There used to be a game on Saturday-morning RTÉ kids’ television where contestants were tasked with eating a sugary Superquinn jam doughnut without licking their lips – no licence-fee-funded expense spared. Eating a sugary doughnut without licking your lips is one of those challenges that get more difficult the more you think about them, as your resistance against the reflex to do a quick swipe with the tongue becomes unbearable. This morning, before I sat down to work, I unwittingly re-created the conditions of the doughnut test. I challenged myself not to punctuate my actions with the word “now” – and, friends, a lifetime of sugary lips would have been easier.
“Now!” I said as I stood up out of bed. “Now,” I whispered as I replaced the cereal in the press. “Now,” I almost caught myself sighing as I sat down at my desk, fighting against it like a delicious itch. I’m not surprised I found it difficult. It was only a few years ago that a friend pointed out that I was even more demented with the “nows” than your typical Hiberno-English speaker. In hindsight I’ve been a now-sayer for much of my life, like my mother before me and hers before her – and, in fairness, like much of the population. I know of at least one baby whose first word was “now”.
Our fondness for dropping “now” into all manner of conversation has non-native speakers concerned about our apparent urgency at all times
The Irish habit of punctuating actions with “now” goes hand in hand with our addition of the word to sentences and phrases without adding any apparent meaning. We say, “There you are now,” or “Bye now” or “What’s that now?” and of course there’s Father Ted’s “Careful now.”
We use now to refer to the present but also to punctuate questions or orders – “What are you doing there now?” which also handily demonstrates our love for dropping a “there” into a sentence willy-nilly: “I just looked it up there.”
I can only imagine that our fondness for dropping “now” into all manner of conversation has non-native speakers concerned about our apparent urgency at all times. And then of course there are the complete curveballs, like “I’ll do it now in a minute,” reminiscent of “I will, yeah,” which of course means “no”. I’ve witnessed a Canadian completely baffled by the complete sentence “So now,” and honestly, I don’t blame them.
It’s always interesting to hear our language through an immigrant’s ear. I follow an American woman on TikTok who lives and works in Cork, where she documents the linguistic peculiarities she encounters. A Corkonian might say something happened “the last night” but be referring to a night two weeks in the past. She observes with fascination that we “plug things out” rather than unplugging them. She also points out that Irish people love to punctuate actions with the word “right”, reminding me that “right” is “now”’s plucky little sister.
Whatever way our use of “now” has evolved in Hiberno-English, we at some point adopted it as a catch-all for when a task is finished. Or when a task is about to begin. A step in a task has been completed. You’ve just stood up. You’ve just sat down. You’ve just finished a thought. You’re a taxi driver arriving at a destination. You’re a toddler playing away to yourself, aping what you hear Mammy or Daddy saying 70 times a day. You’re a dog whose ears prick up because the utterance of “now” means the big man is standing up and a walk is probably imminent.
I feel like a bit of a biddy with the sheer volume of my “nows”. I can imagine myself in the background of a scene in The Banshees of Inisherin, wearning a headscarf, clutching a tea towel and clocking in about 50 “nows” a minute as I busy myself with turf and gossip. That’s why it tickles to hear a toddler continuing the tradition or an immigrant adopting it.
The “now” phenomenon feels like a hangover from bygone days. Of course, many of our grammatical quirks are as a result of historical translations from Irish. Gaeilge has no direct words for “yes” and “no”, for instance, so we often answer questions with “I am” or “I’m not” or “It is”.
Direct translations are also responsible for why we say we’re “after” doing something or somebody “does be” doing something. They’re all rich reminders of how our speech has evolved. I should be proud of my running “now” monologue, then, delivered in an accent, from the Kildare-Dublin border, that turns my nows into neows and my cows into ceows. A more accurate version of “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” for me might be “now the cow raises an eyebrow”.
I asked my mother what my first word had been, thinking it would be serendipitous to discover I had emitted a tiny “now” while pulling the head off a doll. Unfortunately, she can’t exactly remember but thinks it was probably a more definite “No”. So now.