Irishisms: A beginner’s guide to ructions, dotes, yokes, fierce eejits and mé féiners
Hiberno-English is like English, only better. This guide will help you not make a bags of it
“Gimme that yoke,” I asked my American pal, Molly. Her stare seemed to say: What yolk? What actual egg? I explained – obviously – that when Irish people use the word “yoke” out of context, we just mean “thing”. It was a reminder that we speak two very different versions of English. And it set in motion The Little Book of Irishisms.
The Little Book of Irishisms is for anyone who wants to understand the Irish – an ambitious goal but, as we say, God loves a trier. It’s also for people who want to sound Irish even just for St Patrick’s Day. Also ambitious. But God still loves a trier.
My top 20 Irishisms
1. Bockety does such a better job than wobbly or unsteady. “No wonder that table’s bockety; sure, isn’t one leg shorter?” You can hear the unsteadiness in the word. Bockety comes from bacach, the Irish for lame.
2. Dote A dote is much more than a sweetheart. “Isn’t Una the biggest dote?” is the ultimate compliment – especially if your name is Una. It’s hard to find a word that encapsulates all that “dote” does. It implies fondness, admiration and affection in just four letters. We would never call someone a dote if we didn’t mean it.
3. Banjaxed is not just broken, it’s beyond repair. There is no coming back from banjaxed. Unless a person is banjaxed. It that case, there’s a good chance that they will recover from their hangover or state of absolute exhaustion. It just might not feel like it at the time.
4. Ructions gets my vote over “uproar”, “quarrelsome outbreak” or “noisy disturbance”. Not only does it sound like what it’s describing, it originated at Ireland’s 1798 rebellion.
5. Holy Show Though no one wants to be told that they’re making a “holy show” of themselves, it’s marginally better than being told that they’re a flat-out embarrassment. At least it’s funny. Or to me it is. I thought that “holy show” was dying out. My Millennial daughter reassures me that it’s making a comeback.
6. Foostering If there is a better way to reduce “fussing around in an agitated way and not getting anywhere” into one descriptive, onomatopoeic word I’d like to hear it.
7. Making A Bags Of It Our way of telling someone they’re failing spectacularly takes the edge off. A little.
8. Notions “The notions on that one!” Or just: “Notions!” In Ireland, one of the worst things you could have is notions about yourself. Chances are, someone will feel it their duty to “take you down a peg or two” so you don’t get a “swelled head.”
9. Craic If there was one word to sum us up as a people, it might well be “craic”. The fact that we use it so ubiquitously to mean either news or fun highlights just how important both are to us. We love our craic. There is some debate about the spelling. “Craic”, it seems, was originally spelt “crack”. I know which version I like. Note to non-nationals: craic never means drugs.
10. Mortaller This favourite of my granny’s means “mortal sin”. She used it for anything mildly offensive. I love how a word can bring a person back.
11.Smithereens If something is smashed to smithereens it’s unlikely to survive. Smithereens is derived from the Irish word “smidiríní” meaning little bits.
12. Segotia “Ah, me auld segotia.” Though it’s often said tongue in cheek, there is genuine affection in this way of calling someone “Pal”.
13. Pass-remarkable To deem someone verbally judgmental is dangerous territory given the irony of passing a remark on someone else’s pass-remarkableness.
14. Begrudgery What other nation reduces to a word the concept of resenting someone their success? Begrudgery is a particularly Irish trait and, while I’m not a fan, I do love the word itself. I also love our innate fear of appearing sycophantic.
15. Mé Féiner This term for someone who is out only for themselves comes from the Irish term, “mé féin”, meaning “myself”. A mé féiner is not something you want to be in Ireland. We particularly frown upon those who don’t “stand their round” in a pub.
16. Yoke Could this little word for “thing” cause any more confusion to non-Irish people? We say it without thinking – often that’s the point – we couldn’t be bothered trying to find of the name of a word so we just use “yoke”. Calling someone a “mad yoke” is the ultimate compliment.
17. Yerra “Yerra, go on, so.” There is no need for “yerra” at the start of a sentence, especially as it means absolutely nothing. But, yerra, why not throw it in anyway?
18. Doing a line “Paddy is doing a line with Mary.” This alternative for “dating” makes me nostalgic for times gone by when it was used more. If Paddy and Mary were doing a strong line, things were getting serious.
19. Your man/Your woman When we don’t know – or can’t be bothered thinking of – someone’s name, this is our go-to. For obvious reasons, it’s another recipe for confusion.
20. Giving out. In Ireland, this is much more likely to mean complaining (or reprimanding) than distributing eg “He never stops giving out about the weather.” It comes from the Irish: “tabhair amach” – to give out. Like all the above words, I love it because it’s just so typically Irish.
In addition to our sayings, The Little Book of Irishisms includes tricks to Irishify sentences, like putting “fierce” in front of a noun and “altogether” after it eg “He’s a fierce eejit, altogether.” It outlines things that people think we say but we never actually do. “May the road rise with you,” is something that’s only said in the Irish language, never in English. In the book you’ll find our many words for rain, drunk and mother. And much more.
The Little Book of Irishisms: Know the Irish through our Words, by Aimee Alexander, is out now. A free sample is available here. Aimee Alexander is the pen-name of Irish author Denise Deegan.