Four English Words Derived From Gaelic

Opening title of Whisky Galore! (1949)

Ach, he’s feeling the shortage of whisky. We’re all feeling it, Sergeant. Never mind. Good things will come again, and we’ll have whisky galore. Uisge beatha gu leòir.

Compton Mackenzie, Whisky Galore (1947)

I’ve written before about the relative dearth of Scottish Gaelic vocabulary in Scottish English. Instead, much of the difference in vocabulary between Scottish English and Standard English is because Scottish English has held on to Middle English forms that Standard English has lost.

Of the Scottish Gaelic words that are used in Scotland, many deal with landscape features, and are little changed from their original forms—bens, lochs, corries and cairns. But there are a few familiar words in English that have Gaelic origins, and I was inspired to write about some of them after rewatching the 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!, based on Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel of the same title (though lacking Ealing’s exclamation mark)—because the title of book and film contains two words derived from Scottish Gaelic, as my quote from Mackenzie’s novel implies.


Whisky derives from Gaelic uisge beatha, “water of life”, which is the poetic name the Gaels give to the same drink. Plain drinking water is just uisge, and the statement “It’s raining” is rendered in Gaelic as Tha an t-uisge ann—literally, “The water is here”.

Beatha is “life”, and the Scottish king called Macbeth was MacBeatha, “son of life”. We generally associate the Gaelic prefix mac-, “son of”, with surnames, derived from original Gaelic patronymics. But this one is a given name, not a patronymic, and it implied something like “righteous man”. Since Macbeth was the son of Findlay of Moray, his full name was MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh in Modern Gaelic, or Macbethad mac Findláech in Mediæval Gaelic.

Our present English word is the final point of a period of evolution. Originally adopted from Gaelic as usquebaugh, it mutated to whiskybae, and then dropped the final syllable.

You should take care how you spell the English word. The Scottish stuff is always whisky, and the same spelling is favoured by Canadian and Japanese distillers. Whiskey, with an “e”, is distilled in Ireland and the United States. Scotch is a name that non-Scots apply to Scottish whisky. So anyone who writes “Scotch whiskey” is just looking for a slap.


As we can see in the quotation at the head of this post, galore derives from Scottish Gaelic gu leòr (Compton Mackenzie used the older spelling leòir). But it shares etymological honours with Irish Gaelic go leór, which has the same meaning. The English meaning, “in abundance”, rather overstates the sense of the original Gaelic. In Scottish Gaelic, leòr means “sufficiency”. Gu, as a preposition, means “to”, which we can see in those Gaelic road-signs that declare Fàilte gu Alba, “Welcome to Scotland”. Added to a noun, gu is used to form adverbs and adjectives. So gu leòr, literally “to sufficiency”, means “adequately” or “enough”. If a Gael wants to say that something is merely okay, they’ll say ceart gu leòr—literally “right enough”. So it’s a bit low-key compared to the glorious plenitude suggested by galore. The Faclair Beag on-line dictionary offers gu leòr mhòr as a way of saying “more than enough”, but it’s not widely attested.


Slogan comes from sluagh-ghairm. Sluagh is a group of people, or a crowd; gairm is a cry or call. Put them together, and sluagh-ghairm is literally “cry of the crowd”—a rallying cry or battle cry.

In English, this was originally adopted as slughorn. Sir George Mackenzie, in his Science of Herauldry (1680), had this to say about slughorns:

Not unlike these Motto’s are our Slughorns, which are called Cris de guerre in France. The use of them is either to serve as a Watchword to all of one Family, or are the name of the place at which a Family should meet in time of Warr: And thus the Mckenzies have for their Slughorn, Tulloch Ard, which is the place at which this Clan does meet; and the Name of Hume have for their Slughorn (or Slogan, as our Southern Shires terme it) a Hume, a Hume: For it is most ordinar to have either the Name of the Family who do meet, or the Name of the Place at which they do meet

The word slughorn was to become a source of confusion for poor old Robert Browning, who interpreted it to mean a literal horn, of the kind that could be sounded in battle. In the last stanza of his poem “Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came” (1855) he writes: “Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew.”*

From The Science of Herauldry, we can see that the condensed form, slogan, was already in use in the “Southern Shires” during the seventeenth century, but still in the sense of “battle cry”. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it was firmly established with its current meaning, “a short, memorable phrase used as shorthand for a particular idea”.


I know this word only from the expression in American English, to glom on to, meaning “to grab hold of”. Jack London provides the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for glom, in his memoir The Road (1907). He spelled it “glahm”, and used it to imply stealing:

We shook hands like long-lost brothers, and discovered that our hands were gloved. “Where’d ye glahm ’em?” I asked. “Out of an engine-cab,” he answered; “and where did you?” “They belonged to a fireman,” said I; “he was careless.”

For British readers today, glom is an American word, but it comes from the Scots verb to glaum, “to grasp at”. The word can also be used for the behaviour of a dog, gulping at food. That, in turn, comes from Scottish Gaelic glam, verb and noun, which describes the act of gobbling or devouring. So we can trace a line of descent from Scottish dogs seizing their food, to Scottish people grabbing things, to Jack London stealing a pair of gloves when he was travelling the United States as a hobo.

My favourite use of glaum is in a song written by Robert Burns, “The Battle of Sherramuir” (1790). It’s framed as an argument between two shepherds about the outcome of the inconclusive Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715). Burns’s Scots can be impenetrable to a modern reader, so I’ll give you a link to a version accompanied by a translation into Standard English. It’s a blood-curdling evocation of hand-to-hand combat in the eighteenth century:

I saw the battle, sair and teugh,
And reekin-red ran monie a sheugh;
My heart for fear gae sough for sough,
To hear the thuds, and see the cluds
O’ clans frae woods in tartan duds,
Wha glaum’d at kingdoms three, man.

The “clans frae woods in tartan duds” are the supporters of the Old Pretender, James Stuart. They were arrayed against the Hanoverian forces commanded by John Campbell, Duke of Argyll. And they “grasped at kingdoms three”—seeking to overthrow George I, king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The song was originally composed to be sung to the Cameronian Rant, a piece of traditional pipe music. But by far the most stirring rendering I’ve ever heard is the abridged arrangement by Scottish folk duo The Corries, entitled “The Sherramuir Fight”. Give it a listen:

It starts quietly enough, but once the bodhrán starts up in the first chorus, and Ronnie Brown really gets his teeth into the repeating line “Hey dum a-hidder-um a hey dum dan”, I defy you not to be stirred.

* I say “poor old Robert Browning” because he already had a history of word misuse. In his verse drama Pippa Passes (1841), he’d used the word “twat” in a context that suggests he thought it was part of a nun’s attire.

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