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Visualising heat flow in bamboo could help design more energy-efficient and fire-safe buildings

The building sector currently accounts for 30-40% of all carbon emissions, due to both the energy-intensive production of the materials (predominantly steel and concrete), and the energy used in heating and cooling the finished buildings. As the global population grows and becomes increasingly based in towns and cities, traditional building approaches are becoming unsustainable. 

Renewable, plant-based materials such as bamboo have huge potential for sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. Their use would dramatically reduce emissions compared to traditional materials, helping to mitigate the human impact on climate change. This approach would also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere by diverting timber away from being burnt as fuel. 

The study involved scanning cross-sections of bamboo vascular tissue, the tissue that transports fluid and nutrients within the plant. The resulting images revealed an intricate fibre structure with alternating layers of thick and thin cell walls. Peaks of thermal conductivity within the bamboo structure coincide with the thicker walls, where chains of cellulose – the basic structural component of plant cell walls – are laid down almost parallel to the plant stem. These thicker layers also give bamboo its strength and stiffness. In contrast, the thinner cell walls have lower thermal conductivity due to cellulose chains being almost at a right angle to the plant stem. 

“Nature is an amazing architect. Bamboo is structured in a really clever way,” said Darshil Shah, a researcher in Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture, who led the study. “It grows by one millimetre every ninety seconds, making it one of the fastest growing plant materials. Through the images we collected, we can see that it does this by generating a naturally cross-laminated fibre structure.”

While much research has been done on the cell structure of bamboo in relation to its mechanical properties, almost none has looked at how cell structure affects the thermal properties of the material. The amount of heating and cooling required in buildings is fundamentally related to the properties of the materials they are made from, particularly how much heat they conduct and store.

A better understanding of the thermal properties of bamboo provides insights into how to reduce the energy consumption of bamboo buildings. It also enables modelling of the way bamboo building components behave when exposed to fire, so that measures can be incorporated to make bamboo buildings safer. 

“People may worry about fire safety of bamboo buildings,” said Shah. “To address this properly we have to understand the thermal properties of the building material. Through our work we can see that heat travels along the structure-supporting thick cell wall fibres in bamboo, so if exposed to the heat of a fire the bamboo might soften more quickly in the direction of those fibres. This helps us work out how to reinforce the building appropriately.” 

At present, products such as laminated bamboo are most commonly used as flooring materials due to their hardness and durability. However, their stiffness and strength is comparable to engineered wood products, making them suitable for structural uses as well. “Cross-laminated timber is a popular choice of timber construction material. It’s made by gluing together layers of sawn timber, each at a right angle to the layer below,” said Shah. “Seeing this as a natural structure in bamboo fibres is inspiration for the development of better building products.”

The team of researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, also plans to look at what happens to heat flow in bamboo when its surface is burned and forms char. The use of scanning thermal microscopy to visualise the intricate make-up of plants could also be useful in other areas of research, such as understanding how micro-structural changes in crop stems may cause them to fall over in the fields resulting in lost harvests.

Shah is a member of the University of Cambridge’s interdisciplinary Centre for Natural Material Innovation, which aims to advance the use of timber in construction by modifying the tissue-scale properties of wood to make it more reliable under changing environmental conditions. 

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the Austrian Science Fund and the Lower Austrian Research and Education Society. 

Shah, al: “Mapping thermal conductivity across bamboo cell walls with scanning thermal microscopy.” Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-53079-4



Modified natural materials will be an essential component of a sustainable future, but first a detailed understanding of their properties is needed. The way heat flows across bamboo cell walls has been mapped using advanced scanning thermal microscopy, providing a new understanding of how variations in thermal conductivity are linked to the bamboo’s elegant structure. The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, will guide the development of more energy-efficient and fire-safe buildings, made from natural materials, in the future. 

Nature is an amazing architect. Bamboo is structured in a really clever way.Darshil ShahResearcher profile: Dr Darshil Shah


Dr Darshil Shah is a Lecturer in the Department of Architecture who loves nature. “Nature is the master creator and architect!” he says. “My research is focused on how we can better use our natural resources to produce sustainable materials, which can be used in high-end and high-performance applications.”

He studied Mechanical Engineering with Mathematics at the University of Nottingham, where a summer internship sparked his interest in real-world design.

“As an undergraduate student I had a fantastic opportunity to work on the design and manufacture of a five kilowatt wind turbine for the campus,” says Shah. “The day we installed it was so exciting. It made me realise the impact my work could have, and the importance of joining together fundamental and applied research.”

Shah’s subsequent PhD, on the low-cost manufacture of wind turbine blades for small-scale turbines, led him to think about using greener materials to avoid the blades ending up in landfill at the end of their life. He also spent time in Oxford University’s Silk Group, where he learned about natural materials.

“My time at Oxford plunged me into a whole new world. I started thinking about how our materials and built environment could be informed and inspired by the natural world – from the beautiful silk threads and webs of spiders and silkworms, to the magnificent ivory tusks of elephants,” he says.

In Cambridge, Shah is exploring how to use a wide range of virgin and waste bioresources, such as timber, bamboo and waste date palm fibres, to help create sustainable products - from buildings to boats. 

“At the fundamental level I’m exploring natural materials and structures for inspiration,” he says. “At the applied level, I’m working with industry to optimise materials for various sectors, from construction to transport.”

Shah believes that breaking boundaries between disciplines, particularly arts and humanities, and science and technology, is the only way to truly tackle some of the global challenges we face. 

“Cambridge has a rich mix of brilliant researchers, thinkers and doers,” he says. “I’ve made connections in so many different departments, and had the chance to work on a fantastic variety of projects that I don’t think would have been possible anywhere else.”

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Did the Sixties dream die in 1969?

The Sixties are generally remembered as an era of freedom, innovation and visionary experience. It’s the period, after all, that gave us The Beatles, the Summer of Love, the civil rights movement, the Woodstock Festival and the Apollo 11 Moon-Landing. Scores of autobiographies, hagiographies and cultural histories have helped to further embellish this iconic status by presenting the Sixties as the crucible of the Hippie ‘dream’, a loosely defined, youth-led attempt to establish an alternative, harmonious, post-war world. It’s a glorious story, but one that tends to end in tragedy.

At ‘the end of the Sixties’, or so the story goes, the Hippie dream ‘dies’. It’s brought to a crashing halt in the latter half of 1969 thanks to the terrible murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and ‘the Family’, the deaths attributed to the so-called ‘Zodiac Killer’ and the violence at The Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway. These events appear to hold up a dark mirror to the positive social and cultural advances of the preceding years. 

While this narrative may suit the matrix of popular culture and nostalgia that constitutes the Sixties, it bears little resemblance to the historical actuality of the 1960s. The decade did indeed usher in a wave of progressivism and it also had its shadow-side, but such negativity was not limited to its final days. If anything the darkness, so to speak, was present from the start and across the 1960s it hovered particularly close to the decade’s much-vaunted counterculture.

Assassinations, nuclear tensions, globalised conflict, civil unrest, the growth of apocalyptic religious groups: the 1960s were suffused with violence, anxiety and a sense of looming doom. A fraught and difficult decade, the 1960s left a social, cultural and economic legacy of which still exerts a powerful influence on the contemporary world. 

The Sixties, by contrast, continue to exist in a bubble of comforting misremembrance, regularly offering up another anniversary, exhibition or reunion tour. Altamont and the Manson murders were of course very real events with a terrible human cost, but they have both become part of a narrative of disaster that helps to shore up this exceptionalism. What else are we to expect from such a supernova of an era as the Sixties than a spectacular curtain fall?

Imagining the disastrous end of both the hippie ‘dream’ and the wider countercultural project is ultimately a tool of celebration. If only Manson and the Family, hadn't appeared, the unique work of the Sixties would have carried on and given rise to a beautiful future.

For those invested in the period’s nostalgia industry, framing the sixties as a kind of cultural Shangri-La, a lost world that we strive to return to is, surely, better than acknowledging the pedestrian reality of how the 1960s actually ended. That’s the real horror: the slow, inconsequential shift of a dynamic counterculture into adulthood, suburbia and ‘proper’ jobs (the 1970s, in other words). Although misleading, this vision of flower power ending in blood-soaked catastrophe retains its grip on the public imagination. Case in point, the recent release of Quentin Tarantino’s Manson-era epic Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019).

The end of the 1960s did not mark the ‘death’ of the Hippie ‘dream’. As the 1970s took hold, the countercultural impetus merely recalibrated and flowed in different directions. That has not stopped contemporary culture from obsessively revisiting and repeating the events of 1969, as if they signal some kind of terminus, yet to be fully understood.

Meanwhile, the world of the early twenty-first century continues to plough headlong into its own deeply troubling period of postmodern politics, creepingly malevolent soft power and weaponised ‘fake news’. When we live in such interesting times, why dwell on the illusions and disillusions of the 1960s and its double?

Fifty years ago protests took place across reasonably well-defined battle lines against clearly identifiable targets. Now, in today’s sphere of edited reality and policies that change as fast as they can be tweeted it's difficult to pinpoint where the source of power is, let alone how to protest against it. To navigate this type of situation it's important to understand the mechanics at play – how representations are manipulated and how agendas are embedded in seemingly innocuous narratives. This is what the 1960s can teach us.

By interrogating and unpacking the link between the decade and the era, the 1960s and the Sixties, we can observe, in process, the forces that transform recent history into modern myth. It's also useful to be shocked by how much things have changed. If you are curious, look into the details of the Manson case and think about what it meant in 1969 to ‘follow’ someone. What you find might make you spend a little less time on Twitter. 

The year 1969 is held up as the end of an era, but fifty years on are we still buying into a dangerous myth? Counterculture expert James Riley delves into the darkness of the Sixties to sort fact from psychedelic fiction.

The 1960s were suffused with violence, anxiety and a sense of looming doomJames RileyDr James RileyThe author

Dr James Riley is Fellow and College Lecturer in English at Girton College. His book, The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties was published by Icon Books in 2019.

James will be speaking at Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge on 6th November 2019.

This is an extended version of an article published in Horizons issue 39.

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Discovering a world of languages

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A Cambridge-led team seeks to revitalise languages in the UK with a series of interactive pop-up exhibitions designed to set tongues wagging.

An Alice in ‘Language Wonderland’ adventure; a ‘Lost in Translation’ untranslatable word challenge; a pool of creatures carrying words loaned to English like emoji, rucksack and graffiti; a ‘language family’ street; an ‘I Love You’ language line; and a Mr Tickle accent spotting game.

These are just some of the weird and wonderful hands-on experiences to be had in the first-of-its-kind “World of Languages” pop-up museum. Opening in Cambridge’s Grafton shopping centre for 2019’s October half-term week, the free attraction will then travel to Belfast, Edinburgh, Nottingham and London over the next five months.

An instant hit: the museum's word pool

An instant hit: the museum's word pool

The unique project, led by language experts at the University of Cambridge, aims to revitalise modern languages in the UK by showing they are fun, achievable and useful to learn.

“The UK has museums for some really niche things, including lawnmowers and dog collars. So it’s about time we had a museum of languages because they’re such a key part of who we are and how we relate to others, whether we’re at home, on holiday or in the workplace” says project leader Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett from the University of Cambridge.

“We aimed to make the museum as inviting and unstuffy as possible. Many people think learning languages is a chore. We want to show that it can and should be fun, and opens up exciting opportunities. So whether visitors are 4 or 84, we think they’ll find it really entertaining.”Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Behind the playful interactive displays – offering films, quizzes, listening challenges, word sorting games, speech bubble selfies and much more – lies a serious purpose. One of the project’s central aims is to challenge myths and prejudices including the idea that British people aren’t good at languages, and don’t need to learn them.

The UK is already a richly multilingual country but language learning is in freefall. Since 2000, entries for GCSE modern foreign languages have dropped by 44%, with French and German each suffering declines of over 60%. At undergraduate level, the situation is even worse: between 2008 and 2018, the number of modern languages undergraduates fell by 54%. This not only disadvantages individuals, it harms the UK’s standing in the world, says Ayres-Bennett.

“You can only truly see the world through other people's eyes and how other cultures work, if you know their language. More people in the world are bilingual than are not, and the idea that learning languages is too difficult or elitist is just ’cultural baggage’ which needs to be shaken off. The UK desperately needs more language skills for business, trade and diplomacy.”

Numerous studies have shown that learning a language hones analytical and problem-solving skills, cultural awareness and agility, as well as communication skills, important assets in all careers. But language learning can also help to break down barriers and has been shown to play a crucial role in social cohesion.

“Just knowing the word for hello can help to make someone feel more welcome in a community. Modest efforts can mean a huge amount,” says Ayres-Bennett.

The pop-up museum is part of a major research project called MEITS (Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Its team – linguists from the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Queen’s Belfast and Nottingham – investigate the role that languages play in society, while also seeking to inspire uptake at the grassroots and drive languages up the political agenda.

The team knows that shifting perceptions is a huge challenge, not least because there is significant inequality in access to language education in the UK. For this reason, the free museum will be popping up in accessible public spaces including shopping centres, theatres and libraries. The team is also working closely with state schools with a high proportion of Free School Meals pupils and in areas where relatively few people speak a language other than English.

World of Languages pop-up tour dates

Cambridge: ‘Escape At The Grafton’ space, The Grafton Centre, CB1 1PS (19th–27th Oct 2019)

Belfast: Accidental Theatre, 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, BT2 7DB (Public: 2nd–3rd Nov & School visits: 4-5 Nov)

Edinburgh: Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL (8th–10th Nov 2019)

Nottingham: The Gallery & Cecil Roberts Room (1st floor), Nottingham Central Library, Angel Row, NG1 6HP (2nd–7th Dec 2019)

London: The Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS (14th March 2020)

Follow the museum & share your experiences


Twitter: @meits_owri  Facebook: @meits.owri

Instagram: @popupworldoflanguages

With thanks to the pupils of Hardwick and Cambourne Community Primary School, the first visitors to the 'World of Languages' museum

With thanks to the pupils of Hardwick and Cambourne Community Primary School, the first visitors to the 'World of Languages' museum

Top Summary: 

A Cambridge-led team seeks to revitalise languages in the UK with a series of interactive pop-up exhibitions designed to set tongues wagging.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): School of Arts and HumanitiesFaculty of Modern and Medieval LanguagesLanguage Sciences Strategic InitiativePeople (our academics and staff): Wendy Ayres-BennettSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): languageEast of EnglandChildrenPublic Engagement
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Vice-Chancellor’s awards showcase University’s societal impact and public engagement

Now in their fourth year, the awards were made in four categories: collaboration, early career, established researcher/academic champion and professional service.

Winners in the collaboration category included PhD student Christopher Franck for an initiative creating a global air pollution sensor network driven by citizen science.

The early career researchers included Jessica Miller whose project has changed understandings of mental health and trauma in UK policing, informing a new wellbeing service and leading to discussion in Parliament.

Among those commended as established researchers, Vincent Gnanapragasam developed a new tool to predict an individual’s prognosis following a prostate cancer diagnosis to help make decisions about the value of treatment. In a very different field, David Trippett was recognised for bringing an ‘indecipherable’ opera back to life through international performances, broadcasts and recordings.

In the professional services category Naomi Chapman from the Polar Museum Education team developed maps to enable young and partially sighted people to explore the Arctic and Antarctic by touch.

The announcement was made at a prize ceremony held at the Old Schools on 14 October 2019.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, says: “This year’s nominations recognise impressive and inspirational individuals, and strongly reflect our mission to engage the public, tackle real-world problems and improve people’s lives. The award scheme focuses attention on the increasingly important role that institutions such as ours have to play in restoring faith in experts.”

The Vice-Chancellor’s Research Impact and Engagement Awards were established to recognise and reward outstanding achievement, innovation and creativity in devising and implementing ambitious engagement and impact plans that have the potential to create significant economic, social and cultural impact from and engagement with and for research. Each winner receives a £1,000 grant to be used for the development and delivery of engagement/impact activity or relevant training.

This year’s winners are:

Collaboration Award Emily Mitchell (Department of Earth Sciences)

Researchers and museum specialists collaborated on a museum exhibition and public programme, engaging a range of public audiences with research on the earliest fossils to illuminate the start of complex life.

Helen Strudwick (The Fitzwilliam Museum)

This collaborative project engages audiences with our pioneering research on ancient Egyptian coffin construction and decoration, through a major exhibition, ‘Pop-Up’ museum targeting underserved audiences and digital resources.

Christopher Franck (Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology)

Open-seneca is a student-led initiative creating a global low-cost mobile air pollution sensor network driven by citizen science. The aim of the initiative is to empower citizens with air pollution data to raise awareness, initiate behaviour change, and inform policy makers on environmental issues.

Early Career Award Saumya Saxena (Faculty of History)

Saumya’s research focuses on family law and gender in India. She advised the twenty-first Law Commission of India on reform of family law and worked with the Verma Commission on amendments to law relating to rape in India.

Jessica Miller (Department of Sociology)

Jessica’s project involved engaging with over 18000 police officers and staff to change the face of trauma resilience in UK policing, and inviting commitment from decision-makers to inform national policy and operational change. 

Matthew Agarwala (Bennett Institute for Public Policy)

Matthew’s research on valuing natural resources is helping in the transition to sustainable economic growth. Having been adopted by the United Nations and other bodies, his work is shaping standards for measurement.

Zoë Fritz (School of Clinical Medicine)

Zoë developed the “Recommended Summary Plan for Emergency Care and Treatment” as an alternative to the widely used but problematic ‘DNACPR’ with tremendous impact on policy, practice, guidelines and beneficiaries.

Established Researcher and Academic Champion Nicholas Thomas (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

In 2018, Nicholas co-curated the landmark exhibition 'Oceania' at the Royal Academy in London. Based on collaborative research at Cambridge, the exhibition brought a dynamic, contemporary view of the art of an extraordinary region to European audiences.

Vincent Gnanapragasam (School of Clinical Medicine)

Vincent is the Chief Investigator for PREDICT Prostate, the first individualized prognostic tool accessible to both clinicians and patients to help make unbiased informed decisions about the value of treatment for newly diagnosed prostate cancer. 

David Trippett (Faculty of Music)

An unheard opera by 19th-century composer Franz Liszt languished silently in a manuscript thought fragmentary and illegible. David’s meticulous reconstruction brought it to life, to global acclaim, through international performances, broadcasts and recordings. 

Professional Service Oliver Francis (Centre for Diet and Activity Research, and the MRC Epidemiology Unit)

Oliver’s leadership in communications has transformed the impact strategies at CEDAR and the MRC Epidemiology Unit. His innovative contributions span all aspects of the communications and impact portfolio.

Naomi Chapman (Scott Polar Research Institute)

With a local artist, Naomi developed innovative maps of the Arctic and Antarctic with which hundreds of young and partially sighted people have enjoyed a touch tour of polar research.

Twelve students, academics and professional members of staff from across the University of Cambridge have received Vice-Chancellor’s Research Impact and Engagement Awards in areas as diverse as prostate cancer, family law, museum public engagement and police mental health.

This year’s nominations recognise impressive and inspirational individuals, and strongly reflect our mission to engage the public, tackle real-world problems and improve people’s livesProfessor Stephen ToopeCandy WelzAiram Hernández and Joyce El-Khoury perform Sardanapalo at Staatskapelle Weimar

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Shakespeare’s mystery annotator identified as John Milton

It is well known that Shakespeare was a huge influence on Milton. From learning how to write nature poetry to creating charismatic villains, Milton’s debt to his forebear continues to fascinate experts. The younger poet once praised the “wonder and astonishment” that this “great heir of fame” conjured up in his readers. 

But now, Jason Scott-Warren from Cambridge’s English Faculty believes he has identified even more tangible evidence of this connection. The realisation began when Scott-Warren read an article by Professor Claire Bourne about an anonymous annotator of a Shakespeare First Folio housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department.

Bourne dated the annotator to the mid-17th century and shared images of the handwritten notes. These include suggested corrections, cross-references to other works and the addition of material such as the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. Studying these, Scott-Warren was struck by how closely they resembled known examples of Milton’s handwriting and after identifying numerous compelling similarities, he decided to share his theory in a blog post for Cambridge’s Centre for Material Texts, of which he is Director. 

Milton is known to have made similarly intelligent and assiduous annotations in other books that survive from his library, but the evidence that Scott-Warren presents is strictly palaeographical. It includes the observation that in both the First Folio and in Milton’s handwriting, the right foot of an ‘h’ misses the ground before it heads up into an ‘e’.

Even more convincingly, Scott-Warren points out that “Milton has an enlarged italic hand, sometimes rather scratchy, sometimes quite elegant, that he uses for headings and suchlike.” The researcher compares, for example, the ‘R’ in the speech-heading for ‘Romeo’ in the Folio to a remarkably similar and distinctive ‘R’ from Milton’s ‘commonplace book’, a handwritten compilation of quotes and notes from the books that he was reading between the 1630s and 1660s.

Scott-Warren offered up his theory tentatively, admitting that further work would be needed to prove it beyond doubt. But several Milton experts from around the world have already expressed their enthusiastic support and offered further evidence.

Dr William Poole from New College Oxford says: “Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks.”  

I was gathering evidence with my heart in my mouth,” Scott-Warren says. “Now, every day someone is suggesting a new similarity. I feel 100% sure, but there are still people out there who remain to be convinced.”

As well as displaying many textual annotations, the folio contains line markings which record the annotator’s lively engagement with plays including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Tempest and King Lear. Scott-Warren says: “You don’t know why he’s singled out a passage for attention, but it forces you to think your way into Milton’s head and it chimes with a lot of what goes on in his poetry. You can really see him constructing himself through Shakespeare.”

In The Tempest, the annotator highlighted the song: “Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands: / Courtsied when you have and kiss’d / The wild waves whist.” The unusual rhyme, of “kiss’d” and “whist”, is echoed in Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: “The winds with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kist.”

Scott-Warren says: “To see him marking it in the text and responding to it gives you a sense of his sensitivity and alertness to Shakespeare.” 

The First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in 1623, seven years after his death, when Milton himself was fifteen. Around 750 were printed but only 233 are known to survive. Scott-Warren is now intending to collaborate with Professor Bourne on a series of articles about the findings.

John Milton was admitted to Christ's College Cambridge in 1624, gaining his BA in 1628 and his MA in 1632.

A Cambridge literary scholar suggests that the handwriting on a Shakespeare First Folio in Philadelphia matches that of the Paradise Lost poet, John Milton.

It shows you the first-hand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to seeJason Scott-WarrenCourtesy of the Free Library of PhiladephiaThe prologue to Romeo and Juliet, transcribed on the last page of Titus Andronicus because it was omitted from the First Folio. Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadephia

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Lost Irish words rediscovered, including the word for ‘oozes pus'

If you were choosing where to live in medieval Ireland you might insist on somewhere ogach which meant ‘eggy’ or ‘abounding in eggs’, but in reference to a particularly fertile region. By contrast, you would never want to hear your cook complaining brachaid, ‘it oozes pus’. And if you were too boisterous at the dining table, you might be accused of briscugad (making something easily broken).

All three words have been brought back to life thanks to a painstaking five-year research project involving a collaboration between Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Cambridge. The team has scoured medieval manuscripts and published texts for words which have either been overlooked by earlier dictionary-makers or which have been erroneously defined.

Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Professor of Celtic and Medieval Studies at Cambridge says: “The Dictionary offers a window onto a fascinating and important past world. The project extends our understanding of the vocabulary of the time but also offers unique insights into the people who used these words. They reveal extraordinary details about everyday lives, activities, beliefs and relationships, as well as contact with speakers of other languages.”

The revised dictionary spans the development of the Irish language over a thousand years from the sixth century to the sixteenth, from the time just after the arrival of St Patrick all the way down to the era of Elizabeth I. The team has amended definitions, presented evidence to show that some words were in use much earlier than previously thought, and even deleted a few fake words. One of these is tapairis which had been taken to be some kind of medicinal substance but in effect is not a word at all, since it arose from an incorrect division of two other words literally meaning ‘grains of paradise’, the term for Guinea grains.

Lost words

The rediscovered lost words include a term for ‘becomes ignorant' – ainfisigid, based on the word for knowledge: fis. Other words have been shown to have been attested hundreds of years earlier than was previously thought, such as foclóracht meaning vocabulary. Yet, other examples emphasise that the medieval world continues to resonate. One of these is rímaire, which is used as the modern Irish word for computer (in its later form ríomhaire). 

Professor Ní Mhaonaigh explains: “In the medieval period, rímaire referred not to a machine but to a person engaged in the medieval science of computistics who performed various kinds of calculations concerning time and date, most importantly the date of Easter. So it’s a word with a long pedigree whose meaning was adapted and applied to a modern invention.”

The historical dictionary on which the electronic one is based was originally published by the Royal Irish Academy in 23 volumes between 1913 and 1976. “Advances in scholarship since the publication of the first volume had rendered parts of the dictionary obsolete or out of date,” says Greg Toner, leader of the project and Professor of Irish at Queen’s University Belfast. “Our work has enabled us to resolve many puzzles and errors and to uncover hundreds of previously unknown words.”

The online Dictionary serves up a feast of information on subjects as diverse as food, festivals, medicine, superstition, law and wildlife. One of the newly added phrases is galar na rig, literally the king's disease, a term for scrofula which is known in English as king's evil.

Leprechauns, outlaws and turkeys

One of the most globally recognisable words in the Dictionary is perhaps leipreachán. This character is now regarded as quintessentially Irish but scholars now think that leipreachán, and its earlier form lupracán, is not even a native Irish word but one derived from the Luperci, a group associated with the Roman festival of Lupercalia. This included a purification ritual involving swimming and like the Luperci, leprechauns are associated with water in what may be their first appearance in early Irish literature. According to an Old Irish tale known as ‘The Adventure of Fergus son of Léti’, leprechauns carried the sleeping Fergus out to sea. On route, he managed to capture three of them and, in return for sparing their lives, they granted him the ability to breathe underwater.

The project sheds new light on Ireland’s interactions with foreign languages, cultures and goods in the medieval period. The Dictionary points out that útluighe, meaning an outlaw, ultimately goes back to the Old Norse word útlagi, though the term was perhaps borrowed into Irish through English or Anglo-Norman. Its use appears to have been limited – the researchers have only found it once, in a thirteenth-century poem by Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe.

Another loanword in Modern Irish is turcaí (turkey) but before this was borrowed from English, this bird was known as cearc fhrancach (turkey hen) or coilech francach (turkey cock). Strictly speaking, the adjective Francach means 'French' or 'of French origin'. This usage to denote a bird native to the Americas may seem odd but in other languages, it is associated with various countries including France, for reasons which remain unclear.

Spreading the word

Professor Toner says: “A key aim of our work has been to open the Dictionary up, not only to students of the language but to researchers working in other areas such as history and archaeology, as well as to those with a general interest in medieval life.”

In a related project, the researchers have been developing educational resources for schools in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

The Dictionary launched on 30 August 2019 at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. A History of Ireland in 100 Words, drawing on 100 of the Dictionary's words and tracing how they illuminate historical changes will be published in October 2019 by the Royal Irish Academy

For more on the newly discovered words, see a piece by Dr Sharon Arbuthnot, a researcher on the project, in the Brainstorm series on National Irish Television (RTÉ).

Researchers from Cambridge and Queen’s University Belfast have identified and defined 500 Irish words, many of which had been lost, and unlocked the secrets of many other misunderstood terms. Their findings can now be freely accessed in the revised version of the online dictionary of Medieval Irish (

The Dictionary offers a window onto a fascinating and important past worldMáire Ní MhaonaighNational Library of Ireland, Manuscript G11 403a10. Image, Irish Scripts on ScreenNational Library of Ireland, Manuscript G11 403a10Funding

Work on the Dictionary has been supported by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The related project developing schools’ resources is funded by a grant from the University of Cambridge, School of Arts and Humanities Impact Fund.

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Shelley’s Peterloo poem took inspiration from the radical press, new research reveals

This is the conclusion reached by Philip Connell, a senior lecturer in Cambridge’s English Faculty, who has identified new links between the two men and their writing. His findings, first published in the Times Literary Supplement (full study in Review of English Studies, 1 September 2019), shed new light on the meaning of a poem which has become a powerful inspiration for protest movements from the Chartists to the modern Labour Party.   Connell says: “Richard Carlile was not only an important eyewitness to the massacre, he also provided one of the most radical responses to appear in the English press, by arguing that the murderous actions of the Manchester authorities justified revolutionary violence. This changes how we read The Mask of Anarchy. It brings Shelley's poem much closer to Peterloo. It also explains why Shelley urged the working people of England to 'Rise like Lions', while arguing so passionately that protest must remain peaceful.”    Until now, it has been assumed that Shelley’s principal source of information about Peterloo was Leigh Hunt’s moderate, middle-class reformist newspaper, the Examiner. But Connell has found compelling evidence to suggest that Shelley also engaged with a far more uncompromising response to the massacre which took place on St Peter’s Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819.   Connell’s research indicates that while Shelley was living in Italy in 1819, he received one or more issues of the radical periodicals, Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register and The Republican, both of which were edited by Richard Carlile in London. The most likely supplier of this material is Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock. On 21 September, Shelley wrote to Peacock: ‘I have received all the papers you sent me, & the Examiners regularly … What an infernal business this of Manchester! What is to be done? Something assuredly.’   Connell identifies close links between the Shelley–Hunt circle and Carlile, as well as circumstantial evidence that Peacock was well-placed to lay his hands on Carlile’s controversial publications. The study also suggests that Carlile and Shelley had some contact in the period before and after Peterloo. In the Republican for 24 September, Carlile printed Shelley’s Declaration of Rights, a rare single-sheet fly bill originally produced in Ireland in 1812. This is likely to have happened following some form of communication, probably involving other members of the Hunt circle in England.  

Connell argues that there are significant echoes of Carlile’s writings in the Mask of Anarchy which are at least as compelling as Shelley’s debts to Hunt’s Examiner. Most striking perhaps is the similarity between Carlile’s vision of the Home Secretary’s mask concealing ruthless bloodlust (‘you […] have thrown off your mask and set the first example of shedding blood’) and Shelley’s sinister personification: ‘I met Murder on the way – / He had a mask like Castlereagh’. Viscount Castlereagh was Leader of the House of Commons at the time and supported his Government’s repressive actions which led to cavalry charging into a crowd demanding parliamentary reform, leaving 18 people dead and 700 injured.   “Several instances of shared imagery and language suggest that Shelley drew on Carlile’s prose in his visionary reimagining of the massacre”, says Connell. “Immediately after describing Murder having ‘a mask like Castlereagh’, Shelley wrote that ‘Seven bloodhounds followed him’. This echoes Carlile’s language in articles which I believe Shelley read. Carlile published several descriptions of the Manchester Yeomanry as bloodhounds and Castlereagh and his fellow government ministers as ‘those men who could direct their bloodhounds to attack and destroy a peaceable meeting’.”   Another telling similarity, Connell argues, lies in the emphasis that both Carlile and Shelley place on women. The Times newspaper condemned the ‘female Reformers’ present at the start of the meeting on St Peter’s Field as delusional and this account found its way into Hunt’s Examiner. By contrast, Carlile praised these women. In particular, he honoured Mary Fildes, the ensign of the Manchester Reform Society, who appears prominently in his commemorative print, standing on the platform holding a flag (image attached).   In a similar vein, Shelley’s Mask gives a central role to an allegorical female figure in arresting the progress of Anarchy. He wrote of ‘a Maniac Maid, / And her name was Hope, she said: But she looked more like Despair’. She later ‘lay down in the street, / Right before the horses’ feet’, only to be saved from ‘Murder, Fraud and Anarchy’ by a quasi-divine intervention.   Despite these convergences, Shelley and Carlile took very different positions on the question of violence. Connell says: “Carlile vigorously defended violence as a legitimate response to the massacre yet while Shelley urges the ‘Men of England’ to ‘Rise like Lions’ he also betrays a deep anxiety about the possible consequences of working-class revolution. Shelley’s exposure to Carlile’s outraged militancy helps to explain his insistence on peaceful resistance.”   Reference   Connell, P., ‘A voice from over the Sea’: Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy, Peterloo, and the English Radical Press.’ The Review of English Studies (1 September 2019);

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, the most celebrated literary response to the Peterloo massacre – which has its bicentenary on 16 August – drew on accounts of the tragedy written by the radical journalist and freethinker, Richard Carlile.

This changes how we read The Mask of Anarchy. It brings Shelley's poem much closer to PeterlooPhilip ConnellManchester Library Services (public domain)The Peterloo Massacre by Richard Carlile (1819).

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