There’s a bit of irony in the fact that we use artwork depicting leprechauns to celebrate the feast day of a saint who brought Christianity to Ireland, but…you know. Nothing says “Irish” like St. Pat, shamrocks, and leprechauns, so I thought it would be fun to look up the word as we draw near to St. Patrick’s Day, when so many Americans like to honor their Irish roots.

Leprechaun has various spellings in English, and we all have an image of a cute-if-mischievous little green-clad fairie when we think of them…much like Lucky of Lucky Charms, I daresay. But where does the word come from?

The word comes from the Old Irish luchorpán, which, in turn, is built of two root words: , meaning “small,” and corp, meaning “body.” So our idea of leprechauns being little tiny creatures is spot on. There’s some speculation as to whether the Irish luchorpan are also related to the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was a pastoral festival celebrating the she-wolf who supposedly raised the founders of Rome…and it was a raucous festival. Linked to fertility and the warding off of evil, this festival could get, ahem, out of hand. It’s possible that when Romans encountered the Irish and their stories, they deemed leprechauns to be “little Lupercali.” Though Irish folklore usually denotes leprechauns as being solitary creatures, so that similarity in spelling could be purely coincidental.

While we’re talking about irony, though, it’s a bit ironic that leprechauns have, in modern times, come to be such an icon for things Irish…because they’re actually rarely noted in older folklore. They’re usually described as tiny old men wearing a hat and coat, often making shoes or guarding gold, and always making trouble. Like most Irish fairy lore, these little guys are mischievous and especially fond of practical jokes.

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