In a word

Humbug

You may recall how, on his visit to Stratford last April, President Michael D Higgins cleared up one Shakespearean mystery. He recalled how in Henry IV the character Pistol responds to a greeting in French with what to hearers sounded like gibberish. "He employs the phrase 'Caleno o custure me'.This apparent nonsense phrase is a phonetic rendition of the Irish 'Cailín ó cois Siúire mé', 'I am a girl from the banks of the Suir'," said the President.

Such "gibberish" has, where many English words are concerned, found their way from Irish. An example is humbug. You may remember how before Christmas I addressed it in this column in tribute to the much maligned Ebenezer Scrooge. I also announced, following lengthy research, that it was an orphan word of unknown origin but is believed to have originated in 18th-century student slang, meaning "a trick, jest, hoax, or deception". Oh dear.

A regular correspondent of this column, the redoubtable Fr James Good, was, well, surprised. Someone who dispenses chastisement in the manner of Yeats's Aristotle, who "played the taws upon the bottom of the king of kings (Alexander)", he was even more shocked that a relevant Oxford dictionary concurred with me.

Humbug he informed me, with the natural authority of a man who has suffered for his convictions, is from the Irish uaim bog, meaning soft copper. It arose from a cheap currency dumped on Ireland by would-be English betters, but which was so poor in copper, it and humbug, the word describing it, came to mean something stupid or useless.

Another such Irish word which found its way into English, he pointed out, is kibosh, from caip bháis, meaning "cap of death", a reference to the black cap once worn by a judge as he pronounced the death sentence. And there is wirra wirra, from the Irish "Ó a Mhuire, a Mhuire" (O Mary, o Mary, as the Virgin Mary is implored). Fr Good, now in his 90s and living in Cork, will be remembered as the priest exiled to Kenya more than 40 years ago because he spoke out against the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, banning artificial means of contraception. Such courage was rare. Still is. inaword@irishtimes.com