New Research Shows That the Word Leprechaun Has Latin Roots

Tim Boyle/Newsmakers
Tim Boyle/Newsmakers

For the last five years, a team of researchers from Cambridge University and Queen’s University Belfast have meticulously combed through manuscripts dating all the way back to the 6th century in order to revise an online dictionary of medieval Irish. In addition to discovering about 500 previously lost words, they also unearthed new etymological information about a word you definitely already know: leprechaun.

According to BBC News, the scholars believe leprechaun, from the Irish leipreachán, isn’t an Irish original. Based on their research, it’s derived from Luperci, the Latin word for a group of priests who celebrated an ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia, which took place on February 15. Though we don’t exactly know the origin of Lupercalia, it’s thought to have included a purification ritual that involved swimming. After an animal sacrifice (and a few other weird activities), two possibly naked boys would run through the city streets whipping women with thongs made from the skin of the sacrificial animal, which was said to increase fertility.

The first known leprechaun appearance in Irish literature was in a folktale from the Middle Ages in which Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, awakens from a seaside nap to leprechauns trying to drag him into their underwater abode—suggesting that leprechauns are water-dwellers. Maybe the Irish storytellers who originated that fable broadly interpreted the purification theme from Lupercalia to be more literally related to water. Or, maybe the element of Lupercalia they co-opted for their Irish mascot was the idea of small people (specifically male) causing mischief in the streets, which pretty calls to mind our current conception of leprechauns as tiny tricksters.

Either way, the revelation about leprechauns’ Latin roots is a nod to the project’s success in enriching our knowledge of the Irish language, from which English has borrowed more than you might realize. And, as Greg Toner of Queen’s University Belfast told BBC News, about one third of the online dictionary’s 20,000 monthly visitors are from the U.S.

“A key aim of our work has been to open the dictionary up, not only to students of the language but to researchers working in other areas such as history and archaeology, as well as to those with a general interest in medieval life,” he told BBC News.

You can explore the dictionary here.

[h/t BBC News]

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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