An Irishman's Diary

 

A FEW YEARS AGO, some London publishers commissioned me to write an Irish edition for their series of travel booklets called the Xenophobe’s Guides. The brief was to be humorous, if possible, but also informative; assuming the reader to be a foreigner who knew nothing about us. And whether I succeeded or not, the slim volume has since been translated into many languages, including Estonian; although its translation into royalties appears to have been less successful.

In any case, one of the concepts I tried to communicate in it was the importance Irish people attach to not “losing the run” of themselves. This was 2005, however, when arguably the entire country had already lost it. But as I explained to my Estonian and other readers, the condition was a bit like body odour. Self-diagnosis was always difficult: it was much easier to recognise the problem in others.

“Your neighbour is especially at risk,” I wrote. “When he buys a big new off-road vehicle, for example, even though you know for a fact that he never leaves the city, he is in definite peril of losing the run of himself. When his wife suddenly appears to have much larger breasts than she had the last time you looked, she may be losing the run of herself too. And when the pair of them head off to Marbella for Easter, and they only back from a skiing holiday in Austria, you just know they’ve lost the run of themselves, altogether.” Well, fast-forward six years and everything in Ireland has changed. For those of us (you and I, reader) who heroically retained the run of ourselves at that time, the dangers of losing it now or in the near future have greatly subsided.

Despite which, my interest in the phrase was piqued again this week when the Oxford English Dictionaryreleased its latest revisions: mostly (because the mammoth task is being carried alphabetically, over decades) beginning with the letter R.

In the process, as we reported yesterday, it announced that the word “run” has become the dictionary’s single biggest entry. The verb form alone has expanded to 645 different senses. Its nearest rival, the verb “to put”, has only half that many, even though you might think it more useful to mankind.

On the contrary, the R-word’s ubiquity suggests Bruce Springsteen was right when, all those years ago, he said we were “Born to Run”.

BUT EVEN the all-embracing OEDcan make mistakes of omission: the letter R being a case in point. When the dictionary first compiled its R section – over seven years from 1903 to 1910 – it famously left out “radium”, perhaps thinking that the Curies’ 1898 discovery would never catch on. And vast as the dictionaries’ section on “run” had become, I was almost prepared to bet that the aforementioned Irish sense had been overlooked.

So armed with a press-pass for the online version, and a sufficient supply of oxygen for several hours, I spent Wednesday evening delving into the noun section of “run”: itself of cavernous depths. And sure enough, all the obvious meanings were there, from its recreational and sporting senses, to those relating to rivers and printing presses, to a well-known problem affecting women’s tights.

There were also senses to do with mining, geology, fish, transport, smuggling, diarrhoea, and sheep-shearing. There were historic meanings, such as the “Oklahoma land run” of 1889. There were natural-historic ones, like the run meaning “the bower of a bowerbird, prepared and decorated by the male as an arena for courtship”.

There were good runs, such as those enjoyed by plays, and bad ones (eg on banks). A run could also be a “passage of rhythmic and alliterative prose” in Gaelic folklore, I learned, or it could be a short flight by an aircraft “for the purpose of dropping bombs”.

But it was with a feeling of vindication that I finally reached the last of the noun senses – one related to oil-drilling – and had still seen no mention of the Irish usage. Then I realised there was yet another sub-section on the word, this time featuring phrases. And lo, there it was at No 12: “slang (chiefly Irish English). to lose the run of oneself: [meaning] to lose one’s self-control; to behave in an unexpected or uncharacteristic manner.”

I COULD ONLY bow to the OED’s magisterial command of the language, after all. But wait – what was this? Gasp! Among the four, er, authorities cited using the phrase was: “2005 F. McNally Xenophobe’s Guide to the Irish: ‘When the pair of them head off to Marbella for Easter, and they only just back from a skiing holiday in Austria, you just know they’ve lost the run of themselves’.” Well, you can imagine the excitement of finding myself between the OED’s illustrious covers. In fact, my immediate instinct was to go out and buy 50 copies of the dictionary so that I could give them to friends and family. Then I discovered that even 12-months’ online access costs £205 plus VAT. Which makes the £675 for the 20-volume hard copy version look attractive. Either way, I decided to wait for the paperback.

I also noticed that the next most recent source cited for the phrase was Anne Enright’s novel The Wig My Father Wore(1995), in which a character is quoted saying: “Frank’s lost the run of himself”. It was a timely warning. I took a few deep breaths and gathered the run of myself as best I could. Since when, apart from writing a column about it, I have tried to carry on as if nothing happened.


fmcnally@irishtimes.com