Last word for ‘Irish Times’ columnist Diarmaid Ó Muirithe

‘Words We Use’ column has explored a rich linguistic heritage

Diarmaid Ó Muirithe: his “Words We Use” column has been running in the newspaper for the past 22 years.  Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Diarmaid Ó Muirithe: his “Words We Use” column has been running in the newspaper for the past 22 years. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


Should I be worried if my daughter is horbgorbling? When is Hallantide? How might I get out of a lingle? And why is a blucher in the orchids so unbelievably sore?

For lexicographer Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, these obsolete, comic-sounding words and sayings are a rich source of cultural memory.

His “Words We Use” column has been running in The Irish Times for the past 22 years and is collected in a series of books.

Unfortunately, today’s offering is to be his last.

His column first ran in 1991, when then editor Conor Brady asked Ó Muirithe, a broadcaster and University College Dublin academic, to submit “a few pieces” to see if readers might be interested.

Approximately 1,200 columns later, his colourful etymologies still attract a devoted following but he has decided to lay down his pen.

“Conor’s hunch was right. People in Ireland are fascinated by words,” he said.

“The English we speak in Ireland has been influenced by Latin, Old Norse, Norman French, Scots, the English dialects and, of course, Irish. So the words we use in Ireland reflect the social history of the island. It is an extraordinarily rich language.”

Many will be familiar with the word “mitch”, to play truant, but Ó Muirithe reminds us that it was a word Shakespeare used. Among the thousands of words he has glossed are “scaltee”, a whisky-infused soup; “bansho”, a lively or sporting woman; the “pooka”, a mischievous and dangerous supernatural being; “slabber”, excessive talk or loud guff; “firkle”, a low or contemptible person; “mot”, Dublin slang for a girlfriend; and “pet”, originally an Old Irish word that the English borrowed.

The column has always attracted many letters and emails, and his correspondents have included writer William Trevor, actors Joanna Lumley and the late Peter O’Toole, statesman TK Whitaker, racehorse trainer Jim Bolger, broadcaster Terry Wogan and fellow lexicographers Terry Dolan and the late Richard Wall.

Former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams enjoyed the column so much he commissioned Ó Muirithe to write a similar piece for his magazine The Oldie. Seamus Heaney was devoted to his friend’s work on words and referred to Ó Muirithe as the “keeper of Ireland’s word-hoard”.

“I must not forget to thank all those who took the trouble to send me words over the years, and the good people who collected words for local history journals and parish annuals,” Ó Muirithe said.

He signs off his column today with a muse on the word “pad”. Though likely to spend the next few years attached to the letter i, the word was once, depending on the dialect, a type of saddle; a small pack or bundle; dried cowdung; and the foot of an animal, especially a fox’s foot.

Ó Muirithe recounts finding a small volume in a Cheltenham bookshop after attending a recent Gold Cup race meeting which had the following passage: “That sticky state of soil which on ploughed lands invariably follows a frost, and in a lesser degree affects grass, causing a fox to take his pad scent on with him.”

If words like “manable”, meaning a girl of marriageable age, and “adamite”, a person who appears nude in public, will struggle to live again, others like “discombobulate” seem to be enjoying a mini-revival.

Loan words
The publisher’s note on the jacket of Ó Muirithe’s latest collection, The Last Word, suggests that the English language is more susceptible to adopting new words – drawing as it does on the vast stores of loan words. As a result, dialects tend to drift apart at a faster rate.

Some linguists believe that – at the current rate of change – British and American English could become mutually incomprehensible within a few centuries.

For wordsmiths like Ó Muirithe, one suspects, this process cannot happen fast enough.