The Words We Use


Sean O'Shea from Cork wrote to ask where the adjective blithering, as in `blithering idiot' came from. He remembers with a certain degree of affection an ancient Christian Brother using the adjective frequently to describe school inspectors, county councillors, Dail deputies, dull pupils, and everybody else he didn't like, most of the population of Cork included.

Blither, blather and blether, nouns meaning nonsensical talk; the adjectives blithering and blathering; and the Ulster nouns, bletherskite, blatherskite blethermaskite and blatherumskite talkers of raimeis, can all be traced to Old Norse blathra, to speak indistinctly. Blither is the form used in midland English. Shakespeare would have spoken of blithering fools, while across the Border Rab Burns wrote of "stringing blethers up in rhyme for fools to sing".

The word collogue is common enough in Ireland. It means to conspire; to talk confidentially, usually for the purpose of making mischief; and as a noun it simply means a confidential chat. Mary O'Hara from Sligo wants to know if the word is of Irish origin.

No, Mary, although Irish writers were very fond of using it: Carleton, Emily Lawless, Jane Barlow and in more recent times, Peadar O'Donnell, gave it an airing. Milton, in Likonoklastes, written in 1649, has the verb: "He never durst from that time doe otherwise than . . . collogue with the Pope and his adherants." From the French noun colloque, a conference, probably.

A friend of mine who spent an hour in the company of an old Arklow-born seaman recently, asked him if he'd like another pint. "I don't mind if I do," the old salt replied, "being as you're having one yourself." My friend had never before heard the phrase being as, but it has a decent pedigree stretching a lot further back than the 1950s when I first took note of it in St Mullins, Co Carlow. The lexicographer William Robertson thought it exotic enough to gloss it for the readers of his Phraseologica Generalis, a lexicon published in Cambridge in 1693, in two languages, in case they didn't get the message: "You may say you can do it, being (or seeing that) indeed thou are able to do it, quando quidem potes." You'll find it as well in the second part of Henry 1V: "You loiter here too long, being you are to take soldiers up in counties as you go. "I'm glad it still survives in Ireland, and it is common currency in the England midlands, I'm told. Shakespeare would be pleased.