Mary, Mary, not contrary

An Irishman’s Diary about national speech patterns

‘I suggest that if Mary O’Rourke deserves censure for anything, it was for giving a straightforward, positive answer to the question, which is not the Irish way.’ Photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill

‘I suggest that if Mary O’Rourke deserves censure for anything, it was for giving a straightforward, positive answer to the question, which is not the Irish way.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill


A reader was giving out in an e-mail recently about the spread in Ireland of what he considered an ungrammatical Americanism – the habit, when people are asked how they are now, of saying “I’m good”. He was especially annoyed to hear it in a radio interview from a former minister for education, Mary O’Rourke, who should have known better, or so he thought.

In fact, contrary to what the e-mailer believed, there’s nothing ungrammatical about saying “I’m good”. I won’t go into details, unless readers insist. But in the meantime, I suggest that if Mary O’Rourke deserves censure for anything, it was for giving a straightforward, positive answer to the question, which is not the Irish way.

No indeed. The correct procedure for asserting your well-being in this country, as any 10-year-old could have told her, is to use the negative of opposite.

Thus, instead of saying “I’m good”, Mrs O’Rourke should have replied: “I’m not bad.” Or to be on the safe side – since saying “I’m not bad” might be considered boastful by some listeners – she could have gone further than mere opposites and said, “I’m not too bad”. That’s the form I generally use myself.

I have a theory that the reluctance to say a simple Yes to anything in Ireland has been a factor in the successive referendum defeats suffered by Governments in recent years. It’s not that people are against the proposals, often (as the re-run polls show).

It’s just that most of us were brought up not to give a straightforward Yes to anything, even the offer of a cup of tea. My suggestion is that, in future referendums, “I wouldn’t say no” should be added as an option on the ballot paper. That, I believe, would have secured the abolition of the Seanad.

Assertion by negative of opposite is not a recent phenomenon. On the contrary, in his 1911 book, English and How We Speak it in Ireland, PW Joyce identified it as one of the keynotes of Hiberno-English even then.

The examples he gave included the custom – still popular today – of suggesting that people are old by pointing how how young they’re not. Typically, this involves noting that it wasn’t “today or yesterday” someone was born; or in Joyce’s even more damning example – also still used – suggesting that the person lacks not just youth, but feathers, eg: “He’s no spring chicken”.

The other main area of negatived opposites Joyce mentioned was the custom, rather than calling something “good”, of suggesting it was “no harm”. The example he gave was a woman saying: “You must be hungry now, Tom, and this little rasher will do you no harm”.

But again, I would argue that “will” sounds a little too positive to be fully authentic. After all, the rasher could be well past its sell-by date (and we known much more about the harmful properties of bacon now than they did in 1911). So instead, I suggest that the classic Irish usage is to add the conditional mood to the assertion by opposite: thereby suggesting only that the rasher, or whatever, “might be no harm”.

Not surprisingly, this approach is especially popular in politics. In fact, I googled the phrase “might be no harm” just now. And five of the first 10 results were from Oireachtas debates, ranging chronologically from 1959 to last April.

The US writer and language scholar HL Mencken once argued that a similar (although ungrammatical) construction, the double negative, was the cornerstone of American English. He considered it such a national characteristic that, in tribute, he rewrote the Declaration of Independence in slang, using the double negative wherever possible, eg:

“When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody . . .”

I’m not sure the 1916 Proclamation would lend itself so readily to assertion by negative of opposite. Having said which, I can just about hear Padraig Pearse declaring that Ireland, while she wouldn’t say no to a bit of help from her gallant allies, and while some assistance from her exiled children in America would be no harm either, would not be relying on the strength of others in the first instance, but would instead strike in full confidence that an armed uprising might not be a complete disaster.

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