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Helen said:
"In the highlands I have also heard that they use another form - red dog 
(madra).  Seems like we are supposed to use any other word than the 'real' 
one - whatever that is?"

This is a cautionary practice (non-practitioners may call it "superstition") 
especially among sailors, because saying the true name of an unwanted 
thing -- "rat" on a boat, for example -- makes it come. That's why you don't 
whistle on a boat: it brings the wind. I've been told contemporary true 
stories by a fisherman on the Isle of Man about this. A rat can safely be 
called "long tail" or "ringie" from the rings round its tail.

Richard Marsh
Dublin