An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language/Preface to the First Edition

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An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language  (1911)  by Alexander MacBain
Preface to the First Edition


This is the first Etymological Dictionary that has appeared of any modern Celtic language, and the immediate cause of its appearance is the desire to implement the promise made at the publication of Dr Cameron's Reliquiæ Celticæ, that an etymological dictionary should be published as a third or companion volume to that work. Some learned friends have suggested that it is too early yet to publish such a work, and that the great Irish Dictionary, which is being prepared just now by a German savant, should be waited for; but what I hope is that a second edition of this present book will be called for when the German work has appeared. Celtic scholars, if they find nothing else in the present Dictionary, will, at least, find a nearly pure vocabulary of Scottish Gaelic, purged of the mass of Irish words that appear in our larger dictionaries; and, as for my countrymen in the Highlands, who are so very fond of etymologising, the work appears none too soon, if it will direct them in the proper philologic path to tread. With this latter view I have prefaced the work with a brief account of the principles of Gaelic philology.

The words discussed in this Dictionary number 6900: derivative words are not given, but otherwise the vocabulary here presented is the completest of any that has yet appeared. Of this large vocabulary, about two-thirds are native Gaelic and Celtic words, over twenty per cent, are borrowed, and thirteen per cent, are of doubtful origin, no etymology being presented for them, though doubtless most of them are native.

The work is founded on the Highland Society's Gaelic Dictionary, supplemented by M' Alpine, M'Eachan, and other sources. I guarded especially against admitting Irish words, with which dictionaries like those of Shaw and Armstrong swarm. Shaw, in 1780, plundered unscrupulously from Lhuyd (1707) and O'Brien (1758), and subsequent dictionary-makers accepted too many of Shaw's Irish words. Another trouble has been the getting of genuine Irish words, for O'Reilly (1823) simply incorporated Shaw's Dictionary and M'Farlane's Scotch Gaelic Vocabulary (1815) into his own. For genuine modern Irish words I have had to trust to Lhuyd, O'Brien, Coneys, and Foley. For early Irish, I have relied mainly on Windisch, Ascoli, and Atkinson, supplementing them by the numerous vocabularies added by modern editors to the Irish texts published by them.

For the etymologies, I am especially indebted to Dr Whitley Stokes' various works, and more particularly to his lately published Urkeltischer Sprachschatz. I have, however, searched far and wide, and I trust I have not missed anything in the way of Celtic etymology that has been done for the last twenty or thirty years here or on the Continent. In form the book follows the example of Mr Wharton's excellent works on Latin and Greek philology, the Etyma Latina and the Etyma Grœca, and, more especially, the fuller method of Prellwitz' Etymolgisches Wörterbuch der Griechischen Sprache.

The vocabulary of names and surnames does not profess to be complete. That errors have crept into the work is doubtless too true. I am sorry that I was unable, being so far always from the University centres, to get learned friends to look over my proofs and make suggestions as the work proceeded; and I hope the reader will, therefore, be all the more indulgent towards such mistakes as he may meet with.


Inverness, 13th January, 1896.