How to self-isolate in Welsh

I realised with some shock the other day that it’s getting on for a year since I last wrote anything on my blog. I have no aspirations to be a daily blogger unlike, for example, my brother Wulf, but even by my standards it’s quite a long gap.

The world right now seems quite a different place from when I last wrote. I certainly had no idea at that point that we’d be in the grip of a pandemic at the moment and I’d be stuck at home almost full-time, with only occasional brief forays into town (roughly once per week) to do some shopping, while many people are fighting for their own or other people’s lives and nobody knows when it’s all going to end and we’ll return to normality (though many people, myself included, incline to the view that our definition of normality will have changed somewhat by the time we get there).

There are several words that, while perhaps not entirely new, are now pretty much on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The one I’m particularly thinking about at the moment is self-isolation, except that I’m thinking about it not in English but in Welsh and there’s not one word for it but at least three. More accurately, I’m thinking mostly in English (in so far as my thoughts clothe themselves in language – which tends to be pretty far most of the time) but about Welsh words.

Shortly before the UK lockdown started, I was talking (in Welsh) to a translator I know and, since the subject of self-isolation came up and I didn’t know how to say it in Welsh, I asked him. He told me that the official Welsh word for it is ymneilltuo. This makes sense, as neilltuol is an adjective meaning “separate”, ym- is a prefix that tends to give verbs a reflexive sense (for example diswyddo is “to dismiss” and ymddiswyddo is “to resign”, literally “to dismiss oneself”), and Welsh is a language that loves to build up words logically in this fashion.

Since then, I’ve been speaking (or more strictly accurately, writing) quite a lot of Welsh but haven’t actually had any need to refer to self-isolation. However, a couple of days of go a friend mentioned the word he’d heard for it, which is hunanynysu. This is another one that’s built up from a couple of simple building blocks; in this case, hunan (“self”, not too far removed in sense from ym-, though it also functions as a standalone word) and ynys (“island”). So literally it is “to self-island” or (slightly less poetically, but not much) “to make oneself into an island”. It was a new one on me, but I immediately fell in love with it.

I’m reminded of the John Donne quote in which he says that “no man is an island” (I can’t remember whereabouts it crops up in his writing but it’s in the same passage as the equally famous “ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!”, or words to that effect). Donne’s point is that we are all fundamentally interconnected (eat your heart out, Dirk Gently!) and in a sense the self-islanding that has been forced on us in recent weeks perhaps serves to make that more, rather than less apparent. I’ll leave you to muse (if you so wish) on the philosophical implications of that statement while I return to the lexicographic theme of my discourse.

I was listening to the radio last night (more about that soon – possibly tomorrow!) and I heard someone use the word hunanynysu (at least three times). I was, incidentally, listening to Radio Cymru (the Welsh language BBC radio station) so it was less of a surprise to hear it there than it would have been on, say, Radio 4. Still, I was delighted to hear the word in the wild, so to speak, as it means I now feel I can legitimately add it to my own word-hoard.

I mentioned earlier that there were three Welsh words for self-isolation. The third, which admittedly I haven’t yet heard used in this context, is encilio, which literally means to retreat. It’s a nice enough sounding word, I suppose, but to me it doesn’t have quite the same vigour about it as hunanynysu.



I came across a new word, or at least one I don’t recall having encountered before, this morning: lollygag.

The Oxford Dictionary of English on my Kindle, where I first found the word, says that it is an informal North American verb meaning “to spend time aimlessly; idle”.  There were two example sentences given: “She goes to Arizona every January to lollygag in the sun” and “We’re lollygagging along”.  The word is claimed to date from the mid 19th century and be of unknown origin.

According to Wiktionary (see the link above), the word occurs in (presumably informal) US English, and means “to dawdle; to be lazy or idle; to avoid necessary work or effort.”  This seems a slightly more negative definition than the ODE one.

Wiktionary didn’t give any example sentences using lollygag as a verb, although there are translations into a few other languages, such as paresser in French, trödeln or schlampen in German and бездельничать (or byezdyelnichat for a very rough transliteration) in Russian; none of those are words I’ve previously encountered either, although I have spoken and read considerably less of any of those languages than English.

I did a quick Google search to see if I could find some examples in the wild.  Most of the hits I got were definitions or explanations of the term, but I did manage eventually to find some sentences using the word.  Probably my favourite was from a New York Times article:

The first time I saw a tarantula lollygagging on the front porch…

Lollygag can, apparently, also be used as a noun, meaning “silliness, nonsense”.  Wiktionary did give an example sentence for this one:

He likes to do his car up with blacked-out windows, and all that lollygag.

The only translation given for the noun version was the French absurdité, which I’m sure I have seen (and possibly used) before.

I can’t think of a particularly good Welsh translation for lollygag as a verb, but the noun use is fairly similar to the Welsh word lol, which roughly means “nonsense” (as in “Paid â siarad lol” – “Don’t talk nonsense”).  It’s tempting to think that there may be an etymological connection between lol and lollygag but I think it’s more likely that it’s just a coincidence.

Hurkling and hills

While browsing Wikipedia the other day, I came across a list of English words without rhymes, formally known as refractory rhymes.  The article also contained a list of common English words that only rhyme with very obscure words.  Of the latter, one that caught my eye was hurkle (which rhymes with circle – I’ll leave it to you to figure out which of those two is the common word and which the obscure one).

To hurkle is a verb, which the Wikipedia article says means to pull in all ones limbs.  Wiktionary gives a bit more detail, suggesting that the primary meaning is to draw in the parts of the body, especially with pain or cold.  It can also mean to cower (obviously a related meaning).  Unfortunately Wiktionary doesn’t give any usage examples (or translations) for this particular word and pretty much all of the hits I turned up on a Google search seemed to be for unrelated uses.  Still, you never know when you might be writing a poem and needing a rhyme for ‘circle’.

Incidentally, I was once told (and it seems to be a commonly held opinion, though I can no longer call it a fact as I once did) that “orange” was the only word in the English language that didn’t have a rhyme.  In fact, orange only makes it onto the obscure-rhymes list rather than the no-rhymes list, as it rhymes with Blorenge, the name of a hill down in South Wales.  On the other hand, there are quite a few words that Wikipedia lists as true refractory rhymes (you can read the article for yourself if you’re that interested).

If tonight is as chilly as the last few nights have been, I shall no doubt hurkle (with cold, rather than pain) when I get into bed.