else.  The eytmology of a word or name is not its true meaning, it’s simply the earliest meaning which happened to be recorded.

The history of the word gay shows that meanings change over time.  In this particular case there has been opposition to the change in meaning, in large part this opposition is motivated by non-linguistic factors.  These non-linguistic factors have brought the change of meaning to wider public attention and so there is discussion about what the word “really means” or “ought to mean”, but usually when a word changes meaning it does so without speakers of the language being consciously aware of the change.

The phonetic form of words and names also changes over time.  Sounds change as a language develops and evolves, but they also change when a language borrows a word or name from another language.  The modern Scottish Gaelic name for the language is Gàidhlig, pronounced approximately “gahllick”, but in Old Irish the word was Goedelc and was pronounced something like “goy-thelluck”.

The names of Scottish languages have changed greatly in both form and meaning over time.  What we mean by the name Scots is very different from what Latin writers meant by their word Scotti. The etymology of Scottish names is not the study of what our names for ourselves really mean, it’s the study of the history of our names and how they came to mean and sound as they do today.

Pictish : It is not known what the Picts called themselves.  The tribal confederation north of the Antonine Wall which formed during the Roman period became known to Roman and Greek writers as the Picti.  In Latin the ordinary word picti means “the painted ones”, and traditionally it was thought that the name arose as a Roman description of the tattoos or warpaint worn by Pictish warriors.  However in ancient Gaul there was a tribe called the Pictavi – unfortunately of uncertain meaning – so it is equally possible that Picti was an indigenous Celtic name and not merely a Latin description.  The question will probably never be satisfactorily resolved one way or the other.

In Old Irish texts the Picts are called the Cruithne, whereas in Old Welsh they are called Prydyn.  Although very dissimilar looking both these names go back to the same Proto-Celtic word which linguists have reconstructed as Kwritenni. It’s not certain what this name means, although it’s usually thought to derive from a word meaning shape or form and may also be a reference to tattoos or perhaps to tribal totemic symbols.  Kwritenni became used as the name of a Celtic tribe or tribal confederation in Iron Age Britain.  In P-Celtic dialects this name became Pritenni and was the name used in the oldest Greek manuscripts to refer to the island of Britain. The ancient Greeks knew the British Isles as Nesoi Pritannikai ‘the Isles of the Pritenni’.

Latin speakers had difficulty perceiving the Celtic sounds p and k when they came before an r or an l, and often confused them with Latin b and g.  The confusion produced the Latin name Brittania. The same confusion is seen in the Latin word gladius ‘short sword’, the basis of the word gladiator. Gladius was borrowed by Latin from the Celtic word kladyos, which was preserved in Scottish Gaelic albeit in greatly altered phonetic form and extended with a suffix to produce the word claidheamh ‘sword’.  The Gaelic phrase claimheadh mòr ‘great sword’ was later borrowed into English as claymore. Over 2000 years later, the pair of words gladiator and claymore still preserve the old Roman confusion of Celtic sounds.

Cumbric : The speech of the Romano-Britons of southern Scotland developed into the language now generally called Cumbric.  In English, the use of the term Cumbric to refer to the Brittonic language of Mediaeval Scotland is a neologism of fairly recent origin based upon a form of the same name that modern Welsh uses for itself Cymraeg.  This ultimately goes back to the Brittonic word Kombrogion ‘fellow countryman, compatriot”, a term which Old Welsh speakers adopted in the Dark Ages to distinguish themselves from the Anglosaxons and the vast numbers of Romano-Britons who were assimilated into Anglosaxon culture and the Old English language.

Previously the Romanised Celts of Roman Britain used the borrowed Latin name Brittones to refer to themselves, this Latin word was the source the Welsh word Brython ‘Briton’ and the English word Briton.  The original Celtic term Pritanni became restricted in meaning in Brittonic, and now referred exclusively to the unconquered Picts.  It appears that the name Kombrogion only became widespread amongst the Britons after the Anglosaxon kingdoms had extended to the Bristol Channel and separated the Welsh from the Cornish and the Bretons because the term never became current in the Cornish or Breton languages as a self-designation.

The Breton language descends from the speech of South West England, carried to Gaul by refugees fleeing the warfare and turmoil that accompanied the fall of Roman power.  The Breton name for themselves and their language, Brezhoneg, descends directly from the Latin loanword Brittones.  It’s not known whether the Britons of northern Britain adopted the term Kombrogion like the early Welsh, or whether like the Bretons they continued to call themselves by their Roman name.

To their Gaelic speaking neighbours, the Cumbrians of Scotland were simply Breatnach ‘Britons’, a term borrowed into Old Irish from British Latin.  The modern Gaelic name for Wales is A’ Chuimrigh, a fairly recent borrowing from Welsh Cymru.  Irish retains the older usage, in Irish Wales is An Bhreatainn Bheag ‘Little Britain’.

The term Great Britain arose in mediaeval French.  The Bretons continued to call themselves Britons, and called their country Breizh (from Brittannia).  The mediaeval French outcome of Latin Brittania was Bretagne or Bretayne which could apply equally to the island of Britain or to Brittany.  The prefix Grande was placed before the name of the island when it was necessary to distinguish it from Brittany, hence modern French Grande Bretagne.  In this context grande loosely meant “pertaining to a previous generation”, since the island was the mother country of the Brittonic colony of Brittany.  When borrowed into English Grande Bretayne was semi-translated as Great Britain, as this word had a similar usage in English – as in great-aunt. The imagined size, power or glory of the Great Britain of later Empire builders had nothing to do with it.

In Old English documents, the Cumbrians are always referred to as Britons or as Welsh.  In Old English this was Wealisc, a northern dialect form of which developed into Scots Wallis or Wallace whereas a southern dialect form produced the modern English name Welsh.  Ultimately this word goes back to contacts between continental Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire.  In the region of modern Austria a Celtic tribe known as the Volcae was conquered by Rome at an early date and became Romanised in culture and language. Neighbouring Germanic tribes who had escaped Roman conquest then began to apply their phonetic adaptation of name Volcae, Walhoz and its adjective Walhiskoz in ancient Germanic, to all Romanised peoples.  It’s often stated that the Old English word waelhisc or waelisc meant foreigners, but it specifically referred to Romanised foreigners not just any foreigners nor to Celtic speakers in general.  The un-Romanised Picts and Irish were equally Celtic speaking but were never called Welsh by the Anglosaxons.

Germanic tribes who remained in Continental Europe used the same word to refer to their Romanised neighbours, and it also the source of the name of the French Walloons of Belgium and the Swiss canton of Vallais which is traditionally half French speaking and half German speaking.  From early Germanic the name was borrowed by Slavic and Hungarian speakers to refer to Romanised peoples, and is also the source of the name of the old Romanian principality of Wallachia and the ethnic name Vlach (a people of the southern Balkans who speak a language closely related to Romanian) as well as Ólasz the Hungarian name for Italy.

Gaelic : In Old Irish the language was called Goídelc and its speakers were Goídel. Gàidhlig and Gàidheal, the modern Scottish Gaelic forms, directly continue the Old Irish names as do modern Irish Gaeilge and Manx Gaelg. In modern Gaelic the dh is silent.  It is no longer written in modern Irish spelling. The English spelling Gaelic arose after the dh had been lost in Gaelic pronunciation, but in Old Irish it was pronounced th like the th in English this, then, that.  Older Scots spellings like Gadelic or Gathelick date to a time when the dh was still pronounced.

Perhaps surprisingly, this name was borrowed by Archaic Irish speakers from Brittonic.  It comes from the Brittonic adjective goidal ‘wild, savage’ which is itself a derivation of a word which was something like goido ‘wood’ which survives in modern Welsh as gwydd ‘wood, trees’.  It still bears a close resemblance to the Welsh word for Irishman, Gwyddel.  To the Christians of Roman Britain, the woods and forests were full of pagan savages and peasants untouched by the finer aspects of Roman civilisation.  They employed the term goidal as an insulting reference to the Irish tribesmen who raided and attacked the west and north of Roman Britain.  The Irish in turn adopted it as a term of self-reference, presumably on the basis that if the Britons thought they were savages, then they’d show them just how wild and savage they could be.  The Brittonic word goido itself descended from proto-Celtic widos. The native Goidelic version of this word produces the modern Gaelic word fiodh ‘wood’. (The English word wood is a distant relative.)  The word can only have been borrowed into ancestral Gaelic after Brittonic had changed the original initial w- into g-, because this change also affected Latin words borrowed into Brittonic it is believed to have occurred sometime during the later part of the Roman occupation.  In turn this means that Gaels only began to call themselves Gaels no earlier than around 300 AD.  It’s not known whether Goidelic speakers had a common term for themselves before this date.  As the early Gaels were a collection of politically independent tribes, it’s quite possible they did not have a common name for themselves until the political and cultural events which surrounded the collapse of Roman power caused them to form a common interest in attacking the weakening Empire.

Although the island of Ireland was known by a number of different names in Old Irish – Eriu, Fodla etc. – it’s noticeable that none of them ever became the common Irish designation for the Irish language.  Additionally the Old Irish language displays remarkably little in the way of dialectal diversity, which is usually a sign that a language has only recently spread over its attested range.  Together these facts suggest that when the term Goidel was adopted by the Gaels as their name for themselves and their language, Goidelic was not the only language spoken in Ireland.  The Sanas Chormaic, an Old Irish glossary written in the 9th century in Munster mentions a language called Iarn Belre ‘the iron tongue’, and gives two words as examples.  The document also tells us that this language was recently extinct, presumably its last speakers lived in the 8th century.  The identity of Iarn Belre has given rise to considerable speculation. Some regard it as a pre-Celtic language, others think it was a “P-Celtic” language once spoken in Ireland, yet other scholars dispute it was even a language at all but believe it was a specialist jargon used by metal workers.  The evidence is too thin to allow a conclusive answer.

In later Irish the term Iarn Belre was adopted to refer to any harsh or difficult sounding foreign speech.  Since the language Gaelic speakers had most contact with was Old English, the term transferred its meaning and came to refer to Old English and its daughter languages English and Scots.  In mediaeval times the Old Irish word belre ‘speech’ dropped out of use as a common noun, but remained as a name for the English language.  The modern Gaelic word for the English language Beurla is a direct descendant.

In Old Irish Alban was the name of the island of Britain.  In the Classical Irish of mediaeval times it had become restricted in meaning to refer to the parts of Britain which had adopted Old Irish language and culture.  It is the origin of the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland Alba. The poetic term Albion comes from a Latinisation of the Old Irish name.  In origin it is thought to be related to an ancient Celtic word for ‘white’, perhaps a reference to the high and snow covered mountains of northern Scotland.  The same Celtic word is believed to lie behind the name the Alps.

Scots : In speech the Romano-Britons referred to the Irish tribesmen attacking their shores as the Goidel.  But when they were writing Latin they used a different word, Scotti.  The word is of uncertain origin, it first appears in Latin manuscripts describing attacks upon Roman Britain in the fourth century where the raiders were termed Scotti et Attacotti. The identity of the mysterious Attacotti has been much debated, but no consensus has been reached.  Whether they were an ethnic group in the making, or simply bands of dispossessed peasants, the Attacotti soon disappear from the historical record.

It was once claimed that the word Scotti derived from a Goidelic word meaning pirate or raider, but this claim has since been discredited.  There does not seem to be a Goidelic source for the name at all and it has never been used by Goidelic speakers to refer to themselves – at least when speaking Gaelic.  Neither does it occur in any of the Brythonic languages except Breton where it is a later borrowing from mediaeval French.

Even so, the name Scotti is likely to be Celtic in origin.  The inscriptions of Roman Gaul record the Gaulish male personal name Scota, which is thought to derive from a Celtic word skotta.  This word was borrowed into Vulgar Latin where it referred to a particular type of double edged sword forged from high quality iron.  If this interpretation is correct, the Latin name Scotti originally meant “the swordsmen”.

In Latin the term Scotti was soon established as the name for Old Irish speakers.  It was borrowed from Latin into most other European languages in the same sense.  In older Latin documents, the name Scotia invariably referred to Ireland, but by the early middle ages the name was also used to refer to other regions which had adopted Old Irish culture and the Goidelic language.  The largest and most influential of these areas was modern Scotland.  The name Scotia was now ambiguous in Latin, since it could refer either to the island of Ireland or to the Kingdom of the Scots in northern Britain.  However Latin also continued to use the Classical Latin name for Ireland, Hibernia, and gradually this older name reasserted itself as the Latin name for Ireland and the Irish.  In order to disambiguate the two senses, other European languages borrowed the Old Norse name for Ireland – Írland – and the name Scotia slowly became restricted in meaning to refer only to the territory of modern Scotland.

Like most other European languages, Old English borrowed the name Scotti from Latin where it formed the place name Scotland and the adjective Scyttisc, pronounced shüttish with ü like German ü.  In Old English these words referred to Ireland and the Irish.  In later Old English the adjective Scyttisc came to be pronounced “shittish” and for obvious reasons dropped out of use, a new adjective based on the noun Scot was created, giving Scottisc.  In the northern dialect of Old English which gave rise to Scots, the -isc suffix reduced to -is and later still to -s, producing the old adjective Scottis and its modern form Scots.  In the dialects which gave rise to English, the form Scottish continued in usage.  In the 16th century a new reduced form Scotch arose in southern English dialects on the pattern of France – French, where it competed with the older form Scottish.

During the Middle Ages the name Scot underwent a radical change in meaning.  The old meaning Irish disappeared, and now Scots/Scottish meant exclusively “pertaining to the Kingdom of Scots”.  By this time the language of the Scottish court and the dominant language of the Scottish elites was a northern variety of early Middle English.  This language naturally became known as Scots to its speakers, who gradually came to view it as an entirely distinct language from English.  Meanwhile Gaelic was still regarded both by Scots speakers and by Gaels themselves as a type of Irish, the Gaels still used the Classical Irish written language as their literary tongue.  In order to disambiguate between Irish and Scottish Gaelic, the native Gaelic word Gàidhlig was borrowed into Scots to refer to the language.  The original pronunciation of this word in Scots (and later in English which borrowed it from Scots) was Gay-lick, as the sound ay was the natural Scots development of the long à sound of Gàidhlig.  In later Scots the pronunciation Gallic came to be preferred as it is closer to the Gàidhlig pronunciation but this is a fairly recent development.  The pronunciation “gay-lick” remains in use outside of Scotland.

After the Treaty of Union Scots speakers began to become familiar with written and spoken English, there were now three variant forms of the word Scottish competing in the English used by Scots – Scottish, Scots and Scotch.  It took some time for this situation to resolve itself, nowadays in Scottish English the adjective Scots is generally restricted to refer only to the Scots language and Scots people, whereas the general adjective is Scottish.

The English form Scotch has had a more chequered career.  It was widely used in Scotland as an equivalent for Scottish and Scots during the late 18th and 19th centuries, in the prevailing Unionist climate of the day Scotch was felt to be a more English word, and therefore more “correct” than the native Scots and more refined than the common Scottish.  Because it was felt to be more refined, it was naturally used in connection with typically Scottish goods and products, especially those destined for export.  Possibly because of this association with our infamous Cultural Cringe, a backlash developed and in recent decades the word Scotch has come to be felt as disparaging.  It is now rejected by most Scottish people outside set phrases like Scotch whisky or Scotch eggs.

English : Originally the Old English speakers of the south east of Scotland called themselves and their language Englisc. In origin this was a Germanic tribal name, the Angli tribe of Angeln in Schleswig Holstein were one of the Germanic tribes who settled Roman Britain after the fall of Empire.  The others were the Saxons, the Jutes and the Frisians.  The Celtic speakers already in Britain adopted the name Saxon to refer to the English, Sassunach and Saesneg are respectively the Gaelic and Welsh forms of the word Saxon.  It’s likely that use of the term Englisc spread amongst the Old English speakers of Britain as a means of differentiating themselves from the powerful and well-known Saxon kingdoms of continental Europe.  In the northern dialect of Old English which developed into Scots, the word Englisc evolved into Inglis.  The events of the Wars of Independence in the Middle Ages caused the Inglis speakers of Scotland to identify themselves and their language as Scots and no longer as Inglis. By the 14th century the term English no longer referred to any segment of the Scottish population, and had come to refer exclusively to our southern neighbours.

Norse/Norn : The Vikings called themselves Norroena ‘the Northerners”. The name of the Scandinavian language of Scotland Norn directly descends from this.  The English and Scots word Norse is a mediaeval borrowing from Middle Dutch Noordsch (lit. North-ish).  The term Viking comes from the Norse word vík ‘creek, small river’ and is usually translated as ‘one from the fjords’.  The word Viking wasn’t used in older English and isn’t first recorded until the early 19th century.  Old English speakers referred to the Vikings as the Danes, whereas Gaelic speakers called them Lochlannach. The Gaelic word comes from an Old Irish term meaning ‘region of sea-lochs’, another reference to the fjords of Norway.