St David and St David’s Day
In stark contrast to St George, who was born in modern-day Turkey, died in what is now Israel and never set foot in England, Saint David, or Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales, was a Welshman from his tonsure to the calloused soles of his feet (Dark Ages footwear, you know). He was probably born in Ceredigion* (Cardiganshire) sometime around AD 500. He died around 589, according to tradition on 1 March, hence the date on which St David’s Day has been celebrated since time immemorial.
Though the day is not a public holiday, many people in Wales will celebrate it, and many will wear leeks or daffodils in some shape or form. Some people, especially schoolchildren, may dress up in traditional costumes. Traditional Welsh dishes such as bara brith, Welsh cakes and cawl will undoubtedly be eaten in many homes.
The Welsh for ‘Happy St David’s Day’ is Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus, which sounds something like DEE-ith goo-ul DOW-ee happis. You can listen to an authentic pronunciation by some Welsh rugby players.
St David is buried in the cathedral of the tiny city in Pembrokeshire that bears his name. He was renowned as a preacher and teacher and is credited with founding many monasteries and churches, including the monastery where the cathedral stands. He was canonised – officially declared a saint – early in the twelfth century. His shrine became a major pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages and Pope Callixtus II ordained two visits to be equivalent to a pilgrimage to Rome, three visits, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For British pilgrims, the journey would have been shorter, it is true, but not exactly a soft option, given the appalling state of roads in those days.
St David shone at an important synod of the Celtic Welsh church in about 545 in the village now called Llanddewi Brefi. There his most celebrated miracle occurred: the ground rose up to lift him so he was audible to everyone in the rapt throng attending. (A wag has quipped that Wales was the last place another hillock was needed.)
* If you look up Ceredigion in the Collins dictionary and scroll down a tad, you can test your knowledge of Welsh counties with a quiz.
Leeks and daffodils
St David, as monks ought to, lived a life of utter frugality. According to one tradition, he ate only herbs and vegetables, especially leeks, which might be one factor in their hallowed status in Wales. Another tradition claims he instructed Welshmen about to do battle against the Saxons to put leeks on their helmets to distinguish friend from foe. Incidentally, the Welsh word for English, Saesneg, means ‘Saxon’ and is related to Sassenach.
Such tales sound to me suspiciously like post hoc explanations. Couldn’t it just be that leeks add delicious flavour and depth to soups and stews? I’ve read they prefer a damper climate than do onions and so are well suited to rainy Wales. A cawl, a classic Welsh broth or soup, wouldn’t be a cawl without them. And there will, apparently, not be a rugby club in Wales that isn’t serving cawl during Six Nations matches.
Whatever the truth of the leeky connection, it always brings a smile to see Welsh rugby supporters at the Six Nations Championship toting leeks or wearing headgear in the shape thereof. The other headgear they might sport, of course, is a daffodil flower or corona encasing their noggin, the petals of the corolla radiating outwards. The word daffodil is certainly not Welsh – nor is leek.
One word that is incontestably Welsh is the name for the breed of dogs loved by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth: corgi.
Corgi combines two elements: cor, meaning ‘dwarf’ and ci, ‘dog’.
Why isn’t it corci, then, I hear you ask?
Because Welsh, like other Celtic languages, mutates the first consonants of words under certain conditions in a process known as mutation (meaning 6b). Here, a ‘soft mutation’ changes the letter c of ci to a g. And the Welsh ci for dog is ultimately related to Latin canis and Ancient Greek kuōn (κύων). If you stare at it long enough, you can sort of see the relationship.
As regards mutations, you might recognise ‘Talybont’, or Tal-y-bont, as the name of several villages in Wales. The Welsh for ‘bridge’ is pont – spot the connection with Latin pons, pontem – and pont, like ci, undergoes soft mutation in the place name, which means ‘end of the bridge’, to become bont.
Roaming rather further from Wales than corgis are penguins, and one possible source for penguin is Welsh. On that hypothesis, penguin is a compound of pen, meaning ‘head, headland’ and gwyn, ‘white’. The ‘white head’ might refer to the bird, or to a white headland where they were observed to gather. And that pen noun existed in the common ancestor of Welsh, Brittonic, to give Penrith in Cumbria and Penicuik (‘hill of the cuckoo’), near Edinburgh.
‘Did Welshmen pioneer Antarctic exploration?’ you might be wondering. No. What probably happened is that the word penguin was first applied to the Great Auk, a bird found in the Northern Hemisphere, and was then re-applied to the birds we call ‘penguins’. But, as the saying goes, ‘other origins are available,’ including Latin and Breton.
Welsh ‘Words of the Day’
Several of the Welsh words featuring in Collins Word of the Day this week relate to the poetry and music for which Wales is renowned. An awdl is the usual poetic form and metre employed by bards competing at the Eisteddfod. The definition of crwth made me want to hear what it sounds like. You can enjoy its mellow, even plangent, sound here, played on one of the four surviving historical examples. (The English name for the same instrument is crowd, which has given rise to the surname Crowther.)
At another end of the poetic spectrum is the Welsh for ‘cheers’, iechyd da, which non-Welsh speakers anglicise and simplify as ‘yakkie-da’ (ˌjækiːˈdɑː). The Welsh pronunciation (ˈjɛxəd dɑː) can be heard here. It involves the sound represented by the IPA symbol x. That’s the final sound of Bach, the famous composer, not to mention the Welsh word bach, often added after a person’s name as a sign of being friendly. Why not give iechyd da a try with that sound to give you an authentic accent?
Incidentally, the phrase iechydd da is literally ‘health good’ because adjectives generally follow nouns in Welsh as, for instance, in Bore da, ‘Good morning’.
At an almost extremity of poeticism in feeling sits hiraeth, defined as ‘a nostalgic longing for a place that can never be revisited’. Clearly, translation cannot do it justice. Though it has been compared to the Portuguese saudade, it seems to have different, more extensive connotations, as this article explains. It’s a combination or hir, ‘long’ and aeth, which the historical dictionary of Welsh, the GPC, translates as ‘pain, woe, grief, sorrow, a longing.’
It strikes me the intrepid Welsh souls who in the nineteenth century emigrated to settle so very, very far away in Chubut province, Patagonia, Argentina, to preserve their Welsh identity must have felt this intensely.
Perhaps I need some fruity carbohydrates from Welsh cakes to lift my spirits after that sombre thought. At our family gatherings, talk may turn to how our Welsh Nanna’s (granny’s) were the best, cooked as they were on a bakestone in front of the fire, and how none of us can quite emulate them. Mine, if I can find them in York, will be shop bought.
Some people bake them specially on St David’s Day. Whichever Welsh dish you may or not cook or tuck into on St David’s Day, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!
By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.