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  5. 'An Dubh Aos'. Random questio…


'An Dubh Aos'. Random question of etymology.

Hey all,

So I was talking with my dad recently about our family history and he mentioned how, back when he was growing up in the north of Ireland, all the local families had a 'nickname'. This was to help identify families within wider surname groups (especially as a surname could be very numerous in one area). I'm aware this is quite an old gaelic tradition that seems to have survived later in some places than others.

Now a lot of the nicknames he remembers ('slack', 'sprinky', 'duke', 'whitehead', etc) are English or at least likely Anglicisations of older Irish names. What interested me was that the name that was attached to our own family was apparently Irish even as late as the 1950's/60's.

All I have to go on is my dad's approximation of my grandad's pronunciation (a peril of oral history, I guess!), which was something like 'Doo-vouse'. My grandad said he thought it stood for 'the dark people'.

Having done a bit of dictionary hopping, I've discovered this is a feasible etymology as 'Dubh Aos', accounting for the mid-ulster pronunciation. Although I would have thought it would have been the other way around 'Aos Dubh'. I guess it could be a mutation of Irish through an English speaking community.

I just wondered if anyone had any idea what this could mean as a family name. I guess it could refer to complexion, hair colour, even temper!

Thought I'd throw it out there as a genuine bit of Irish culture. Also because it's a bit of a mystery to me. :)

Go raibh míle maith agat.

April 3, 2015



Dinneen’s dictionary gives the following for dubh :

black, dark, gloomy, morose, sad, severe (it is used as an intensive prefix).

and the following for aos :

people, folk; generation; people of the same profession or craft; age, old age (poet.); aos léighinn, students; an t-aos óg, the youthful generation; aos dána, poets; aos grádha, lovers; aos céirde, artists; aos cumainn, dear friends; aos seanma, playing and singing folk; aos anuasal, an ignoble race (Kea., F. F.); aos seanma na gcláirseach, harpers (id.); urmhór aosa seanma na hÉireann, the greater part of the singing folk of Ireland (id.). Aos occurs also in tribal or territorial names, as Aos Gréine (Co. Limerick), Aos Trí Maighe (same county).

Another possibility for your grandfather’s recollection might be dubhaois, which would preserve the syllable order at the cost of pronunciation (it would be closer to “Doov-eesh”); it means “great age”, referring to the length of life. (Dubh- as a prefix can be an intensifier rather than meaning “dark-“.) Do you know if your grandfather had long-lived ancestors?

EDIT: In Ulster Irish, the ao(i) sound is /ɯː/, which is an unrounded “oo” (/u/) sound, so dubhaois could well have sounded like “Doov-oosh”.


It could also just mean dark or swarthy from the Irish' duibhe' as with Brendan ' The Dark ' Hughes or maybe from where they lived or originated from as in 'dubhais' which means black ridge or peak. This is how we get the name Divis as in Divis Mountain and Flats etc. The tradition of naming people by the colour of their hair to tell them apart from others of the same name is still alive and well in Belfast, Big Red and John Red and Máire Rua, for example. I also knew a man named Seán na Féasóige or John The Beard to distinguish him from all the other Johns and Seáns knocking about at the time.


Hey all, thanks for the replies! It's all really interesting stuff. :)

My grandad always thought the name referred to a dark complexion skin. My grandad himself had very olive/tan skin (although others in his family had pale skin, I take after the latter myself). I have no idea if there's any local geography with 'dubh' or 'dubhais' in the names. This part of my family spent most of their time in and around Moneymore in South Derry/Tyrone.

I find this whole subject fascinating as, with my family tree being entirely monolingual English speakers even as far back as the mid 1800s, it's interesting that there was still this one thread connecting the family back to their original language.

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