Brew-ha-ha – Frank McNally on loopers, lexicography, and fermented hay

Looper is one of those words that usually needs a qualifier

A reader wonders if “loop-line” porter, as discussed here recently (Diary, February 11th), could be the origin of “looper”, a term popular throughout Ireland, but especially Dublin, to mean “crazy person”.

It seems plausible. As a notoriously cheap drink, the loop-liner was associated with more than its share of public disorder charges during the early years of the last century, when it made judges reluctant to renew licences of pubs pursuing the “loop-line trade”.

It might be a logical extension to have diagnosed some perennial trouble-makers as loopers, distinguishing them from, say, regular “head-the-balls”, whose symptoms would have been broadly comparable.

A slight problem with that etymology is the English word “loopy”, which means something similar and may be older.


The OED has “loopy” as a synonym for “cracked” since 1923 at least, which is around the time the loop-line trade became extinct. When and where someone in Ireland was first declared a “looper” is unknown (at least to me), but it may have been more recent.

Expressive as it is, looper is one of those words that usually needs a qualifier, and an exaggerated qualifier (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). You tend to hear it only in the context of somebody being a “complete looper”, or a “total” one.

This implies it’s also possible to be an incomplete looper. But presuming such people exist, they rarely make the news. If anything, you need to be a “complete and utter looper” to be guaranteed conversation topic status.

The English “loop” has Celtic origins, perhaps including the Irish lúb, meaning “bend”, “corner”, and other curvy things. In his typically exhaustive list of definitions, the lexicographer Patrick Dinneen includes a local one from Derry, where he says lúb also means “the back seam in knitting”.

This reminds me that Derry has a village called An Lúb, anglicised as The Loup. The placename database Logaimn includes a hand-written note, presumably dating from the first Ordnance Survey, saying this was one of only two places in that area [Creagh being the other] where “the native Irish or original Inhabitants are to be found . . .”.

The note adds that The Loup is “almost entirely occupied by Roman Catholics who tho much superior in civilisation to the inhabitants of the Creagh are still rather behind the rest of the parish”.

No doubt both An Lúb and Creagh have turned a few corners since then, as have definitions of civilisation. In any case, it strikes me that if you happen to be from The Loup and can trace your ancestry back there several generations, that too might make you a complete Louper.


Still with historical porter terminology, another reader refers me to a Scottish newspaper cutting from 1914, in which the writer first marvels at the black beer’s popularity in Ireland: “It is a beverage for which one has to acquire a taste, like tomatoes, and the Irish early established it as their favourite . . . “.

Then, in a generally amiable piece, he adds this cryptic detail: “One gets his first impression of that on the Dublin boat from Greenock, when he sees groups of Irish peasantry and of the labouring class joining in a social circle, with the bottle of ‘Thick Duk’ as it is known amongst these people, being raised simultaneously to the mouth, after the toast had been named.”

“Duk” we may guess is “deoch”, if these were Irish speakers, as implied. But what – no insult being intended, clearly – was the writer calling “thick”? Your guess is at least as good as mine.


In the latest issue of Hemispheres, the United Airlines magazine, a Canadian writer visits the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland and is inspired by the precision of the old language. “It’s wonderfully exact”, he eulogises, giving examples: “Carball’ is “the roof of a dog’s mouth”, he writes. “Muirleadh” is “the act of chewing up small crabs and spitting them into the sea for bait”. “Súitú” is the “clacking of pebbles moved by lapping seawater.”

He also claims that Irish has a word (“bladhmann”) for “the steam rising from a fermented haystack”. And this was the bit that made me suspect someone in a Dingle pub had been having the poor man on.

Then I remembered Dinneen, whose talent for finding endless layers of meaning in the most inoffensive Irish terms was long a source of wonder to Myles na gCopaleen, a crack gaeilgeoir himself. And yes, sure enough, it’s in the famous dictionary: “bladhmann, -ainn, m., bragging, boasting, also blazing up, sending forth steam as a fermented hay-stack . . .”.

I have to take Dinneen’s word for it that this is a thing, or was once. But now that American tourists have heard about it, I look forward to the fermentation of haystacks featuring on the label of an exciting new Irish craft beer before the year is out.