THE WORDS WE USE

 

THE Dublin taxi driver was talking about Paul McCartney being knighted. He knew him, he said, in harder times than these, when Paul had to box Harry. Who, I politely inquired, was Harry? I could not quite envisage Sir Paul fighting his way out of the proverbial paper bag.

"Squire," said my driver, "you mustn't know Liverpool. I was brought up there. To box Harry meant to pull the devil by the tail, if you know what that means.

I subsequently found the expression to box Harry in many of the dialect dictionaries of northern England. It means to go without food; to make do with scraps of food; to rough it; to take what comes. In Notes and Queries for 1883 we are told that the phrase was in vogue then among commercial travellers, implying dinner and tea at one meal.

But who was Harry? Well, Harry was the Devil, and the Liverpool phrase meant, of course, to take on the Devil. The boyo was also known in this country as Harry: you'd still hear the more genteel among the swearing classes say "be the Lord Harry!"

Readers of this newspaper continue to send me words that would have qualified for inclusion in my Dictionary of Anglo Irish Words and Phrases from Gaelic in the English of Ireland, now available. There may be a second edition, which is why I welcome words like scrocky sent to me by Dr James Clarke of Rathcoole, Co Dublin. An 80 year old patient recently complained of having developed scrocky skin on his hands. By scrocky he meant flaky.