The eDIL: A historic Gaelic dictionary online

by Jun 26, 2015

If you’re learning Gaelic, it’s helpful to keep track of what other folks are doing out there so you don’t develop tunnel vision about the language community. As a linguistic anthropologist, I’ve been lucky to meet people who do important work in areas like education, youth activities, fiction and poetry writing, and Gaelic dictionary editing.

As a part of their jobs, many of these folks are also working to develop learning resources that you may find useful and interesting. One learning resource that people outside academia may not know about is the eDIL, the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language. Fortunately my friend Dr. Sharon Arbuthnot is working on the dictionary, so I interviewed her about it. What does an Irish dictionary have to do with Scottish Gaelic? Read on!

EM: So what exactly is the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL)?

SA:  The eDIL is an online dictionary of the Irish language from earliest evidence up to the seventeenth century (though the period up to around 1250 is the most intensively covered). The eDIL project is AHRC-funded and based at Queen’s University, Belfast, and at the University of Cambridge. The Dictionary can be found at


The electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language

The electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language


EM: From what I’ve read about the histories of various dictionaries, a good dictionary takes a long time to compile. What have been the stages of the eDIL project so far?

SA: The original Dictionary was published, in hard copy, in separate volumes between 1913 and 1976. The first phase of the eDIL project, completed in 2007, was to digitise the contents and introduce a number of search functions. The result is that now users can search the translations and definitions using English terms and they can search for specific forms – in other words, now you don’t have to know that do-dechaid is a past tense form of do-tét in order to find it!


Dictionary of the Irish Language

The standard print work on the vocabulary of Old (and Middle) Irish is the Dictionary of the Irish Language based mainly on Old and Middle Irish materials. 1913–75; Compact edition, E. G. Quin (ed.), 1983 published by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.


Since the Dictionary was first published, of course, new words have come to light, mistakes made by the editors have been identified, additional information about meaning and declension has been discussed. So, the second phase of the project, which lasted until 2013, involved making many of the corrections which had been pointed out over the years. We added words to the dictionary for the first time such as indladad ‘self-indulgence’ and ainmesc ‘non-alcoholic’ and we marked in(n)tinne, for example, as a ghostword after it emerged that this was just the genitive of in(n)tinn ‘mind’ and not an independent word at all!

In the latest phase, which began last year, we have been going through published editions of texts and often trying to spot for ourselves forms and usages which might enable us to expand or emend the Dictionary. That’s the academic core work; in addition, we’re engaged in a programme of outreach activity intended to promote use of the resource outside the scholarly community.

EM: What are you working on right now?

SA: At the moment, I’m wrapped up in preparations for the International Congress of Celtic Studies, which will be taking place in Glasgow next month [13-17 July 2015]. I’m writing a paper, thinking about workshops, organising promotion and ordering pens and bookmarks which we’ll be giving out to raise awareness! All of this is part of the eDIL project.

EM: How does the eDIL fit in with other online Gaelic/Irish dictionaries?

SA: At present, eDIL is the only dictionary to cover the Gaelic language of Ireland and Scotland up to around 1600. For someone accustomed to a dictionary of modern language, of course, the first dip into eDIL might seem a bit daunting – as a historical dictionary, there is often an array of forms and meanings which reflect how the language developed over time. New users shouldn’t be put off, though; you can take in as much or as little as suits your purpose and people always find something to intrigue them, whatever their area of interest or level of knowledge in the language.

EM: Who will find the eDIL useful now?

SA: Before the Dictionary was digitised, it was mostly used by students and scholars working on pre-modern periods of the language and, obviously, those groups still make up a good proportion of its users. Now that the Dictionary can be searched for English terms, though, we are hoping to encourage more historians, archaeologists and people who are simply curious about social and cultural concepts to explore the evidence which contained in eDIL. You can look up a term like ‘whiskey’ and find datable references to the practice of rubbing whiskey on the tongue to restore speech and to people dying of as a result of over-indulgence.

We are also trying to get language planners and translators to consider whether there are native terms which can be revived before they turn to borrowing or coining and also to use eDIL to check terms they might be thinking of introducing to see how they were used in the past. ‘Internet’ is generally translated as idirlíon in modern Irish and as eadar-lìon in Gaelic, but we have found an instance of the forerunner eterlín, which indicates that the original sense was ‘trap’. We are thinking that creative writers could find much inspiration in eDIL as well. Recently, I came across an example of the verbal form do uchtbidgadar, literally ‘they breast-jumped’, meaning something like ‘they were shaken to the core’. eDIL is a treasure trove of rich, idiomatic expressions of that kind.

EM: How could the eDIL be interesting or helpful to the average Scottish Gaelic learner?

SA: Despite what the name ‘Dictionary of the Irish Language’ might suggest, Scottish Gaelic sources were reasonably well used in the compilation of the Dictionary and there are sometimes references to modern equivalents in Irish and Gaelic (the latter usually referred to as ‘Scotch’!).

Search a Scottish Gaelic form like daonnan or da rìreadh and you might be surprised by the results. A learner or speaker of Scottish Gaelic might be interested to see earlier coileach oidhche, literally ‘cock of the night’, used to mean ‘owl’, where today we would say cailleach oidhche ‘old woman of the night’. Or a look through eDIL might highlight the fact that sabbait (which lies behind modern Latha na Sàbaid ‘Sunday’) was originally the Sabbath, i.e. Saturday. Gaelic seillean ‘a swarm of bees’ is in eDIL under the headword teillén, which seems to refer primarily to some kind of metal vessel. The Dictionary records the suggestion that the shift in meaning arises from the practice of beating a metal vessel to make bees settle!

In short, eDIL is invaluable in filling in the history to words and usages which either already are or soon will be familiar to learners of Gaelic. This brings the language alive for them and ultimately, I think, makes terms more easily remembered.

EM: What are some of your favourite Gaelic words in eDIL?

SA: Actually, many of my favourite words and phrases will be appearing in the ‘Word of the Week’ feature on our new website (which we hope will launch next month) and on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

As you might expect, I like the weird and wonderful, the stuff that you might not expect to find in there – goose-flesh (driuch croicinn), absinth (aipsint) and maybe a reference to a narwhal in fiacail in mil moir. I like also terms which are highly specific like sitsait ‘the rustling or swishing sounds made by warriors’ garments’ (an onomatopoeic word, of course) and ladar ‘the space between the fingers’. I could go on and on; perhaps I should leave the rest for ‘Word of the Week’!

EM: As a word nerd, I’m looking forward to it! Thank you, Sharon!

Subscribe to!

Join our mailing list to get regular updates from Dr. Emily McEwan.

Subscribers will receive notices of new blog posts and an e-mail newsletter.

Tapadh leibh! Thank you! Look for an opt-in confirmation e-mail soon.