The Name – Anthroponomastics of Mac Cárthaigh

27 Mar

I will save the reader from having to look up “Anthroponomastics” and just explain that this word is the study of the names of human beings.

Irish names is what this article is about; in particular the Irish McCarty family name!  What better name is there to study! Of course this is not a question…

The noble meaning in Gaelic:  “son of the loving one”.

An appropriate name, for we McCarty’s are all kind, considerate and nice people…right?

The Translation

The McCarty family name is an Anglicized translated version of the Gaelic name of Mac Cárthaigh.  

Gaelic has five vowels (a,o,u,e,i) and twelve consonants (b,c,d,f,g,l,m,n, p,r,s,t)…and a special modifier “h” (NOT a letter). This Gaelic “h” is not pronounced! The Gaelic “h” serves as a modifier of the normal sound of the consonant. However, when combined with a consonant – it also serves to divide between two syllables.

There are different rules for how each consonant is pronounced when put with a Gaelic “h“. However we are concerned with “th” and “gh“. In the beginning of a word “th” sounds like and english “h” but in the middle of a word, it is silent or aspirated. So in the case of Mac Cárthaigh, the first “h” should be silent to aspirated. The “ai” gives us the long English “a” sound, and the “gh” is considered a slender consonant and gives us long “y” sound (ee).

What this means is that a correct translation from Gaelic to English should be:  Mac Cartay ?

The lost prefix of Mac or Mc

Some variations include Carthy, Carty or Karthy. Why?

There is always a reason why and this one involves intimidation, war, economic and political viability and oppression but not a specific law. It is NOT true that the Penal Laws specifically forbid the use of the “Mac” and “O'”  in Irish surnames. It is also not true that Statutes of Kilkenny forbid their use either. If one bothers to read them, a provision forbidding the use of the prefixes can not be found.  However the environment these laws created and the attitude of the English, towards the Irish, that created these laws made it extremely uncomfortable to live as an Irishman during these periods.  During the period of the mid 1300’s to the late1700’s dropping the prefix to sound “less Irish” garnered a small benefit.

Dropping your identity to sound less Irish to do business with the English? There are words for that. I will let you be the judge.

The Transition from MacCarty to McCarty or McCarty

If you are almost 100 years old or have an occasion to rummage through old court house records you may have noticed that some of these older directories do not have surnames beginning with Mac or Mc collated under M. They will have their own collated section under Mac usually at the end of the directory or just after the collated M contents. However, this collating practice is done less and less these days.

The reason for this collation practice is that it was once common practice to shorten Mac to Mc or Mc . The line underneath indicated the missing “a”. Even earlier two dots were used under the little c to indicate the missing “a”. These two dots over time eventually turned into a line.

Because these spelling variations was common practice, one might have a last name that was spelled McCarty by one person, MacCarty, by another and McCarty by yet another – these names had not yet been standardized and any of the spellings was acceptable. Add to this that there were usually a great deal of these Irish names, it made since to collate them differently.

Today most Irish family names have been standardized to what we see today. The odd collation practice has all but ceased and we find ourselves with a set of Mac Cárthaigh names that help us to uniquely identify our various septs but retain the historical root of  The Name.


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