Another Illusion Shattered: "leprechaun" not native Irish

Language Log 2019-09-06

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]