Sunday, August 10, 2008

Happy Quoll Tag to You As Well!

After a brief delay in the posting of the blogs on the website, I'm attempting a comeback. To kick off the renewed commitment to the posting of the blogs on the website, I've chosen to slip in a word-of-the-week. Just pretend this went up Saturday. What, you were expecting Maria Bamford?
qualtagh (pronounced something like KWAL-tog, I'd guess, though the internet is not forthcoming with an official pronunciation) — noun: the first person you meet after leaving your house on some special occasion. Also, the first person entering a house on New Year’s Day.
This is one of those that appears in collections of strange words and has little use otherwise. In fact, I found this word in Erin McKean's Weird and Wonderful Words and a lot of Google hits for the term reference that very book. To complicate matters somewhat, people seem not to know exactly where the word comes from to the point where anybody I saw had broken it down into etymological chunks. McKean suggests "first foot" as an apposition for the term, and I wonder if that two-word renaming might actually be a calque from Manx English into the non-Manx English that I tend to prefer. People do seem to agree that qualtagh comes from the Isle of Man. This rundown of various season-based Manx customs includes it, anyway.

McKean goes on to elaborate on the term:
The new year’s qualtagh, for luck, is supposed to be a dark-haired man. A red-headed or female qualtagh is unlucky. Other things to bring luck to the house on New Year’s Day include serving black-eyed peas, having the qualtagh bring shortbread and whiskey (sounds fine for any day of the year), and sweeping all the garbage in the house out through the front door before midnight on New Year’s Eve (so that any of the misfortune of the past year is gone, not to return).
A neat little superstition, no? Word-based social network Wordie — "like Flickr, but without the photos" — offers a little more insight. User Reesetee, whose name may or may not be an Animal Crossing reference, claims that the word at one point "referred to the custom of going in a group from door to door at Christmas or New Year, making a request for food or other gifts in the form of a song." So there's that, too, providing that Reesetee hasn't set out to pull the collective legs of all us word nerds.

Not the greatest pick, I'll admit, but interesting enough. In the end, I was a little disappointed that this all had nothing to do with quolls or tags that one might attach to said quolls. I probably should have just run with quasihemidemisemiquaver and left it at that.

Previous words of the week:


  1. A red-headed or female qualtagh is unlucky.

    Beware Lucille Ball!

  2. I guess I should just stay indoors on New Years Day.

  3. Kelly's Fockleyr Gaelg - Baarle (Manx-English dictionary) defines "quaaltagh" as "first-footer". An online Manx-English dictionary defines "quaaltagh, qualtagh" simply as "meeter". If "first foot" is a calque of "qualtagh", it's a calque from Manx, not Manx English. But in my quick search I couldn't find any Celtic terms for "first" or "foot" that might be related.

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  6. Erin: As with most problems, my solution is to wear a hat.

    Goofy: Thanks for all the research, man. Didn't mean to stick you into a study spiral, but appreciated all the same.