When Anglophone lines get crossed

An Irishman’s Diary about home thoughts, abroad

‘If it’s a surprise party you’re planning for the Friday, they won’t understand you cancelling the event just because the intended recipient “gets wind” of it.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘If it’s a surprise party you’re planning for the Friday, they won’t understand you cancelling the event just because the intended recipient “gets wind” of it.’ Photograph: Getty Images


Further to words that mean different things here and in England (Irishman’s Diary, October 19th), another reader has e-mailed his comments on the subject while, like the first reader, requesting anonymity.

I don’t know what these people have to hide, really. But in this latest case, the correspondent tells me he’s a long-time exile in London, so I suppose he may be engaged in intelligence-gathering, or some other sensitive line of work.

Also, he says he’s been married “to the same Englishwoman” (an unnecessary detail, surely – nobody’s accusing him of bigamy, I hope) for almost 20 years. Which fact seems to be the main source of his reflections.

The other thing I can reveal is that he’s from Co Kerry. And although I’m not implying that this means he has special needs, exactly, it may be that his is a particularly exotic variety of Hiberno-English: hence the many misunderstandings he appears prone to over yonder.

Anyway, one area that causes much confusion, he says, is the Irish use of the word “couple”, as in: “I went out for a couple of pints last night.”

As most of you will know, there is a sincerely-held view in this country that a couple can be more than two, sometimes. But in England, citing a “couple of pints” last night as an excuse for a sore head this morning doesn’t win much sympathy.

Another vexed issue, the Kerryman tells me, is the Irish use of the verb “to bring”. As he says: “We bring things away, they take them.” And the misunderstanding is only exacerbated when we speak of bringing things “home”, by which we don’t necessarily mean our home.

In fact, another e-mailer has shared a related story about a friend’s aunt who also worked in London, in a nursery school. One evening, at closing time, a solitary inmate remained uncollected. So naturally, the Irishwoman offered to “bring” the child “home”. And just as naturally, the English staff were appalled at her offer, until the nuances were explained.

Back to the Kerryman in London, meanwhile, and other terms he says get lost in translation include our tendency to arrange something for, say, “next Friday” when the locals think we mean “this Friday”.

Either way, he adds, if it’s a surprise party you’re planning for the Friday, they won’t understand you cancelling the event just because the intended recipient “gets wind” of it. Over there, it seems, wind is only a mild digestive disorder.

Speaking of disorders, the condition of feeling “cat” (especially after a couple of pints) is also unrecognised in London. And he has lots more like this, before concluding cheerfully, in the old Kerry phrase: “Vive la difference”.

A word he doesn’t mention, strangely enough, is “ditch”, although I think this is one of the classic Irish-English differences. In fact, even in Ireland, what you understand by the word “ditch” may be a socio-religious identifier, a bit like the aitch/haitch question. And the fascinating aspect, to me, is that it’s just two ways of looking at the same thing.

The original ditches were created by digging trenches, as boundaries and/or irrigation. But to the English, the ditch is the trench. Whereas in Ireland, the ditch is the raised bank of earth and the hedgerow on top. (As for the trench, where I come from that’s a sheugh.)

This misunderstanding is highlighted every year at the Aintree Grand National, when several fences in, commentators will always refer to the “first open ditch”.

The Irish jockeys – and that’s most of the jockeys – might be forgiven for inferring from the phrase that the fence has a big, helpful hole in the middle. Instead, they have to jump this one too. Effectively, the local idea of a ditch just means that the fence is a long jump as well as a high one.

Misunderstanding of the Anglo-Irish ditch dichotomy, vis-a-vis an animal’s reputed jumping capacity, has probably cost horse-dealers money on occasion. But it has also infected literature.

When Patrick Kavanagh accused his native county of having “flung a ditch on my vision”, for example, he was clearly thinking of horizon-blocking hedgerows. By contrast, the “ditch” Samuel Beckett has his Godot-seeking tramps spend the night in was probably a trench, although I’m not sure.

A while ago, in an English publication, I even saw someone use the phrase “hurler in (sic) the ditch” – God knows what he meant – and thought this less a hurler than a howler. Then again, as we know, the hurler in the original phrase is essentially a non-hurler. So maybe in the ditch – English-style – is the place for him, although on it – Irish-style – is his traditional position.


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