Every so often, a word crops up on HH that has such a ridiculously precise meaning that it looks made up, and has such a ridiculously unlikely spelling that—well, it looks made up. And today, that word is quaaltagh: the first person you meet on New Year’s Day morning.
The reason quaaltagh looks like such a peculiar word is that it comes from Manx, the ancient Celtic-origin language spoken on the Isle of Man. The Celtic languages—Manx included, as well as the likes of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish and Scots Gaelic—are known for their often fairly idiosyncratic spellings (case and point: this), and quaaltagh is no exception. So how did such a bizarre-looking and bizarrely-defined word come about?
Well, at the root of quaaltagh is the Manx word quaail, meaning “to meet” or “to assemble”; despite appearances, the name of the Irish parliament,, Dáil Éireann, is an etymological cousin. The –agh ending, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, is used in Manx to form “nouns expressing belonging”, with an extra T thrown in to the mix perhaps with a nod to an ancient Irish word, comaltae, meaning “companion” or “foster-brother” (which makes the modern Irish word comhaltacht, meaning “fellowship”, another distant relative).
In this sense, back in its original Manx the word quaaltagh originally referred to a group or assembly of people—and in particular, a group who would get together at Christmas or New Year to go carolling or gambolling from door-to-door:
A company of young lads or men, generally went in old times on what they termed the Qualtagh, at Christmas or New Year’s Day to the house of their more wealthy neighbours.
Archibald Cregeen, A Dictionary of the Manks Language (1835)
That definition goes on to explain that the quaaltagh, or group of festive entertainers, would typically go on to sing or recite a traditional Manx verse, Ollick ghennal erriu as bleïn feer vie (“A merry Christmas on ye, and a very good year”), after which “they were then invited in to partake of the best that the house could afford.” Sounds like a pretty good deal, all told.
But as they entered the house they had totally just gatecrashed, one more local tradition came to bear: the first person across the threshold had to be of a dark complexion. Fair-haired guys—and girls of any complexion, for that matter—were strictly off limits:
On these occasions, a person of dark complexion always enters first, as a light-haired male or female is deemed unlucky to be a first-foot or quaaltagh on New Year’s Morning.
John Brand, Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Britain (1873)
Precisely why the first person to enter your house needed to be dark-haired or dark-complexioned is a mystery. But it’s this tradition—namely, one of the quaaltagh entertainers being a New Year “first-footer”—that eventually led to a slight change in the word’s meaning. By the mid-nineteenth century, quaaltagh was being used more loosely to mean “the first person you see, or the first person to cross your threshold” on the morning of some notable day of the year. And it’s that word that ended up being borrowed into our dictionaries, and eventually saw in the New Year on HH.