Useful Gaelic word: cian

William Hague, Rùnaire Cèin <em>Picture: US Department of State</em>
William Hague, Rùnaire Cèin Picture: US Department of State
cian – age/distance

Listen to the pronunciation guide

Cian is one of these words hardly ever used in modern Gaelic on its own with its original meaning, but which is used as part of other bigger words or in set expressions. Cian means “long distance” in classical Gaelic. It then came to be used in certain phrases such as bho chian nan cian, which literally means “from extremely long distance of the long distances”, but came to mean “a really long time ago”, or “the beginning of time” etc.

Bho na ciantan, which literally means “from the long and far off distances”, came also to mean “a long long time ago”. Gaelic has grammatical cases which change both the spelling and the pronunciation of words. The Gaelic for “of a long distance”, what grammarians would refer to as the genitive case of the word, is cèin – sometimes spelt céin, especially in older books.

Cèin means “foreign” in modern Gaelic, but usually of a country and not of a person. The Gaelic title of the Foreign Office is Oifis nan Dùthchannan Cèin, and the Foreign Secretary is Rùnaire nan Dùthchannan Cèin, or Rùnaire Cèin for short. We might say of a friend who works abroad: tha e ag obair ann an tìrean cèin, “he works in far-off (foreign) countries”.

Cian is also found in the word cianalas, which means homesickness or nostalgia. There is a whole class of Gaelic poetry, written by Gaels who went to the cities of the Central Belt or to the likes of Canada or Australia, called Bàrdachd Cianalais, or Homesickness Poetry.

Cianail is an adjective related to cian. This word varies a lot in meaning according to context. Its most common meaning is “melancholy” or “depressed”. “I’m feeling really down” is tha mi a’ faireachdainn cianail. However, cianail is also used to mean “very much”, especially in Uist and Argyll. We might say: tha e cianail fhèin fliuch an diugh, meaning “it’s really really wet today”.

The word sometimes has a slang meaning of “unhinged”, as in outrageously funny. One might say ‘S e duine cianail a tha sin: “that guy is totally manic”.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day