Recently I bought the ‘Concise ENGLISH-IRISH Dictionary’ the latest addition to the small but important list of dictionaries dealing with the Irish language. The book weighs in at a mighty 3kg and has nearly 2000 pages and is a wonderful source to explore the riches of our native language. So impressed was I that I began to wonder if there was a collective noun to describe a collection of dictionaries, as in ‘a flamboyance of flamingos’ or a ‘drift of swans’, as the collective noun can often be as beautiful as the articles they describe, but I failed to find one. So I decided that a ‘Treasury’ of dictionaries seemed appropriate. When I looked up ‘Treasury’ in my thesaurus to find a synonym I found ‘thesaurus’, I had come full circle.
I have print dictionaries covering six languages: Modern Irish, Old Irish, (I count both as a single language), English, French, Russian, Latin, Welsh, and sundry phrase books, all bought when I found myself interested in a particular language. My interest in Welsh began when I was 75 but foundered after a short period of study as I found that the ability to retain new spelling systems decreases alarmingly as one’s age increases, but if a language has been learnt earlier in life the brain finds it easier to recall the correct sequence of letters in a word. For instance, I find that I have retained a reassuring amount of Russian vocabulary and spelling, probably because I started learning the language when I was still only in my forties. But I find I have to rely more and more on the Ó Dónaill Irish dictionary when writing in Irish, partly I suppose because, although I had a fairly good basic familiarity with the language from my days with the Christian Brothers in Primary school, the orthography (spelling) and script have changed since then, and I didn’t really start to study Irish seriously until I was in my mid-sixties., after I had retired from the Abbey Theatre.
One of the treasures on my bookshelf is my copy of Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary; ‘Being a thesaurus of the words, phrases and idioms of the modern Irish language’, which dates back to 1927, being an enlarged version of the book first printed in 1904. It is printed in the old Cló Gaelach, with lenition indicated by a dot, the ‘séimhiú’, rather than the letter h and employs the lovely old lettering as opposed to the Roman type. As this was the type in use when I was going to school in the forties and fifties it presents no problems at all for me, although younger people may struggle with the lower case ‘s’ and ‘r’ letters.
Dinneen also shows the breadth of possible meanings contained in Irish words. For instance, the word ‘gaoth’ can mean: subtle, wise, prudent; a dart, a shooting pain; an inlet of the sea, a strand stream left at low water; wind, air, a draught of air or wind; a whizz, vanity, idle talk; a glimpse, a hint, a suggestion; nothing. He also of course gives examples of expressions which give a context to the various meanings which can be constructed using the word.
I think Treasury is a very accurate description of any dictionary worthy of the name.