Eamon de Valera must be grinning in his grave these days. First there was the news of a survey in Britain that found people who did Celtic Studies at university to be the happiest and most fulfilled of all graduates. This more than 80 years after he set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, which combined the odd three-in-a-bedfellows of Cosmic Physics, Theoretical Physics, and Celtic Studies and was widely derided as a vanity project, reflective of his own obsessions.
But around that same time, he was also attracting scorn for his idealised vision of an Ireland “joyous with . . . the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens”. Yes, he said “happy maidens” in the broadcast version, but it was “comely” in the original script until someone worried that Americans – a key audience – wouldn’t understand the adjective.
Now I read a feature in the latest issue of US magazine Slate, headlined “The Luck of the Irish”, which wrestles with the mystery of how actors from this country have suddenly come to dominate Hollywood.
The piece, by one Heather Schwedel, quotes novelist Rachel Connolly saying, as a matter of fact, that “Irish people tend to be very good-looking and charming”.
Which Schwedel accepts without question. “True,” she continues, “but why are they so good looking and charming, and so many of them at once?”
The answer, to paraphrase her subsequent theory in terms she didn’t use, is that having survived the 800 Years of Oppression and its related ills, including Famine, poverty, and the Troubles, the innate beauty Irish people have always had is at last emerging into the light.
Mind you, while mentioning Saoirse Ronan and Jessie Buckley, the Slate writer seems to be talking mainly about our “soulful, sexy” men, including Cillian Murphy, Paul Mescal, Andrew Scott and others, who project a new “soft masculinity”.
She also quotes the magazine Elle, which declared the one just gone to be “Hot Irish Guy summer”. That, along with such recent sporting successes as Katie Taylor winning a world boxing title and the Republic’s female footballers thrashing Northern Ireland 6-1, might be the bit that worries de Valera.
Despite himself, he helped create a country joyous with the contests of athletic maidens and the laughter of comely young fellas. Perhaps it was a mix-up in the cosmic physics department.
The modern Irish may be a risen people, but if the reports from Slate and Elle are true, we also now have “rizz”, which Oxford University Press has just declared word of the year even though you’ve never heard of it.
Well, I hadn’t anyway, until now. And I suspect that most of the people who make a habit of consulting dictionaries hadn’t either.
Rizz may or may not be a contraction of “charisma” – this point is disputed.
But however derived, it means “style, charm, or attractiveness” and, more particularly, “the ability to attract a sexual partner”.
In championing it, the OUP may be trying to be hip with the kids, because the word’s short history dates from its adoption by the 21-year-old YouTuber Kai Cenat, who started using it on the gaming platform Twitch, from which it spread to TikTok and beyond.
English actor Tom Holland helped introduce it to a mainstream audience recently, albeit in the negative, when he claimed to have “no rizz whatsoever”.
Cenat, who denies a link to charisma, says it originated among his friends to describe a romantic situation wherein “a woman goes from being uninterested to being intrigued”.
For sample verb and noun usages, he suggests: “Oh yeah, I rizzed her up” or “I got mad rizz”.
(By the way, not being hip with the kids, I at first assumed Cenat’s surname to be pronounced with a hard ‘C’, as in Celtic Studies. In fact it has soft one (as in Celtic Football Club). But in the meantime, I was reminded of a word my parents used to use, variously spelt cnat, canatt, kinatt, etc, which the Hiberno-English Dictionary defines as “an unpleasant person; a sly, tricky youth; a rogue”.
The OUP’s word of the year is not to be confused with another Hiberno-English term, its soundalike “riz”, meaning “rose”, “raised”, or “risen”.
That can be an adjective, typically in the context of anger, eg: “You wouldn’t want to see him when he’s riz”. But more often it’s the past participle of a verb, as famously illustrated by Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World:
“I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack.”
JM Synge was ahead his time, clearly. Because after supposedly killing his father, Christy acquires instant rizz – even if they didn’t call it that then – among the women of Mayo, an idea that in 1907 caused riots in Dublin.
It remains to be seen whether the OUP’s word of the year will go mainstream. If it does, The Irish Times Stylebook may yet have to include such clarifying examples of English usage as: “He riz the loy but he rizzed Pegeen Mike.”