Even Racists Got the Blues

Most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

View of a man from the back The man is wearing a black "Utili-kilt" and a black T-shirt featuring the "Blue Lives Matter" logo inside a shamrock, with the Irish words "Gorm Chónaí Ábhar" below the shamrock. Photo taken by Karen Reshkin at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest and is used with her permission. Visit her website at www.acleversheep.net.


Dear friends,

Since this post was published, three years ago, so many more lives have been lost to racism in this country, most recently that of George Floyd. I’m asking you, if you’ve found anything of value in this post, to please consider making a donation to Black Lives Matter. If you’re not able to donate, please do what you can. March. Speak up. Speak out. Be a witness. Be the change.

Le meas,
Black Lives Matter

OK…I have to say that, most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

This pic came across my desk about nine months ago, and it may just be the worst example of a self-translation disaster I’ve ever seen. 

In fact, it’s so bad, and so out of context, that most of my Irish-speaking friends had no idea what this person was trying to say with those three Irish words: “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.” It’s beyond gibberish. It even took me a few minutes.

The sad thing is, in order to “get it,” you need to be familiar not only with the ways in which people make translation mistakes (which are legion), but also with a particularly unpleasant segment of U.S. politics.

What this person was trying to say, with this mess of a translation on his t-shirt, is “Blue Lives Matter.”

A Little Background

For the sake of those who don’t live in the U.S. (and without delving too deeply into the dark underbelly of American politics), suffice it to say that the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” arose in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement arose in response to the disproportionate degree of police brutality directed at people of color in the U.S., particularly toward African Americans.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what would motivate someone to oppose such a movement. The term I prefer can be found in your Irish dictionary under “C.”

So no…I’m not very sorry for this person (I am, however, very sorry at the assault upon the Irish language!).

Beyond philosophy, then, what exactly is wrong with this translation? Well, let’s start with how the “translator” went about it:

Sometimes the Dictionary is NOT Your Friend

I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends. Repeat after me: “Languages are not codes for one another.”

That’s exactly what happened here, though. Someone either found a dictionary or searched the internet for the three words “blue,” “lives,” and “matter,” and stuck them together as if they were English. Oy. Dia sábháil (that’s Ulster Irish for “oy”).

Irish syntax is very, very (very!) different from English. For one thing, the verb comes first in the sentence. For another, adjectives follow the nouns they modify. So even if you COULD render this phrase with these three simple words, you’d need “Matter Lives Blue.”

Unfortunately, however, you can’t fix this phrase simply by reordering the words, because, among other things…

Idiom Also Matters

An idiom is an expression particular to a particular language or region. For example, in English, when we say that something “matters,” we mean that it has worth and/or that it makes a difference.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way in other languages. In Irish, we’d have to get more specific. We might say something like Tá fiúntas i _____ (“There is worth/value in _____”) or Tá ________ tábhachtach (“______ is/are important”).

To make matters worse, though (there’s another idiom for you!), whoever made this “translation” apparently forgot that the word “matter” in English can have several meanings. In this case, the word he or she chose — ábhar — means “matter” as in “subject matter.” It’s a noun. Oops!

So Does Pronunciation

Another thing this poor “translator” apparently forgot is that the word “lives” in English can be pronounced to rhyme with “gives” or with “hives,” and that the meaning changes accordingly.

What was wanted here, of course, is “lives” as rhymes with “hives.” Three guesses as to which one the “translator” chose. Yep. Wrong one.

The word cónaí in Irish (which in certain grammatical circumstances inflects to chónaí) means “dwelling.” When we want to say that we live somewhere, we literally say “Am I in my dwelling in _________.”

Tá mé i mo chónaí i nDún na nGall: “I live in Donegal.”

Tá Seán ina chónaí i nGaillimh: “Seán lives in Galway.”

To toss another problem onto the pile, in Irish, we probably wouldn’t use the equivalent of the English “life/lives (rhymes with ‘hives’)” to mean “people”. We’d most likely just use daoine: “people.” There’s that “idiom” problem again.

And Then There’s Gorm

The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. Just not in this manner, and definitely not in this context.

When color is used to describe a person in Irish, it typically refers to hair color. For example An bhean rua: The red-haired woman.

There are exceptions, of course: For example, Na fir bhuí (“The orange/yellow men”) is used to refer to members of the Orange Order because of the color of their sashes. But “blue/gorm” would not be used to refer to police officers as a group. That’s an American thing.

All that having been said, though, here’s the lovely, delicious irony: When the word gorm is used in reference to people, guess what it means?

It means “Black.”

People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).

That’s right. At the end of the day, allowing for grammatical travesties (of which there are many) and horrendous word choices, what this person’s shirt says is “Black Lives Matter.”

Somehow that makes me strangely happy.

Update 9/24/2020: I just came across this excellent article by Clare Healy on Black Lives Matter and the Irish language. Highly recommended!

The Irish for Black Lives Matter

Featured image © 2016 by Karen Reshkin. Used with permission. Karen took this picture at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Please visit her Irish-learning website A Clever Sheep (www.acleversheep.net)

In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/


298 thoughts on “Even Racists Got the Blues”

    1. Great piece thanks, although the ‘Bui’ thing is definitely not just a reference to the Orange Order, my great grandfather from Liscannor, west Clare in the 19thC was called ‘Thomás Bui’ due to his skin colour.


      1. Yes, it’s also used to refer to skin color. The poet Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, who wrote An Bonnán Buí, was said to have been called “buí” due to cirrhosis of the liver, which turned his skin and eyes yellow.


      2. FWIW, I didn’t mean to imply that “fir buí” referred only to the Orange Order, but that, unlike most of the time color is used for people in Irish, it is used to describe the color of their sashes, not their hair.


      3. Yes, in his case it was down to his ‘sallow’ skin, as it was always referred to as. I don’t think in this case it indicated ill health more a different or ‘other’ colour (to your average 19C peasant farmer) and there were (most likely apocryphal) references to Spanish ancestry/armada survivors etc


    2. I agree, Black lives matter, and I have to explain to some that when they use the “all lives matter” retort, they don’t understand what Black Lives Matters is or stands for, and the humans have also poorly translated a phrase. Sometimes the dictionary and other people are not your friends!

      In my volunteer work for the web directory Curlie, I’ve seen a great improvement in machine translations over 20 years, but only because the word or phrase has been verified by humans. Fortunately, I’ve not had to use those translations for anything serious. In the early days circa Y2K, if I needed a good laugh I’d copy a paragraph from a random website, and the translations in any language were so bad there was nothing to do but laugh. It was even more fun if I then translated that into a 3rd language, then back to the 1st language. It was a game of telephone gone mad.
      After looking at thousands of websites over 2 decades, I wish I could announce to 7.7 billion persons “Please please please, if you want your site taken seriously, pay for a person to translate it. PLEASE!”
      Yes, it will take away from my amusement, and NO, a link to Google translations (blech) most definitely won’t do the job. It will make the web a nicer place to visit, and make people much more satisfied when they’ve read the site.

      Beside my wish for better translations, I ask that people spell out Black Lives Matter the first time they use it in a post, unless the topic is clearly only about the group. BLM is also an abbreviation for Bureau of Land Management. I’ve seen it make a discussion somewhat confusing.🙂
      Wish I had kept a file of the funnier translations. The only one I remember now, thanks to chemo brain, was a German website selling jewelry. They had the English version machine translated. Clearly no one knew a word of English because wherever the word was supposed to be jewelry, it was poison, such as “We have beautiful 18k poison”. I wonder if you buy that for someone you really love, or really hate.


  1. This is the exact kind of person that probably also has a Chinese character tattoo that is supposed to mean strength and probably means ” dumb fraternity member”.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Hello, a chairde, I’ll leave a few thoughts on why it is a ‘duine gorm’ in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, rather than a ‘duine dubh’, when we would say a ‘black person’ in English.

    Please note that some of what I’m about to write may not seem ‘PC’ in the modern-day world, but I’m willing to write what I’m about to write in order to convey some information on a point where the Gaelic-speaking world takes a different view to the English-speaking world. No ‘haters’, please: this is cultural information that is not often shared, which is why I’m doing it. As this is a site dedicated to Irish Gaelic, I hope that it will be taken in context and seen as such.

    (PS / I write mainly in Scottish Gaelic rather than in Irish Gaelic, so the examples given will have the Scottish spelling, but the basic principles are the same as in Irish Gaelic.)

    As others have mentioned, when you put a colour after a person’s name in Gaelic, that is understood primarily as referring to the colour of that person’s hair, rather than of their skin. Hence, ‘Coinneach Dubh’ is Black Kenneth, meaning black-haired Kenneth, rather than black-skinned. There is a very long tradition in Gaelic of referring to people with black or very dark hair as ‘dubh’, but, as mentioned, this refers to the colour of the hair, not of the skin.

    A possible exception to this is in ‘Am Fear Dubh’, which, as others have again mentioned, is one of the ways of referring to the Devil in Gaelic: he is literally ‘The Black Man’ (or, perhaps more accurately in this context, ‘The Black One’). Whereas the Devil of popular English-speaking imagination is associated (at least nowadays) with the colour red, in Gaelic he is associated with the colour black. However, it is clear from the context that what is meant by ‘black’ here is literally ‘coal black’ or ‘jet black’. It does not refer to the ‘black’ of the skin tone of people of African or Afro-Caribbean origin.

    On this point, the skin tone of people of African or Afro-Caribbean origin is called ‘gorm’ in Gaelic because that is the colour that Gaels associate with the reflection from a dark surface. ‘Blue’ may not be the best translation for ‘gorm’ here, but that is how the skin tone of people of African or Afro-Caribbean is perceived in Gaelic: as the owner of this blog wisely writes, ‘languages are not codes for each other’, and so it’s necessary to understand on Gaelic terms why the people whom English calls ‘black’ are called ‘gorm’ in Gaelic, when it seems nonsensical to call them ‘blue’ in English.

    The explanation for ‘gorm’ here is that, sometimes, Gaelic looks beyond the basic surface colour to the underlying or reflected colour (another example of this is ‘liath’ for the iridescence of oil on water), and applies the relevant colour accordingly. This happens not only with the skin tone of people (using ‘gorm’ for ‘black’ people), but also with the colour of the fur of certain animals. For example, what is called a ‘black-faced sheep’ in English is also called ‘gorm’ in Gaelic. Indeed, if you look carefully at the fur of a black-faced sheep (or, more obviously, pedigree black cattle that has just been groomed for show), you will see a bluish iridescence there, and that is what Gaelic is ‘getting at’ when it uses the word ‘gorm’ here. Please remember that, in the Gaelic world, most of the words relating to colour come from the natural world and, given the importance of agriculture to traditional Gaelic society, a lot of these words refer to subtle hues of skin, hide, hair and fur that are much more nuanced than anything that we have in English.

    Basically, something that is dark and gives off a sheen when the light reflects off it is called ‘gorm’ in Gaelic, and that is why we say ‘gorm’ in this context, rather than ‘dubh’.

    I hope that the above was helpful.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. The whole premis of your article is wrong. “Blue lives matter “ did not come about in opposition to “black lives matter”. It was in response to an increase in shootings of police officers(Dallas as one exampl). The other mistake is your assumption that black or people of color are disproportionately shot by police ( factually inaccurate). The fact is more whites are shot by police than people of color. Your point would be valid if the the phrase was “blue lives matter black lives don’t” but it’s not. The people who support “Blue Lives Matter” are just saying Blue lives matter too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ed Hagster – it’s impossible not to think that the “Blue Lives Matter” is a response – and explicitly or implicitly, a RACIST response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. No-one disputes that Police die – however they die in the execution of their duty (we hope) and it’s part of what they sign up for. People of colour are dying – and often killed by police officers – for no good reason, and for no reason at all. To lazily copy the slogan is to demean it. Here’s what President Obama had to say on the question. http://www.refinery29.com/2015/10/96236/obama-explains-why-all-lives-matter-is-wrong?bucketed=true&bucketing_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fduckduckgo.com%2F


      1. I guess you were too lazy to do the math. That Article proves my point it’s per capita so do the math. It also doesn’t account for the police interactions with each race. The majority of those deaths by African-Americans would not have happened if they would have just complied with the police officer. Nobody signs up with the job agreeing that it’s OK if they get killed while performing it. Police offices know the profession is dangerous but nobody signs up to be killed. No one ever said black lives don’t matter. Saying that blue lives matter doesn’t mean that black lives dont. That’s your assumption.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Black lives matter is a rerrorist organization that advocates for the killing of white police officers . I will not boor you with the numerous articles on the subject but please educate yourself before you accuse American police officers of being racist Aside from the authors lack of knowledge on the black lives matter issue I found that article interesting

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is absurd libel. You won’t “boor” (or bore, even) us with numerous articles because no reputable articles attesting to your claim exist. You will find no official proclamations on any BLM website or by any authorized member of BLM anywhere. It is a civil rights and activist organization. There is an undeniable systemic racist bias against black people among American police, and indeed among all American institutions, not to mention society in general. Most regular folks cannot however murder black people with impunity.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. Literally even one of your assertions is false. Blue Lives Matter (founded in December 2014) unequivocally and uncontroversially arose in response to Black Lives Matter (founded in July 2013), despite the spurious equivocation of the former with the latter (police officers are members of a profession, not a race). There has been no nationwide increase in shootings of police officers. In fact 2017 was the second-safest year to be a cop since the Eisenhower administration (https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/wjpjyq/cops-in-the-us-just-had-their-second-safest-year-since-1959), and being a police officer isn’t an especially dangerous job in any year. Far more black men are killed than white men by police per capita in the US, and this has been the case for as long as records exist (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/arent-more-white-people-than-black-people-killed-by-police-yes-but-no/?utm_term=.f50b2e80a6af). Black Lives Matter itself arose to counter the dominant message that they do not matter in American society (reflected in innumerable statistics and metrics, notably but not exclusively in terms of police violence). The idea that there is any kind of systemic bias in housing, jobs, income, imprisonment, or any other comparable measure against police officers as a group is absurd.

      Liked by 2 people

    4. “The majority of those deaths by African-Americans would not have happened if they would have just complied with the police officer.”

      This is both obviously false and libelous, but it is also illustrative of a particular mindset: do you what we tell you, or we’ll kill you. There’s a word for that: terrorism.

      Liked by 3 people

    5. You are telling lies. Please don’t tell lies.
      “Blue lives matter” and “All lives matter” started after Black Lives Matter explicitly and loudly as a way of diluting the message of that very necessary movement and as a way of showing solidarity with the police who kill Black people and to deny the extraordinarily high rate with which American police kill Black people without consequence.


    6. You are entirely wrong about “complying with the police” & blaming blacks for their own deaths. We even have video evidence to the contrary. The very fact that white mass shooters routinely make it to the squad car, even when they have SHOT AT POLICE, is further proof. Open your eyes.


  4. The motivation to oppose such a group? Perhaps the murder of FIVE Texas Policemen at a black lives matter protest. It might also be the “what do we want dead Cops” chants. Or It could be NYPD officer Ramos and Liu who were killed by a BLM activist. Liu came to the states with his mother. They had to go with a translator down to the laundry that she worked at to tell her that her son was dead. yea the whole translation thing I do not get either. I came here with my parents from Galway. My Blue Lives Matter shirt is in English.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Never happened, and you will not be able to establish an iota of evidence to the contrary. Neither Micah Xavier Johnson nor Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley had any known links to BLM (BLM in fact condemned the Dallas shootings), despite dubious allegations made by various public officials (some later retracted) in the wake of the two incidents. The claim that BLM activists call for dead cops is common online but has never been supported by any evidence. I’ve been to BLM events and no one there called for violence of any kind. It’s not like BLM doesn’t have websites you can visit or books you can read if you want to know what it believes.


  5. As an American Sign Language interpreter living in Ireland at the moment, I took great delight in reading this article. Predictably, the comments are being derailed by those who wish to maintain the cis white male status quo (there is so much mansplaining happening). I prefer to revel in the deliciousness of what you’ve explored from start to finish. There are so many issues you mention that plague ASL as well (no, it is not “English on the hands”) and you do a brilliant job of exploring some of the issues that come from amateur language users attempting to force a translation without even the beginnings of an understanding.

    Thank you for this contribution. I’ll be sharing it widely.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I just read this on the Wikipedia page for ‘Green’ and was reminded of your wonderful article.

    “The Persian language is traditionally lacking a black/blue/green distinction. The Persian word سبز sabz can mean “green”, “black”, or “dark”. Thus, Persian erotic poetry, dark-skinned women are addressed as sabz-eh, as in phrases like سبز گندم گون sabz-eh-gandom-gun (literally “dark wheat colored”) or سبز مليح sabz-eh-malih (“a dark beauty”).

    Similarly, in Sudanese Arabic, dark-skinned people are described as أخضر akhḍar, the term which in Standard Arabic stands unambiguously for “green”.”


  7. So how would black lives matter be translated (currently!) into Gaelic? Clearly not what’s on the shirt since the issues with lives and matter still stand…


      1. That’s a good question and, unfortunately, not a simple one to answer. Aside from the cultural and idiomatic issues, Irish doesn’t handle these short, “pithy” expressions easily (it’s a very “wordy” language), and what I can come up with is pretty much the equivalent of “The life of a black person has worth,” which isn’t quite the same thing. Normally I’d defer this to the Irish Language Forum (www.irishlanguageforum.com), but the site appears to be down at the moment. In any case, I’d want to get lots of input, including, God willing, that of a native speaker. I’ll ask around.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think that Séa has the right approach. Perhaps “Is fiú saolta na daoine gorma (fosta)”: The lives of black people have worth (too).” I’d want to run it past a couple of native speakers, though (and definitely do NOT get it tattooed!)


  8. You are completely and totally off base in your definition of “Blue Lives Matter”. Blue Lives Matter arose when the American left started calling for police officers to be killed in 2016, starting with Officers Liu and Ramos of the NYPD. After that the left started making chants, one in Missouri was “what do we want dead cops, when do we want them, now”. Another chant was “fry like bacon, pigs in a blanket”. If you hate cops, then fine, but do you support killing them? Your explanation was just as much gibberish as the fellow that was wearing the t-shirts translation.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This blue/black confusion was also present in Old Norse – could be related to Old Gaelic too, due to extensive cultural contact -, a black African person would be blámaðr, literally blueman, in contemporary sources. In Icelandic historical context blámaður, or in Swedish historical context blåman can be used, but with caution, eg in qoutes in research, or novels in a contemporary setting.


    1. It was still used in Swedish up to the 60:th, when you says Blåneger, “Blue negro”, when you saw a dark black african.
      Yes, black tock a while to come out as a colour, so then they used blue instead. IF there are no name for a colour, then you have another colour that is near.
      Yes, this is not about racism.


  10. Heh, I may have lost track of the modifiers? Is what the shirt actually says generally close to “Irish-Africans have a dwelling inside the subject matter” minus a lot of linking words and articles?


  11. hilarious! this is the worst translation I have ever seen. the translator wound up rendering word salad in the language. the words neither make logical nor grammatical sense. at the same time the closest those words come to having a coherent meaning in the language is the exact opposite of what you are trying to say. amazing


      1. gotcha; i meant the generic you; as in the speaker; but point taken on that; but it is quite bizare how he said the closest thing to coherint meaning that sentence has is the exact opposite of what it is intended to say; the swedish chef from the muppets does better actuall swedish then the idiot in the kilt does irish; because at least the vaugly swedish sounding giberish does not generally apear to mean the opposite of the intended sense;


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