The etymology of 'cennétig': an historical perspective.

Copyright Iain Kennedy June 27th 2012

Although several Irish language scholars handed down etymologies for the cennétig/Kennedy name in the early twentieth century, they were beaten to it by Dr. Alexander MacBain. He was a native Scottish Gaelic speaker from the Badenoch district of Invernessshire. His 1895 lecture to Comunn Gáidhlig Inbhir Nis 'The old Gaelic system of personal names', included in Transactions vol. XX, included the following:

Cenn-, head. Cenn-éitig, "ugly head" (whence Kennedy)

In the following decade three Irish language scholars were at work on the same subject matter. In Co. Limerick the Rev. Patrick Woulfe was already at work compiling his research on the correct Irish spellings and meanings of surnames, later to appear in his landmark work Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall. He can be seen as a bilingual Irish/English speaker in the 1911 Kilmallock census from where he wrote the preface to his book.

Just 40km to the north, an English farmer originally named Edgeworth Lysaght was at work on his farm at Raheen, Co. Clare - just 10km away from the claimed ancestral home of the Kennedys at Killaloe. At this stage Lysaght was still learning to speak Irish and so didn't even record himself as an Irish speaker on his 1911 census return but as Edward MacLysaght he would later become famous as a genealogist and heraldist.

Whatever the modern language skills of the above two, at this time they were unlikely to have the knowledge of Old and Middle Irish possessed by Hamburg scholar Kuno Meyer, who at the same time was working on 'Contributions to Irish Lexicography' and (with Whitley Stokes) 'Archiv fur Celtische Lexicographie'. The first of these was essentially the beginning of an Irish language dictionary and covered the letters A-C (and part of 'D'). Meyer took over production of the dictionary project in 1907 from his main academic base in Liverpool.

Woulfe and Meyer first published their remarks on the name Kennedy almost simultaneously in 1906. Woulfe added this important caveat about the state of knowledge of Old and Middle Irish:

"in the case of Irish names the task is rendered well nigh impossible for want of a dictionary of Old and Middle Irish. To deal adequately with this portion of the work would require another volume as large as the present, but it cannot be satisfactorily undertaken until the publication of the Royal Irish Academy dictionary is complete"

He gave this entry:

'descendant of Cinneidig (helmeted-head)'

Whilst Meyer said this, citing an example from the Book of Leinster:

cend-étig ugly-headed mac Cendétig LL. 150 b 30

The long gap between the surname works of Woulfe and MacLysaght was filled by the emergence of the crucial sections of the RIA Dictionary and by Scot George F. Black's book on surnames. The letters of the RIA dictionary emerged in a rather haphazard order: letter 'E' which is the critical one for the compound Kennedy name with its comparative entries for 'étig' and 'éidigthe' was published in 1932 but 'C' containing the entry for 'cenn' was deferred until 1968 since the letter had already been covered by Meyer. Curiously though, by then the RIA elected to drop Meyer's 'ugly head' etymology reference, merely noting the common use of cennétig as a name (it is said President Kennedy wasn't gripped to have the moniker 'ugly head'!).

George F. Black spent over 30 years working in the New York public library and his 1945 work 'Surnames of Scotland' is a tour de force even though he was probably not a Gaelic scholar himself. He was however the only author of the three to cite a source for his Kennedy etymology:

'The modern G. form of the name is Ceannaideach, Ir. Cinneididh, from earlier Cinneide or Cinneidigh, Mid. Ir. Cendetig (Book of Leinster), literally 'ugly headed' (Kuno Meyer) or 'grim headed' (Watson). cf the Gaelic name of Loch Etive, Loch Eitigh, 'ugly, horrid loch'. '

It is curious that Black doesn't credit the etymology back to MacBain rather than Meyer since Black quotes from the MacBain essay when discussing the Kennedy name, specifically when discussing their Gaelic alias MacUalraig (see Black sub 'MacWalrick').

MacLysaght damned both his predecessors with faint praise, accusing Black of relying on Woulfe 'without exception' for Irish surnames - strange since Black clearly did nothing of the sort for the Kennedy entry. But by citing Black as a source there can be little doubt that he would have examined the Kennedy entry with its Kuno Meyer etymology and so it is unsurprising that he followed the derivation (but without being specific about his source):

'ceann head, eidigh ugly'

Since the time of Black and MacLysaght almost all authors and scholars have followed the MacBain/Meyer etymology rather than Woulfe. It was this derivation that was given by Professor Roibeard O Maolalaigh at his talk on Gaelic names at the POMS launch in 2010.

A major academic project is underway to explain all the common surnames in the UK including significant Irish ones. The project is led by Professor Richard Coates at the Bristol Centre of Linguistics at UWE and as well as utilising experts on Irish names will be taking contributions from organisations including the Guild of One-Name Studies. Whether or not this database can be more definitive than its printed predecessors remains to be seen but I am hopeful and planning to contribute.


Black, George F. Surnames of Scotland. New York, 1945.

MacBain, Alexander. The old Gaelic system of personal names; Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness XX, 1896.

MacLysaght, Edward. Surnames of Ireland. Blackrock, 1969.

Meyer, Kuno. Contributions to Irish lexicography, A-C. 1906.

National Library of Ireland. Bibliography of Irish philology and of printed Irish literature. Dublin, 1913.

Ní Dheirg, Íosold. Vade Mecum na Gaeilge: a guide to sources of information on the Irish language. Dublin, 2006.

Ó Luing, Sean. Kuno Meyer, a biography. Dublin, 1991.

Royal Irish Academy. Dictionary of the Irish language based mainly on Old and Middle Irish materials. 'E', Dublin 1932; 'C', Dublin 1968.

Woulfe, Patrick. Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall. Dublin, 1906.