Slang and the art of Oirishness


Our unique use of slang and swearing takes on a nostalgic hue this weekend. A new guide offers advice for the un-green, writes Shane Hegarty

This weekend many visitors to Ireland wishing to fit in will decide that all they need to do is don the traditional uniform of giant leprechaun hat and then utter the word "craic" as often as possible.

But it's not just tourists who need a little help blending in. St Patrick's Day is especially noted for dragging out the greatest caricatures of Irish language, and across the media world today, pieces will be written by British and American journalists whose bloodline contains even the most diluted shade of green. Their language will lilt and sway until it eventually collapses.

"If you can laugh through the hardships life throws you, if you can exaggerate them, set them to music and toast them with a full glass of Guinness, then b'gorrah; today you're Irish enough, so pin a shamrock to your greenest shirt and demand to be kissed," wrote a contributor to the Chicago Tribunethis time last year.

Another wrote in the London Times: "It is a cultural and literary extravaganza that embraces anyone who is Irish, or who can persuade the fairies that he or she is Irish." They could easily be described as Plastic Paddies. And anyone who doesn't know what that means can now turn to the Lonely Planet's Irish Language and Culture, a guide to understanding and interacting with the Irish. Unfortunately, it has a "craic" on the cover, and a "begorrah" on the back, but the rest of it proves less predictable.

A small book, unlikely to take up much room in a rucksack, it is a handy tourists' guide to the language (English and Irish), lifestyle and cultural quirks of the country. But it's mostly about slang and the peculiarities and inventiveness of Hiberno-English. Irish readers will find it an entertaining dictionary of Irish slang and swear words, complete with jaunty attempts to translate it for foreigners.

VISITORS WILL BE able to grapple with such phrases as: stop the lights; stall the ball; relax your cacks; smig; and the devastating put-down, "There's a smell of Benjy Riordan off ya". It includes many words that an Irish mother mightn't like her son to say - especially in a Love and Dating section that includes plenty of phrases that might be heard in an Irish nightclub late at night.

"To swear like an Irish person is a unique feat, in many ways," explains contributor Fionn Davenport. "It's about knowing the value of the swear word. It might look bad written down, but when it's uttered it doesn't have the same weight because the Irish understand its context."

It's obvious that the book's contributors have enjoyed putting it together.

Turn to the pages on GAA, and the lingo section gives some interesting pointers on what might be heard at matches. "Ah come on to f**k willya" is described as a "common exclamation from an exasperated fan". "Burst the bollix!" is "an instruction to tackle a player from the opposing team". "Ya-bollix-ya" is explained as "a corner back's formal acknowledgement of a score by his opponent".

According to Davenport: "Slang is a living thing, it lives in the people who use it. There's a slight air of nostalgia about the book too, because when you walk down Grafton Street a lot of the slang you hear now is US slang." The book also attempts to aid visitors through the oddities of spoken English that has soaked up Gaelic influences. Davenport recalls seeing two French girls on a bus from Dún Laoghaire port. Two local lads tried to chat them up by asking "how come yis are here?" The French girls kept replying that they "came on a boat". "It doesn't make any grammatical sense," says Davenport. "It's very Irish and wouldn't be what they'd have learned in an English class."

English as spoken by the Irish can be baffling, but attractive, which is why it is so often imitated to comic degrees at this time of year. "We hear it all the time, the patronising tones of the sing-song language. But it's true. To a foreigner it's incredibly melodic," he adds.

The book has a hefty section on pubs and drinks. The rounds system, it explains, is the "bedrock of Irish drinking culture", adding "the round is due as soon as the quickest drinker has finished (or, preferably, is about to finish) their drink. It doesn't matter if you're not even halfway through yours."

ISN'T THERE A danger it will create new Plastic Paddies, whose clumsy attempts to fit in will serve only to make them look more out of place? It's subtler than that, concludes Davenport.

"What it gives visitors is help in finding a comfortable space between knowing whether the Irish are taking the piss or not."

Irish Language and Culture is published by Lonely Planet