More news about nyuck

An Irishman’s Diary on readers’ attempts to solve a word puzzle

 A member of the Saint Petersburg  clown company Licedei: paid to be a “nyuck” in public.  Photograph:  Leonardo Munoz

A member of the Saint Petersburg clown company Licedei: paid to be a “nyuck” in public. Photograph: Leonardo Munoz

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:01

Sincere thanks to the many readers who have attempted to enlighten me on the meaning of the word “nyuck”. I now know that, as a noun, it refers in different places to a sly, deceitful person, a stupid person, a classroom bore, an unspecified piece of anything, or a furtively smoked cigarette.

I already knew it was a description, not necessarily pejorative, of a Newry native. But I’m also grateful to several readers who sent me links to a video of Mick Quinn from Mullaghbawn singing his epic ballad The Man Who Shot the Dog .

A real-life story of south Armagh, the song describes what happened after Quinn’s sheepdog Ned seduced a pedigree Labrador, owned by a “Newry Niuck”, leaving her with a litter of mongrels. It didn’t advance my understanding of the N-word’s etymology much, but it was a very entertaining diversion.

I also now know that “nyuck” can be a verb, especially in Ulster. As such it describes a wide range of activities, all more or less illegal. Thus Jack Magee, now in Queensland, remembers it being used in Belfast, meaning “to steal”.

Similarly, Geraldine Ambrose from Enniskillen recalls it as a verb for describing how you got into a cinema when you had no money.

On the other hand, Pilib Ó Rúnai reports its one-time popularity in Belfast’s Short Strand, not just as a noun but a noun used with humorous affect. For example, a child in severe need of washing might be called, affectionately, a “dirty nyuck”. This is similar to my usage vis-a-vis the cat.

Incidentally, a number of readers have speculated that “nyuck” might just be a polite euphemism for a certain Anglo-Saxon word with which it rhymes. But I can rule that out of our inquiries.

In the part of Monaghan where I learned to say both “nyuck” and the word it rhymes with, it was the convention to render the latter harmless by changing its initial letter to “B”. Thus, somebody might be described in semi-polite conversation as a “buckin’ eejit”. Nyuck was not required.

Although most reported nyuck usage is in the northern half of the country, there seems to be a sub-strand in Galway, wherein the word implies stupidity and nothing else.

Adrian Martyn from Athenry suggests it is in fact the Irish cnoc, meaning hill, but also serving as a derogatory term for “an especially thick person” – ie, someone who, like a hill, “cannot be moved, but must be gone around or over”. Pat Rogers agrees that, in east Galway, a nyuck is a “stupid or ineffectual person” although, by contrast, he suggests it to be a contraction of “eunoch”.

Then again, Liam Stenson, now exiled in Galway, remembers nyuck being used in his native southwest Sligo in one of the senses I know it, for a deceitful person. “A cousin of the niuc”, he adds, was the “ceólán” – a “pest, or irritant”. But he says: “Since moving to Galway 51 years ago, I have never heard either word used in conversation.”

There may be other regional variants. I’m not sure where Frank Durkin is from, but he suggests that a nyuck is just a piece of something, especially if it’s missing. Hence the Devil’s Bit mountain in Tipperary which, he says, has a “big nyuck” taken out of it.

In fact, there is so much variation that I suspect there are several different words here that just happen to have similar sounds. The Galway cnoc may be one. And I think Esler Crawford from Larne, who also remembers “nyuck” meaning to steal, is right when he suggests an Ulster Scots origin for the Antrim version.

As for the noun I use daily, I think Marie McKenna and others may be on the right track in suggesting it comes from that apparently inoffensive Irish word neach (pronounced nyack), meaning simply “person” or “thing”.

This might explain its elasticity as a term of disparagement. As Sean Hade in Brussels writes, neach can mean “a thing/item/article” or “a person/youth/upstart”. But he adds: “As is usual in Irish, it can also means its total opposite, ie nothing at all (Ní fhaca mé neach = I saw no-one/nothing).”

If this is indeed nyuck’s origin, then the meaning may be entirely in a speaker’s inflection rather than the word. And funnily enough, there is a parallel in English via another apparently innocuous phrase, “a right one”.

It would be hard to explain this to a non-English speaker, but when you refer to somebody as a “a right one”, you often mean “a wrong one”, more or less. Similarly, perhaps, when you call someone a “nyuck”, ie a “person”, the insult is all in your tone.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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