Up to 90: Ireland in our favourite words and phrases
From leprechauns, langers and eejits to boycotts, donnybrooks and Tories
A history of Ireland in our favourite words: 22 – leprechaun. Their place in Irish folklore was solidified by the 1959 Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People
Which words did the Irish invent for our own use, and which ones travelled around the globe? From words emerging from the Irish language via Hiberno-English classics to unexpected words coined by Irish people, this history of Ireland in 90 words covers everything from anatomy and gambling to avocados.
From the Irish “síbín”, this is the first of many words in this list related to general divilment and rúla búla. Perhaps nowhere was the concept of the shebeen more embraced than in South African townships, where they are an important part of the social and cultural landscape.
The acronym for “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented” can now refer to any political or legal wrangling. Conor Cruise O’Brien coined it as his pithy take on Charlie Haughey’s response to the discovery of the murderer Malcolm Macarthur in the attorney general’s home in 1982.
Apparently still the default Irish disposition when greeted with another’s success and happiness. Feck them anyway. The Middle English word “bigrucchen” meant “to grumble about”; the Irish made “begrudge” a noun.
Eighteenth- and 19th-century Scottish and English schoolboy slang (“sapskull”, “saphead”) that the Irish took and shortened. Internet slang now occasionally reinterprets it as the acronym for “sad and pathetic”.
“Craic” journeyed from Middle English (“crak”) via Shakespeare to 18th-century Scotland (both crack) and was then adopted into Hiberno-English in the mid-20th century and given its Gaelic spelling. A disposition, a state of being, a sin to not be any, the craic – like many quintessentially Irish things, from St Patrick to chippers – isn’t Irish at all but is very much our own.
6: Mot or moth
From the Irish “maith”, meaning “good” (but also “well” and “like”), the term for someone’s girlfriend. The word for yer burd, as it were.
A casual Irish word for “mouth” (the toast “gob fliuch”, for example); also used for “beak”.
This almost certainly comes from a twist on the surname Hoolihan. In the 1890s the English comic paper Nuggets featured an Irish immigrant family called the Hooligans, depicted in a typically pejorative way.
The illegal period of drinking in a closed pub after hours that Saoirse Ronan blew the cover on when she tried to explain the concept to Jimmy Fallon last year.
10: You dig?
The jazz and beat slang about being hip to the groove comes from the Irish “tuig” – or, more accurately, “dtuig”, as in “an dtuigeann tú?”; the “d” is an eclipsis, or urú, before the “t” of “tuigeann” (“understand”). Ya get me?
An old term of affection, from “a chuisle mo chroí” (“pulse of my heart”). Awww.
12: Béal bocht
An Béal Bocht, the novel that Brian O’Nolan published in 1941 as Myles na gCopaleen, parodied the miserylit of Peig and An t-Oileánach, but “to put on the poor mouth” was an expression before na gCopaleen also parodied the title of An Béal Beo, Tomás Ó Máille’s 1936 collection of Irish words and phrases.
According to Condé Nast Traveler’s article “How not to look like a tourist at an Irish pub”, “If you go out in a group with a bunch of Irish people, watch for your companions buying rounds. It’s common here for people to buy a round for the group, then the next round is on the next person.” They left out the social ostracisation and lifelong character assassination that can follow for those who don’t get the round in.
A shortening of “traditional”; an entire music scene.
Possibly originating from the Irish “póca”, as in your pocket, or what’s in it.
From Capt Charles Boycott, agent for the absentee Mayo landlord Lord Erne during the Land War (1878-1909). Charles Stewart Parnell, as president of the Irish National Land League, kicked it off by urging people to ostracise anyone who attempted to take the farms of evicted tenants. Boycott became one of the first victims when he tried to evict tenants after they demanded a decent rent decrease following a poor harvest at Lough Mask near Ballinrobe. Stinger.
This term, meaning a very public quarrel, or “brawl”, isn’t exactly common in Ireland, but it crops up in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and North America. It emerged from the notoriously disorderly Donnybrook Fair, which began in the 13th century and ran for 500 years, and itself is derived from Domhnach Broc, or Saint Broc’s Church. (In place names “Domhnach” means “Church”. It also means “Sunday” – or, more accurately given its origins in the Latin “dies Dominica”, “the Lord’s Day”.)
The name for the peaty wetland found across Ireland is the Irish for “soft”.
The pejorative Hiberno-English term that urban sophisticates use to describe their rural cousins. But where does it come from? Many have suggested “cúl an tí”, as in the “back of the house”: down the country you enter through the back door rather than the front; or, as servants, you entered the back door of your bosses’ homes. Another origin could be from the Co Mayo town of Kiltimagh, or Coillte Mach, with “culchie” emerging from the Irish word “coillte”, or “woods”. Either way, it only really became popular to describe people from the country in the 1960s, when Dubliners needed something to counter . . .
Those east-coast Union Jack-waving eejits #DublinForSam.
Long before Gucci was designing shoes, this basic footwear made from hide was worn in Ireland, and was so commonplace it needed only to be called “bróg”, or shoe.
The earliest known reference to a leprechaun is in a medieval story about the king of Ulster being kidnapped by three of the wily sprites and dragged into the sea. Sound. Although leprechauns appear in little Irish mythology, their international reputation as being intrinsic to Irish folklore was solidified by the 1959 Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People – and, of course, by Jennifer Aniston’s 1993 movie debut, in the horror film Leprechaun, tag line “Your luck just ran out.”
A term originating from the name of the Baluba tribe, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mistaking Irish United Nations peacekeeping troops for European mercenaries, some of its members launched an ambush and killed nine Irish soldiers at Niemba, in Katanga Province, in 1960.
From “sluagh-ghairm”, the call of a crowd (“sluagh” is now mostly “slua”), as in a battle cry. So “slogan” emerged from the battle cries of a clan.
Oddly enough, the common term for a member of the British Conservative Party comes from the Irish “tóraidhe”, referring to a bandit. In the late 17th century Whigs were those who didn’t want James, duke of York, to succeed Charles II, as he was Catholic. The duke’s sympathisers became known as Tories.
From “bean sídhe”, woman of the fairies / supernatural / elves, and an Irish contribution to campfire ghost stories.
From the Irish “seamróg”, meaning young clover. Our symbol, St Patrick’s way of explaining the deities of Christianity, Aer Lingus’s logo, and a squiggle on the creamy head of Guinness in Irish bars across the globe.
The state you left the place in, and another adopted Irish slang word, from Middle Low German via Middle Dutch, a kip being a bundle of hides – which is probably what was strewn across your bedroom floor if I could even see it under all those clothes.
Could it be from the Irish “gall”, for foreigner? Or, more likely, “gabhal”, which has multiple meanings, including a fork in a road, gap, junction or, of course, crotch?
On that subject, this probably comes from “Sheela-na-gig”, or “Síla na gCíoch”, carvings of naked Irish women exposing their genitals, which are found across Ireland, primary on old stone churches, round towers and castles.
As in the character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His name potentially comes from the Irish “púca”, which, although it generally means “ghost”, is slightly more complex than a mere spirit, and could also be a shape-shifter, taking the form of a horse, a goat or another animal.
As in “go leor”, many.
Following the trend of using ordinarily negative words to describe things positively – wicked, sick, insane, killing it – “deadly” is a quintessential contemporary Dublin word with which to signify something’s coolness. “Deadly” is used by Aboriginal people in Australia in the same way. It’s not known which part of the world began using it first.
34: Cute hoor
Pretty self-explanatory if you’re Irish, from “cute”, as in sly, and “hoor”, as in whore. Particularly aimed at those in business, politics and anywhere else that deals are cut.
35: Chancing your arm
A phrase that was born in 1492, when the Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare were involved in a dispute that culminated in the Butlers’ going to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, where they were followed by the FitzGeralds. When the FitzGeralds asked the Butlers to come out, so they could make peace, the Butlers refused, leading Gerald FitzGerald to suggest a hole be cut in the door, to offer his handshake – aka chancing one’s arm. The Door of Reconciliation is still there today.
Slang for a drink that was for a time ubiquitous in Dublin, as it overtook “jar”.
Emerging from British slang, and not exactly deviating from its original etymology of being in a state of health, as in “safe and sound”, to mean decent.
38: Soft day
Although this type of weather isn’t unique to Ireland, our description of it is. When rain is misty to the point of invisibility yet still wet, when there’s poor visibility and a hazy sort of cloud, when the temperature isn’t too cold, when the drizzle seems to linger in suspended animation.
The term for a subatomic particle was inspired by James Joyce. Murray Gell-Mann, the American theoretical physicist who proposed the existence of quarks, spelled it “quork” until he came across the lines “Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark. And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark,” describing the sound of a gull, in Finnegans Wake.
The ultimate Irish response and affirmation that in any other context means something far . . . grander. As well as meaning “fine”, or just “okay”, “grand” can also mean substantial and pleasant, however, such as “grand stretch”, noting the brightness of an evening.
Going on “the sesh” – as in going drinking, and possibly consuming other substances, followed by a party at someone’s house – has spawned a vocabulary all of its own. But could the term have emerged from another raucous Irish party, the traditional-music session?
“That’s enough gallivanting for one week” may be a very Irish phrase – so much so that it has ended up on tea towels – but it comes from early 19th-century English (“gallant”), as a term for flirting with women, or “to gad about”.
43: Splitting the stones
As in the sun is . . . Comes from the Irish phrase “Tá an ghrian ag scoilteadh na gcloch.”
This slang for “house” is especially common in Ireland, Manchester and east London. Its origins are uncertain, but one theory is that derives from a Romany word for a market town. In the 18th century it came to mean an inexpensive theatre or music hall.
Another word the Irish have attached multiple meanings to. To go on the lash: to go drinking excessively. Lashing down: raining hard. He’s some lash: a good-looking fella. Give it a lash: attempt something.
The etymology of a side job, or a short-term gig for cash in hand, is unclear but surely has to be simply “nix” – from the German “nichts”, or “nothing” – with an -er at the end.
The word for a 200ml bottle of spirits comes from “noggin”, a drink measure whose name is derived from the Irish “naigín”, meaning a small wooden pail.
48: Give out
To give someone a talking to, from the Irish “tabhair amach”. Giving out yards, gave out stink, and so on.
49: Mar dhea
A great sceptical Irish term, it essentially means “yeah, right” or “as if”.
It’s unclear when “being thick with someone” came to mean being annoyed with them, but it’s a common term.
An Irish-American favourite, it certainly sounds as if it derives from Irish, but its origins are unknown. There’s a theory that it comes from “sionnach”, as in fox – perhaps to be sly or devious, or to mess around.
A peculiar word, meaning broken beyond repair, that originated around the 1930s, but its etymology is unknown. The Scottish might be able to shed some light on it, given that to be “banjoed” means to be hit as hard as possible, and subsequently “banjoed” almost means wrecked.
The Australian slang for “woman” comes from the Irish name “Síle”.
54: On the long finger
“Ar an mhéar fhada”, as in to postpone something; it comes from the Irish proverb “Cuir gach rud ar an mhéar fhada agus beidh an mhéar fhada róghairid ar ball”, which means “If you put everything on the long finger, then the long finger will be too short in time.”
Another word originating from the Irish for crowd, “sluagh”. See also word 24.
Less offensive than the other bad word, and popularised in Britain when Father Ted became a hit.
Massive, and therefore great. Not to be confused with the burger.
The hooks on a tenter, a tenter being a large wooden frame used in clothmaking. Fabric was stretched on the hooks and frame, giving rise to the saying “on tenterhooks”, as in to be in a state of tension. The hooks and frames were such a part of Dublin life that the city’s wool-producing district in the 16th and 17th centuries was known as the Tenters.
Derived from a Tudor term for toilet – jakes – back in the 1500s.
This term for a girl, attractive woman or someone’s girlfriend, which has various spellings, emerged from the term for “woman” in Shelta, the old Traveller language.
The ultimate Cork term, but where did it come from? Our favourite theory is the India-based Royal Munster Fusiliers being pestered by langur monkeys.
It’s no wonder the meaning of this word is always shifting, given that it’s used as a catch-all term, from a collar that attached a plough to animals to pretty much anything – grab that yoke – to an ecstasy pill.
Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper predates the change in the Leaving Certificate grading system, but high praise is still A1, Sharon.
Mrs Malaprop is a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play, The Rivals, who misuses words, as in her request “to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory”.
Are you after having your dinner, or only after washing your hair? The Hiberno-English use of “after” confuses other English speakers, but it represents the Irish conjunction “tar éis”. It makes sense to us, at least.
In English, German, Dutch and Icelandic it means a piece of earth covered with grass. In Ireland it means a sod or sods of peat, and there is no plural.
An intensifier to enhance the word following it. Pure sound, like.
68: The Shades
A term for police, often used to describe plain-clothes police, thought to have originated in Limerick, and may be related to their eyewear.
The pejorative term for people living in rural areas of the United States, particularly around the Ozark Mountains (Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas) and Appalachia, initially related to the 18th-century Ulster Protestant settlers in the Appalachian Mountains. Some think the term comes from supporters of King William III, Billy’s Boys; others point to a Scottish word for companion, “billie”, combining with the hills both the Ulster and Scottish immigrants lived on.
A small, snug area of a bar where women who were less welcome in the main area of the pub could drink discreetly, as could others who wanted a private moment.
71: Hot press
The term for an airing cupboard that only the Irish use.
A term for cash that has journeyed around American, British and Irish slang and could actually comes from the Greek “spondulox”, a type of shell used as an early form of money. James Joyce used the word, in its spelling spondulics, in Ivy Day in the Committee Room, one of the short stories in Dubliners, in 1914.
The Hiberno-English pronunciation of “idiot”, which we took and made our own.
Although variations of the word had been written down for years (aguacate, alvacata and avocatas, for example), the first recorded used of “avocado” was by Sir Hans Sloane, the naturalist born in Co Down. He published a catalogue of Jamaican plants in 1696 in which he described the avocado, whose name emerged from the Aztec or Nahuatl word for testicle, because of its shape. Remember that next time you’re smashing one on some toast.
A term meaning fixating on or conveying only one idea, as coined by James Joyce in Ulysses, from the psychological concept of monoideism.
76: A rake of
A lot of, or many.
From the Irish word for water, “uisce”. Not to be confused with Scottish “whisky”.
78: Yer man/Yer wan
One of the reasons referring to someone as “yer man” or “yer wan” is so interesting is that it has contradictory meanings. The first could be a reference to someone whose name or identity is uncertain or momentarily forgotten (“you know who I’m talking about, what’s his face, yer man from down the road”), the second a coded reference that intentionally omits the identity (“we all know what yer wan will think about that”).
79: Come here to me
Listen up and lean in, even though you’re right beside me.
An awful dose of an illness, as in a large measurement of something, but that can lead to having a bad dose itself, which in term can lead to someone themselves being an awful dose.
To make a hames of something has something in common with “yoke” (see word 62). Again, it’s a term related to fastening collars to animals. The hames are curved pieces of wood or iron attached to the collar of a draught horse, on which you then attach the traces. Put it on the wrong way and, well, you’ve made a hames of it.
82: Cop on
This term seems to have taken the same route by which “cop” ended up referring to police, from the Old French “caper”, or seize. So “copping” something would mean acquiring it, and perhaps therefore became pared down to acquiring sense, but its origins are still a little muddy.
A pretty old word, dating back to the 15th century, that was used to describe a small knife, then various digging tools and, eventually, the vegetable itself. The term “pratie” comes from the Irish for potatoes, “prátaí”.
From the Old Irish “bard”, meaning poet or singer.
In Ingenious Ireland: A County-by-County Exploration of Irish Mysteries and Marvels Mary Mulvihill mentions how Augustine Thwaites, the apothecary who founded Thwaites & Co, began making mineral waters in the mid-1700s. We can assume that Irish people’s use of “minerals” to refer to soft drinks and sodas comes from mineral waters. When its factory on Moore Lane in Dublin closed, in 1927, the company was taken over by Cantrell & Cochrane (now C&C Group). Ireland has an illustrious history of mineral-inventing. It’s claimed that Thwaites’s son developed soda water while studying medicine at Trinity College Dublin, and ginger ale was invented by the American doctor Thomas Cantrell in Belfast. Side fact: Club Orange was named after the Kildare Street gentleman’s club.
Although in British slang this refers to a huge error, in an Irish context “no bodge” means “no bother”.
From the Irish “smidirín”.
A sly person. The term is often used in politics or business to refer to someone who uses smooth talk to get their own way, or borderline-nefarious means for personal benefit. It comes from the Irish word “slíbhín”, which means a trickster, particularly a silver-tongued one.
Trying to find your keys in your bag, forgetting your phone and then having to go back again for your wallet, messing around with a bunch of belongings, putting things in and out of drawers. That’s right, you’re foostering. Would you ever stop? Comes from the Irish word “fúster”, meaning fussy sort of behaviour.
90: Up to 90
Stressed out, agitated, unbelievably busy. Could it mean at 90mph (similar to “going ninety”, or reaching boiling point, or with a heart rate of more than 90bpm? For some reason, “up to 90” tends to be used more by Irish women than men.