Want to know what an 'Irishman's fart' is?

 

Dictionary: It sounds like an Irish joke: the Welshman, who now lives in Greece, writing a dictionary of Irish phrases. Thornton B. Edwards has put together this intriguing book about language and the origin of phrases most of us take for granted.

Some of them are better known than others, such as the Irish Literary Revival, and some are offbeat and quite rude indeed.

Want to know what an "Irishman's fart" is? It's a troublesome family, who, like the aforementioned, are "always making a lot of noise and stink and never wanting to go back where they came from". An Irish Queer? This is a "fellow who prefers women to drink", an expression apparently coined by Sean O'Faolain.

An Irish piano? A shop till. An Irishman's four-course meal? Four pints of Guinness.

Edwards digs into some eyebrow-raising social history when looking at the etymology of certain words. A "smoked Irishman", for instance, can mean either a sunburnt Irishman or be a "nickname for African- Americans, indicating the common Irish/African-American subservient status in America. Conversely, the Irishmen were dubbed 'green niggers' ".

There are hundreds of similar expressions in this book, which is made for dipping into and out of, and for entertaining your mates with.

Some phrases smack a bit of inventiveness on Edwards's part: the Irish Dodo for instance. What's that? The salmon, according to Edwards. Why? Because he says it's endangered. But you could arguably say the same of the corncrake, or, indeed, of the honest Irish politician.

At the back of the book, there are several appendices, including one that lists the top 20 meanings of the word "Paddy"; derivatives of the word "paddy"; and a list of cocktails containing Irish references, although there's not enough room to tell you the recipes, thus you have to guess at the probable contents of cocktails called the Irish Car Bomb, the Irish Toad, the Irish Gun Runner and the Sweaty Irish.

"Irish political correctness" is not included anywhere in the dictionary.

Every reader will be looking out for their own particular Irish phrase in Edwards's book. A quibble: the book doesn't mention either an Irishman's Diary or an Irishwoman's Diary among its references - the long-running slot on the letters page of this newspaper, and surely deserving of a place in a dictionary of phrases beginning with the word "Irish".

• Rosita Boland is a poet and an Irish Times journalist