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.

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.

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/

266 thoughts on “Even Racists Got the Blues”

      1. 1) He has the Blue Lives Matter symbol inside the shamrock on his T-shirt

        2) The likelihood of someone knowing that Irish uses “gorm” for black people and not having the faintest idea how to construct a basic Irish sentence is pretty much nil

        3) The other two words were completely wrong as well.


    1. Reply to Blue lives matter comment:
      So wrong, gormless blm.
      Ciníochas = Racism
      Recognize it.
      It’s in what you write.

      Geeky Gaeilgeoir:
      Sheol mo mhac an nasc ó Eureka!
      Ráite go maith agat.
      Ardmheas ♥,
      An Croí Ait

      Liked by 3 people

    2. ha ha… what a complete tosser “Blue lives Matter’ idiot, walk down the street with your idiot walk thinking you’re better than everyone when you can’t even get the translation of a language correct! absolute numpty twats!

      Liked by 5 people

    3. I’ll still never understand why “Black Lives Matter” wasn’t “All Lives Matter” right from the start, because it was entirely predictable that calling the movement “Black Lives Matter” was going to trigger all the closet racists.

      Probably not any easier to translate, tho.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That wouldn’t have worked, Jeff, for a couple of reasons:

        1) As at least one article I’ve read puts it, “Yes, all lives matter, but right now we’re concerned with the black ones, OK?” This movement is specifically for, about, formed by, and led by African Americans, and the whole point is to highlight the kind of institutionalized racism that has plagued this country for most of its history, and which has led to the deaths of so many people of color. “All lives matter” dilutes the message.

        2) “All lives matter” is a mantra repeated by Trump supporters who are, predictably, opposed to BLM. It’s on the same level with “Blue Lives Matter” in that regard. It’s like someone saying “Nya nya…maybe you think you matter, but we matter too, so there!”

        Haters are going to hate, and racists never stay in the closet for very long. Let ’em be triggered. It’s time we as a nation encounter this situation head-on, and stop sweeping it under the carpet by saying “well, yes, of course dear…ALL lives matter.”

        Liked by 11 people

      2. Well, when you’re trying to point out that black people are treated unfairly (i.e. getting killed) in the current system, why should you include people who aren’t experiencing the same problem? How does that make sense? What can we address the specific issue if we have to only speak in generalities? That’s like taking aspirin for a broken leg. Sure, the aspirin can help, but a cast is WAY better.

        Liked by 9 people

      3. Because you don’t need to point out that White lives matter. In American culture it’s assumed – which is sort of the problem. The true meaning is “Black lives matter, TOO,” but that doesn’t make as snappy and blunt a point.

        Liked by 8 people

      4. Because the justification for all the killings that triggered the movement in the first pkace was that the cops were in fear for their lives and shot in self-defence. When an armed white man can shoot an unarmed black man and successfully claim “self-defence”, the inequality is stark, and there’s a strong implication that the white life is more valued than the black one. The really crazy part is how a plea of self-defence can work when the reason the white guy was scared is simply that the other person has black skin. See also George Zimmerman, an armed white civilian who stalked an unarmed black kid and then killed the guy in “self-defense”.

        Liked by 6 people

      5. Because you can’t highlight a disproportionate brutalization of black people, by saying “all lives matter”. Heart disease is often under-diagnosed/misdiagnosed in women. If you wanted to educate people about that you can’t just say “Heart disease in general is a problem.” It’s incredibly dangerous to give into a mindset that says “We can’t talk about racism because it provokes a reaction from racists.”

        Liked by 2 people

      6. Because white Americans are not being summarily executed like Blacks are. A 12 year old boy was shot to death 12 seconds after the officer exited his squad because he was holding a toy gun. A black man was wrongly identified as a shoplifter and was shot in the back at 30 feet by a cop who “feared for his life”. Compare that to police reaction to armed white men roaming the streets.
        If your neighbors house was on fire & the fire brigade showed up you would not say “All houses matter” because only one house is burning, it matters


      7. Quite simply, the movement began with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter following the George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin. It became an more organized movement following the deaths or Eric Garner and other African-Americans. The implied meaning from the start has been “black lives matter too,” or if you prefer more specifically, “black lives matter as much as white lives.” The strong implication is that in the United States, black people are treated as having less intrinsic value than white people, and that they are therefore subject to systemic racial abuse–up to and including being more readily killed and less likely to receive appropriate justice–that whites are not.

        While it may in some global sense seem to say that all lives have equal value, “All Lives Matter” fails to underscore the above systemic disparities perpetuated by our socioeconomic and even governmental structures. To do so, one would have to look to Orwell’s famous line from Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This makes a somewhat clunky slogan for a movement that aims to campaign against racial inequality.


      1. I have two nephews. I give one $1. The other I give $2. I treated them unfairly. When I kill one of them for being near me, I commit murder. If his brother complains, I’m not sure my sister’s wearing a tshirt that says Aunties Matter is going to help achieve familial harmony.

        Just sayin’….


    4. She has intelligently and clearly outlined the lazy assumptions and mistakes in the t-shirt slogan, you have failed to either engage with the points or come up with a witty riposte. It is clear to me who’s making the most of their time on the planet.

      Liked by 9 people

  1. I did not even get “Blue Lives Matter” until I read your explanation. Forgot that blue often refers to police. And this is a silly political statement. Why do some people get so defensive about, Black Lives Matter? Are they trying to negate the fact that black lives (and “brown” lives, and “yellow” lives, and “red” lives) have not mattered at all throughout most of US history? Or are they just ignorant of US history? When people say, “Black lives matter,” they are NOT saying other peoples’ lives do not matter. We need to acknowledge that White Supremacy runs throughout US our history and our culture. We inherited it from our colonial history.

    Liked by 11 people

    1. After a chant of “What do we want? Dead cops!” at a Black Lives Matter protest, two NYPD officers were ambushed and murdered by a man who announced on social media that his specific motive of “They Take 1 of Ours … Lets Take 2 of Theirs”. “Blue Lives Matter” was organized as a specific and direct reaction to that pair of murders.

      It then gained substantial momentum after a July 2016 Black Lives Matter protest ended in the murder of five Dallas police officers and the injury of nine others.

      So, tell me, how many more police officers have to be murdered in close association with Black Lives Matter before it ceases to be “silly” to object to a movement that rallied for the murder of police officers? How many more bodies have to be buried before it’s okay for police to “get defensive about” a movement that chants for their deaths?

      Blue Lives do Matter, even if people would rather ignore them being snuffed out in order to comfort themselves with a simplistic narrative about good guys protesting racism.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Brinsley shot his girlfriend before he shot the cops. So I would have to classify him more as a homicidal nutjob than any kind of spokesperson for BLM.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. You thinking that Black Lives Matter means “Kill all the police” and that those actions were approved by the movement as a whole and supported by it just shows how ignorant you are, and how willing to support the default racist system.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Great piece! FWIW it’s believed the origin of the use of blue to refer to people with black skin comes to Irish from Norse/the Vikings, who are recorded as having referred to dark-skinned people the same way.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes, and there are still “Blåneger” that elderly people say about a really black skinned man.
      “Blå” is blues and “neger” is negro. And as usual, we put words together to make up new words, like Germans does.

      So yes, as black was not original a colours way back, Blue was as dark as you could get it then. There are actually some other colors that are new after the mediaeval times.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I saw shirts at this same event that said “Irish Livers Matter.” At least that’s a tiny bit original, even it is offensive to more than one group of people.

    There are some things one shouldn’t make fun of, like people wanting to be able to walk down the street or shop or drive from place to place without being killed or treated as a criminal. Irish Americans have not had to deal with that problem since the 1880s.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. It’s “blue” because most police in the US wear dark blue uniforms. Also, there is a common trope in the US that police are Irish, primarily because the Eastern seaboard cities were heavily populated by Irish immigrants during the late 1800s-early 1900s, the time when formal police departments were first organised in those cities, so many police officers were, in fact, of Irish descent.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @Gemma Seymour: I’m not sure where you got the notion that “police are Irish” is a common trope in the US. That may have been so in the New England states during the period you mention, but it is not (and has not been) nationwide. It may be a view held outside the US, however.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In the 1880s to about 1910, Irish people were treated similarly to black people in this country. “Help Wanted-No Irish Need Apply” was a common sign. One of the jobs that the Irish could get was to be a police officer. At the time, it involved walking around in the middle of the night, trying not to step on the horse apples, and trying to break up fights between some very large and nasty gangs. It was a nasty, dangerous job that didn’t pay very well.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. It didn’t rise in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement but rather as a result of increased violence and negative perceptions of the police who are ultimately people just like you, me or the guy down the street.


    1. It did, actually, and that’s how its used. There were a number of highly publicized shootings of black people (not to mention all the un-publicized), many teens and at least two unarmed children, so the Black Lives Matter movement came up and said “Please stop shooting us.”

      White people, got pissy and claimed it was inciting violence against cops and coined “Blue Lives Matter.” The only people who genuinely use Blue Lives Matter use it in opposition to Black Lives Matter.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. It certainly did arise in opposition to Black Lives Matter. The phrase didn’t exist before BLM came into being. The implicit comparison between a racial group and a profession is horseshit. Black people don’t get to take their “uniform” off at the end of the day.

      Liked by 3 people

    3. The problem with “blues lives matter” is that the reason “black lives matter”exists is because cops shoot black people and cry self-defence, even when the victim was unarmed and compliant. The success of this defence implies that a white cop’s life matters so much more than the black life that the white cop is justified in defending himself from a perceived “threat” that is no mire substantial than “I’m scared of black people”. See also Trayvon Martin, who after being stalked down several streets by a white guy tried to defend himself. His white aggressor then (successfully) claimed self-defense. Madness.

      Liked by 3 people

    4. And those police officers was paying the ultimate price for the institutionaliced racism in the force and in courts. That too many police officers of all colours have allowed or ignored for way to long.

      Each murder are a tragedy, the black and police officers. And as such the perpetrairor should be punished, which I am convicted has been properly done for the police officers but not so much for those blacks that got killed by white men and police officers.

      Yes, they very well could been good cops and one of those few that knows this. But the fact is that it is time for the good police officers to take a stand against the ones who doesn’t speed up.

      The evil are helped to succed by the silent good ones. Don’t be silent to evil.


  6. Right-Wing Asshole Headquarters: “All right, you’re not going to believe this. Them blacks are saying they matter. We’ve got to do something to counteract this.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I see a lot of people here talking about Americans as if they know us….yes, we’re the people across the lake who came here to escape you European Union bs types requiring people to conform because you said so….and except for us….everyone conforms as you require. We gave you the finger and you’ve despised us ever since. So, I’m not here to make friends….I know where we stand. Second, whites don’t care about BLM because we could care less about anyone who plays the victim as many racist blacks have for something that happened 150 years ago. Third, I read from many above that whites are privileged….and that is true to an extent, i.e. we tend to care about everyone but don’t hold the vast majority of the population as the reason we are who we are…..we just are who we are and to hell with everyone else. Lastly….anyone who still calls themselves anything-american could care less about unity since segregating themselves by origin is anything but unifying….so another reason to ignore them. And yes, I’m conservative. I think social-anything is bs, unions are useless dinosaurs of a bygone era, capitalism is king and the rest of you should/would starve if your governments werent taxing those who work to death paying taxes to support you.


    1. Let me get this straight. You think that complaining about hundreds of people of your race being slaughtered is “playing the victim”? Or that a few black people have complained about how they’ve been treated badly since slavery so therefore we shouldn’t care about them being killed?

      Let me guess, you don’t actually work, right? You’re a college student, or on “disability”, or some other nonsense that gives you plenty of time to post. But of course, you’re special, so you’re not lazy like the Black/Hispanic/Hated Group of the Week are.

      It’s amazing how few people who talk about how few people who actually “work to death” complain, and how so many people who don’t feel the need to. Like Craig Nelson said, “I was on food stamps and welfare, and did anybody help me out? No.”

      “conservatives” aren’t conservative at all. They just want the benefits for everything without having to pay or work for it. That’s not something to be proud of.

      As for “blue lives matter”, when they close down both directions of the most important highway in the state so they can have a funeral procession for two black people killed in a traffic accident, let me know. Because around here (yes, I am an American white man) that’s exactly what they did for two cops.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Hi. I just want to say that if you can tell me, as a white American, what I care about, then I can tell you that you are an over privileged underendowed (with empathy, among other essential parts) racist who has almost certainly never worked nearly as hard as all those brown people you despise. But you got born on third base and therefore get to act like you hit a homer, all the while secretly wondering whether you could possibly have succeeded if you hadn’t had such a huge advantage. And you overcompensate. And you hate yourself for it and the only way to make yourself feel better is to pretend that all those brown folks are evil anyway.

      Poor dear. You’ll never manage to acquire enough of a sense of self-worth to stop hating everyone who isn’t exactly like you (for fear that they might in some way be better than you.) And that, as your god-president would say, is ‘sad’.

      Liked by 4 people

    3. For someone who supposedly extols personal responsibility you don’t seem to have any trouble speaking for all of white america, or separating the entire country between white and everyone else (just as long as you don’t add -american on the end of it I guess).

      You don’t need to look “across the lake” for condemnation. Few in this country could stand such hypocrisy.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. Of course, Joe Scott doesn’t speak for all — or even the majority of — Americans when he utters his right-wing racist dogma. He only speaks for the right-wing racists, who are an unfortunately significant part of our country’s population, but by no means typical.

      Liked by 3 people

    5. “Several hundred years ago European countries tried to make my ancestors conform to unreasonable demands and because of that I am convinced all Europeans still despise me and mine so like, i know where we stand, boo hoo”

      “I couldnt care less about anyone that plays the victim for something that happened 150 years ago”


      Liked by 1 person

    6. Thank you all for the insightful explanations of American society today. As a Scot, I had no idea about any of these internal problems or slogans you have. BTW In Scottish gaelic, Gorm, Uaine and Glas are pretty interchangeable and mean roughly ‘sea-coloured’ Interestingly Grass is ‘gorm’


  8. SO instead of trying to literally translate “blue lives matter” a more proper translation would be more like “blue people are of value”. Which, let’s be frank, doesn’t really sound like a great slogan. Let’s see… What would be the Irish for “Smurfs rock!”?

    Also – I loved the episode in which Kirk fought the Gorm!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Unfortunately, studies show black people are less likely per encounter to be shot by the police than white people (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/surprising-new-evidence-shows-bias-in-police-use-of-force-but-not-in-shootings.html?mcubz=0), but as crime rates are so much higher in the black community, there are so many more encounters. This article is just virtue signalling by Audrey Nickel, and virtue signallers are all dreadful people. Audrey, were you there at Charlottesville with your baseball bat? Drop the hatred please, Audrey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Freagra ar Cork Irish
      Céard atá cearr leis an uisce i gCorcaigh?
      Go leor le smaointe aisteacha ón gcuid sin de tír le déanaí.
      An raibh sibh ag éisteacht le Hook nó ‘bhfuil rud ar nós FOX ag craoladh ann?
      Níl hatred ar bith in Audrey ach tá ionatsa, a mhac!
      Tú iomlán mícheart.


  10. What a very eloquent explanation of the nature of language! I congratulate you. This particular Anglophone, however, spent too much time while reading the first half of your article wondering why the shamrock was blue and not green. This is the first time I’ve seen ‘blue lives matter’ (as opposed to black and white ones) in any language.


  11. Sorry, but what would makes a person a racist if you say any other colour life matter than black; and in opposite why is a person who says black lives matter not a racist ? ( Or is this some american thing that is not supposed to make any sense outside US?)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Brilliant! Reminds me of a photo of an EDL rally that did the rounds a year or so ago. EDL stands for English Defence League, a cohort of knuckle-headed, racist thugs who like to spend their weekends marching against immigration and attaching mosques. In the picture a skinhead was attempting to abuse racial minorities by waving a placard that read, “Learn Are Language”.


  13. This post is brilliant!
    The language side of it is really interesting and I love the irony that the accidentally wrote black lives matter anyway!

    I love the way idioms work in different languages. It is also a nice surprise when they are the same, despite language barriers. I was happy to find out Japanese people say “second stomach” when they are full (but not too full for dessert) …they also have a phrase that is almost identical to killing two birds with one stone (although if you translate it directly it’s more like “one stone, two birds”.)

    I assumed Irish would be closer to English with idioms and word order, so this whole piece is fascinating.


      1. Yes, it sounds like from your post that they are really different. That makes it more of a headache to translate, but it’s soo interesting for language geeks. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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