What does the word ogam mean and where does the name come from?

By David Stifter, OG(H)AM’s Irish Principal Investigator

In my blog in December 2021, I talked about the different ways of spelling and pronouncing the word Ogam or ogham. In this blog entry, I will resume this discussion of the word itself and I will look into what the word may originally have referred to, before it turned into today’s technical term for a specifically Irish writing system. Even though its origin has long been a matter of contention, I will argue that the etymology of ogam is not so mys­terious after all and that a straightforward generic noun lurks behind it. In doing so, I am afraid that it will be unavoidable to become very technical, so please bear with me.

Etymological speculations about the derivation of the word ogam go back to the early medieval period. The early medieval text In Lebor OgaimThe Book of Ogam’ explains the word as a compound, i.e., as a word made up of two simple words, namely ōg-úaimm ‘perfect sewing’ (OIr. óg ‘perfect, whole’ + úaimm ‘sewing, stitching’). Even though it does not conform with modern standards and procedures of etymo­logy, this is an associative etymology in the style of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (c. 623 a.d.) that was very popular among Irish scholars. Unlike modern scientific etymology that aims at identifying cognates in other languages by applying the two historical-linguistic yard-sticks of sound law and analogy, etymologies in the ‘Isidorian’ tradition are more geared towards explanations that aim at seman­tic plausibility (cf. Moran 2020: esp. 15–19; and Breatnach 2018: 122–124).

Close up image of a manuscript page where the scribe begins to explain the etymology of the word ogam.
Image 1: The beginning of In Lebor Ogaim ‘The Book of Ogam’, explaining the word ogam as og-úaimm ‘perfect sewing’ (Royal Irish Academy Manuscript 23 P 12 = Book of Ballymote, fo. 168r, image © Irish Script on Screen.)

However, here I am interested in the modern diachronic-comparative etymology in which, unlike other areas of language usage, the Sprachgefühl ‘innate language feeling’ of a native speaker has no privi­lege over the analytic knowledge of an outsider. Simply because a word is ex­plained in a specific way by a native speaker of that language does not mean that that expla­nation is right. This is the case for the native analysis as ‘perfect sewing’. It is excluded on account of the first vowel of ogam being short, not long ó, as this explanation would require. Damian McManus (1991: 152‒153) and Patrick Sims-Williams (2018: 119) are nevertheless prepared to entertain a simil­ar analysis of ogam, namely as the com­pound og-úaimm, where the first element is og ‘point’, and the second element is again úaimm as above. McManus suggests the meaning ‘point-seam’, Sims-Williams opts for ‘pricker-pricking’, “a sort of figura etymo­logica, referring to the scratching of Ogham letters on wood or stone”. However, there are several issues with this idea.

One issue has to do with the inflectional class of the word. Every Old Irish word belongs to one of approximately fifteen so-called stem classes, which means that the end of the word changes in a very specific pattern in order to express its different case forms, and every word is assigned to one of the three grammatical genders of the language. Úaimm is a neuter n-stem, whereas ogam inflects as a masculine o-stem. While the different gender may conceivably be due to our relatively late, Middle Irish sources in which the word is first transmitted, the change of inflectional class is less trivial. Sims-Williams suggests that ogam was mostly used in the singular, and that there­fore “the most distinctive neuter n-stem end­ings would not occur”. But eDIL (dil.ie/33582) quotes two plural examples of ogam, and Sims-Williams’ proposal also misses the important point that the palatalised -imm in the singular of neuter n-stems is in itself a very distinctive ending within the morpho-phonological system of Old Irish. Many neuter n-stems occur exclusively as singular verbal nouns, without ever losing their palatalisation. An additional argumentum ex silentio against Sims-William’s explanation is that, if úaimm were the verbal noun of úaigid, one might perhaps expect occasional figurae etymologicae (word plays) of úaigid ‘to sew’ and ogam, but I don’t want to press this point too hard.

More crucial is the fact that in inflection and derivation the vowel of the second syllable is treated not as that of a meaningful part of the word (as would be expected if it were a com­pound), but that it behaves like any internal, suffixal vowel of a simple word. What I mean by this is that the addition of a syllabic ending or a suffix causes regular syncope, i.e. in inflection ogam → dat. pl. ogmaib (Corp. Gen. 363 (320c24)), not **ogamaib, and in derivation ogamogmóir ‘one skilled in Ogam-writing’, not **ogamóir, as would be expected if the word were a compound. Another issue is the question how likely it is that the second element of a putative com­pound og-úaimm [ˈoɣuamʲ] would be reduced to schwa, i.e. ogam [ˈoɣəm], in the first place. In transparent compound nouns of this type the second element usually remains recognisable and is not so drastically reduced. An answer to this question would require a much further-reaching study of the behaviour of Old Irish compound nouns, though, than can be done here.

There is a formally easier and more attractive alternative explanation available for ogam. Vedic ájma- ‘course, track’ and Greek ὄγμος ‘furrow, course of heavenly bodies, swathe’ sug­gest themselves as satisfactory cognates of OIr. ogam via Proto-Celtic *ogmo-, all regularly continuing a Proto-Indo-European preform *h₂óg̑mo- (NIL 268), a nomi­nal derivative in *-mo- from the root *h₂eg̑- ‘to impel, drive’ (LIV 255‒6; cf. Rhŷs 1888: 19; Marstrander 1928: 137; Watkins 1995: 16; Stifter 2020a, 2020b: 84‒86, 2022: 1). The original meaning of Celtic *ogmo- may accordingly have been ‘fur­row (in a tilled field)’, whence the development to ‘groove’, and then to ‘notch (on a stone)’ can easily be pictured. Katherine Forsyth (pers. comm.) suggests that *ogmo- may even have been an early Celtic word for the art of ‘writing’. Formally identical, but semantically different is Carey’s idea (2014: 19) that Proto-Celtic *ogmo- originally meant ‘line, row, group’, namely of tallies on a stick.

Image of Mayan tally sticks in the Peabody Museum's collection
Image 2: Tally sticks. (© Peabody Museum, Harvard)

The sole reason why this nearly self-evident comparison with Greek and Vedic has not been universally accepted is the dogma, first for­mu­lated by Ernst Windisch (1879: 16–17), then picked up by John Strachan (1891‒4: 232), and prominently endorsed by Rudolf Thurneysen (1928: 299; 1937: 195–196), that the regular out­come of Proto-Celtic *gm in Irish be lenited *μ (lenited m) = [β̃] with compen­satory lengthening of the pre­ced­ing vowel (i.e. *óm or *úam), and not *γm (lenited g + unlenited m) = [ɣm] as would be expected in parallel with the unques­tion­able treatment of Proto-Celtic *dm > Irish *ðm. However, none of the cited examples holds up to scrutiny, which I will now discuss in some detail.

Strachan (1891–4: 232) mentions four possible words (and rejects several others that had been suggested earlier) as evidence for *Vgm > *V̅μ in Irish, but all of them are problematic:

  1. He traces glám ‘outcry; also: satire’ back to a preform Proto-Celtic *glagmā, which he compares with German klagen ‘to lament’ from a root *glagʰ (IEW 351). However, in the framework of modern Indo-European Studies the Irish word is better reconstructed as PC *glāmā < *gl̥H-meh₂ from a root *gelH- ‘to cry out (uel sim).’ (Zair: 2012: 79; not in LIV).
  2. Strachan’s reconstruction of mám ‘servitude, yoke’ as *magmu- relates it to *magu- ‘slave’, but ModIr. mám shows that the word has unlenited m, not **μ (cf. LEIA M-15) and thus removes it from this dossier.
  3. He reconstructs tlám ‘handful of wool’ as *tlagm- and compares German Flocke ‘flake’ and Greek λάχνος ‘wooly hair, down’. This holds up on no front: The German word is either a loan from Lat. floccus ‘tuft of wool’ or belongs to the Germanic root of *fleugan- ‘to fly’; the Greek word is probably from the PIE root *u̯olk̑- ‘hair’. None of these words therefore has an initial *t-. If tlám is compared with Breton tleuñv ‘distaff’, a reconstruction as PC *tlāmo- < *tl̥Hmo- becomes inevitable. But even this is uncertain, as LEIA T-78 points out, since the modern continuation of OIr. tlám is slám with an unlenited m, not with **mh, as would be expected in that case.
  4. Strachan’s final example séimeth ‘offspring’ < *segmeto- is entirely obscure. The few attestations of the word rather point to unlenited *m, and since it lacks any other cognate within the language it may well be an erudite borrowing from Latin semen ‘seed’.

Tellingly, Thurneysen does not cite any of these words in his own treatment of the problem (1937: 196; GOI 79; see also De Bernardo Stempel 1999: 244, 247). The only example for the phonological rule *gm > *μ that Thurn­eysen himself could marshal is the expressive pair áimh tháimh / ám [t]hám ‘to and fro’, which he derived from a Proto-Celtic syntagm *agmā to-agmā, allegedly containing nominal formations of the Old Irish verbs agaid ‘to drive’ and do·aig ‘to drive back’. Not only is the philological evidence for this syntagm very slim (see the critical remarks by O’Rahilly 1973‒4: 4‒5; McManus 1991: 185; Carey 2014: 5, 10–12), but rhyming words of this structure cannot conclusively be adduced to provide a foundation for a theory about regular phono­logical de­velop­ments in the first place ‒ if they go back to the alleged pre-form at all. Ám [t]hám is part of a whole series of pairs meaning ‘to and fro’ that have the form X t(o)-X (O’Rahilly 1973‒4). Some of them are mor­pho­logically meaningful, e.g. adall tadall ‘visit re-visit’, while others are not etymologically transparent, e.g. aile taile. Ám [t]ham has all the hallmarks of the latter, and is therefore no evidence for the assumed sound change *agm > *ām.

McCone (1985: 170) modified the idea. He tentatively proposed that palatalised *-gm- became -m(m)-, while non-palatalised *-gm- remained as such. However, his sole example broimm ‘fart’ < *bregman- < *bʰrégʰmn̥ ‘emission of air’ (cf. Sanskrit bráhma ‘prayer, spirit’) has been explained differently by Stüber (1998: 62), namely as *braχsman- < *bʰrag-s-mn̥ ‘breaking (air)’.

The final item that remains to be discussed is the female name Dar-Ómae in the Old Irish genealogies, only attested as the name of a daughter of Conchobor mac Nessae (O’Brien 1962: 278). Ó Corráin (1979: 165; followed by Carey 2014: 12–13) explained it as ‘daughter of (the god) Ogmios’, showing the “normal development of Celtic Ogmios”. This, however, is doubt­ful. Dar-Ómae is the spelling normalised by O’Brien. The reading Daromae is only found in a single witness (Rawl. B 502), whereas the other manu­scripts diversely have Dronae, Daranae, Dorona. Even if Rawlinson’s reading were the only uncorrupted one, there is no evidence to connect the name with the god Ogmios. I think therefore that the significance of this name should not be overstated. Carey (2014: 14), on the other hand, is prepared to see in Dar-Ómae the regular continuation of the inherited cluster *-gm-. He tentatively suggests that the -g- in ogam and in the name of the god Ogmae is a deliberate archaism, reflecting the petrified Primitive Irish spelling for the old writing system.

In conclusion, I think there is no compelling evidence to disprove the derivation of OIr. ogam < PIE *h₂óg̑mo- suggested above, which furthermore provides a good semantic motivation for the word. In a future instalment of this small series, we intend to look at the mythological figures across Celtic languages that share, or appear to share, names derived from PC *ogmo-.

Close up of human hand holding a chisel to carve stone.
Image 3: Making grooves on stones. (© Петр Давыдов?)


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