What’s in a name? Better not ask Cuil

Seeing as how new search engine Cuil.com is, well, a search engine, its founders might have known that people could easily check online the company’s claim that the word “cuil” means “knowledge” in Irish. Because, in fact, it doesn’t.

Members of an online Irish language forum have been discussing the word and the company’s claims of its definition. They say the word is most often translated to mean “corner” or “nook,” but has sometimes been used for “hazel,” as in the nut.

An online Irish language dictionary defines cúil as “rear.” Another uses cuil to describe various kinds of flies. So while the word, or versions of it with and without accent marks, can mean a few different things, most Irish language enthusiasts say it doesn’t mean anything like knowledge, despite Cuil.com’s claims.

“Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge. For knowledge, ask Cuil,” the company, founded by ex-Googlers, explains on its Web site. The site, and a company spokesman, further explain that the word is used to describe knowledge based on an old Irish legend of the famous Finn MacCuill (sometimes the name is spelled Fionn Mac Cumhail, or better yet, MacCool). Finn, the legend goes, tasted a salmon that had eaten a hazelnut that had dropped into the fountain of knowledge and then he himself gained knowledge. Cuil sometimes means “hazel,” the company says, and based on the legend, it is also sometimes used to mean knowledge.

That explanation is new to Foras na Gaeilge, the group that is essentially the official keeper of the Irish language, responsible for promoting use of the language as well as developing dictionaries and new terminologies. “I am unaware myself of the meaning ‘knowledge’ being with the word ‘cuil’ in Irish,” Stiofán Ó Deoráin, an official on Foras na Gaeilge’s terminology committee, said via e-mail.

He did caution that accents can make a big difference in Irish. In fact, cuil should have an accent on the “u” if it is to be pronounced “cool,” like the company says it should. Cuil, without an accent, should be pronounced like “quill,” Ó Deoráin said. His point was that the accent, in addition to changing the pronunciations, can change the meaning of a word.

Still, people on the Irish language forum couldn’t figure anything close to cuil meaning knowledge. They discuss meanings for “coll” and “cul,” neither of which mean anything similar to knowledge.

“Too bad they didn’t come to us first!” wrote a forum participant identified as Redwolf.

Cuil.com may have been better off by simply being accurate—it could say that the name was inspired by the famous Finn MacCuill, representing his knowledge. In fact, the company was once called Cuill, but it recently dropped the second “L,” so that explanation makes sense and holds water.

Maybe Cuil’s founders tried to find an Irish dictionary using their site and couldn’t. Searching on Cuil.com for “Irish English dictionary” fails to turn up a link to such a dictionary in at least the first six pages of results.

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