Craicing the Irish language code


Cultural lexicographer Paddy Sammon has written a new book -  Greenspeak: Ireland in her Own Words - not just for eejits, but anyone interested in how the Irish use their language. Rosita Boland searches its pages for a 'cute hoor', but only turns up weasels.

Within the formal structure of a recorded language, words emerge which define particular situations that occur in a country's social or political history. Some of these words are ephemeral, and some endure, partly because what they define also remains current.

Who has not explained what "craic" is to a suspicious visitor? Or lapsed into asking for "a glass" of something while at the bar in a different country and been looked at, and asked what kind of a glass, exactly were you in search of?

Paddy Sammon has gathered up some 2,000 of our Irish-isms and made a dictionary of them, called Greenspeak: Ireland in her Own Words.

"It took me five or six years," he admits. The dictionary definitions are often accompanied by an extract from a newspaper or book, which illustrate and contextualise the definition. It's a fascinating book to dip into, not least because it's so intriguing to see how Sammon defines the words we use so freely, such as "shag-all", or "moving statue" or "gobdaw". This last is defined as "gullible person", and the text used to illustrate is from an article by Gene Kerrigan: ". . . how come Bertie Ahern and his soldiers of destiny elevated such an obvious gobdaw to a senior position on an Oireachtas committee?" (The gobdaw in question is not named in the dictionary.)

"I think it will have a general readership," Sammon says. "Irish people will look it up to see what's there - and what's not there."

Like all such books, Sammon's choice of words is not comprehensive, but some omissions do glare a lot more than others.

No cute hoor? It was the first thing I looked for, curious to see how it would be defined, but there are no cute hoors within, nor were there minerals or anybody being mithered. The obvious conclusion must be that the cute hoors got mithered and went off to have minerals and none of them came back.

"Ah, cute hoor," Sammon says, reflecting on its omission. "I would hear it regularly but wouldn't use it myself. I don't have Ryanair in there either." Perhaps Ryanair's omission is for the same reason. However, there is still plenty to delight in, laugh at, and discover within Greenspeak.

A sleeveen is a "calculating, smooth-tongued person, a trickster". A revisionist is a "term applied to historians, often as code for anti-nationalist". Right is defined as an "intensifier - 'right eejit' ", with a quote from Martin Byrnes of the Limerick Leader: "I like reading the opinions of the food reviewers, always wondering whether they are a right shower of chancers or whether they do, in fact, know how to boil an egg".

Some of the words, like gubu, which will surely be with us forever now, are decades old. Others, like "goodbye money" are new, describing something recent: the "payment required, e.g. by Irish Travellers, to move off a site which they have occupied. It is a pun on 'hello money', i.e. payment to a retail chain for agreeing to place a product on sale."

Irish Stew is "made of mutton or lamb, potatoes, carrots and onions, in thick gravy. Eaten more by tourists than by natives."

Gobshite is "fool, eejit". Sammon here helpfully illustrates where the root of the word came from. "Gob + shite (common variant of shit)". The text used here is from one of TD Brendan McGahon's 1997 Dáil debates: "Sadly, I have been proven correct. What we were offered was a mirage, a phoney peace, which attracted many gobshites who believed in the IRA, the worst killing machine in Europe since Adolf Hitler".

The expression "yellow-pack" is described as "unknown outside Ireland". Bank officials will be particularly interested in Sammon's definition of their employment. "1. of an own-brand or generic product at a reduced price, often as a loss leader; 2. of people recruited at a lower salary level and with lighter duties, e.g. yellow-pack bank officials. A yellow-pack member of a golf club is not allowed to play at weekends etc."

Puss, as we all know, is not the cat, but "gloomy or sullen expression, pout, scowl, a miserable or ugly face".

THERE are words we gave to the bigger world. One of them is Popemobile. Sammon gives it two definitions. "1. Bullet-proof glass-topped car first used by Pope John Paul II in Ireland in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, on September 29th, 1979, where 1.3 million attended Mass, the largest-ever gathering of Irish people. 2. Secure vehicle used to transport priests into the Maze Prison to say Mass on Sundays." Weasel gets a mention; Sammon starts his definition in what can only be described as a very Irish way. "There are no true weasels in Ireland. Irish stoats are often called weasels, probably because the word 'stoat' is a relative newcomer to English and the word 'weasel' was already established." It could be argued, of course, that there are plenty of weasels in Ireland, but all of them of the two-legged variety, like the absent cute hoors.

Greenspeak: Ireland in her Own Words, by Paddy Sammon, is published by TownHouse at €19.99