An Irishman’s Diary about Hiberno-Yiddish and other dialects

The shebeen-shebang shemozzle

An obvious omission from my “Beaufort Scale of GAA Incidents” ( November 25th), as pointed out by reader Phil Pierce – a Meathman and therefore an expert on this sort of thing – was “shenanigans”.

It should have been somewhere around number three or four on the scale. But like many referees, I was distracted by the “shemozzle” that broke out there, so the shenanigans went unnoticed.

Of course it's not just on GAA pitches that shemozzles and shenanigans are near-neighbours. They also stand shoulder to shoulder, or maybe nose to nose, on page 1,172 of my Oxford English Dictionary.

That's a notoriously rowdy section of the OED, possibly due to the presence of a "shebeen" on the previous page. Indeed, next door to the shebeen is a "shebang", which before its current meaning, was also a kind of house, sometimes of ill repute.


We’ll come back to shebang shortly, but first to a question from another reader, Pádraig McCárthaigh, who wonders how shemozzle, a word of Yiddish origin, ever became naturalised in Ireland, and a GAA stalwart to boot.

It is, as he says, especially associated with the late Micheál O’Hehir. And my own fond theory is that O’Hehir smuggled it back from New York in his luggage after the 1947 All-Ireland football final.

But in The Irish Times archive, at least, it was introduced by another famous wordsmith, Myles na gCopaleen, circa 1954. And then again, James Joyce had used it in Finnegans Wake (1939), although that book could hardly be accused of having popularised anything.

In fact, in his much more influential Ulysses, Joyce gave another Yiddish word – schlep – its English language debut, to no lasting effect here.

As a verb (the sense in which he used it), schlep means “to drag”.

As a noun, it means a clumsy person. And that would have made it a useful addition to the GAA vocabulary, even if a “schlep” also sounds like something you’d get off one of the O’Sé brothers during a shemozzle in west Kerry.

A common feature of Yiddish and Hiberno-English, it seems, is a high number of very expressive words starting with “sh” or (more commonly in Yiddish) “sch”. The Yiddish ones have a strong tendency to be insults (schlep, schlub, schlemiel, schlock, schmuck, etc); the Irish ones (shoneen, shinner, shenanigans, shillelagh) only marginally less so.

Mind you, although "shenanigans" is generally assumed to be Irish, the OED and other official gatekeepers of English usually declare it of origin unknown. Among the things it almost certainly doesn't derive from is a real-life person called "Sean Hannigan", although as Terry Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English points out, that's one of the theories. A more plausible ancestor is the Irish "fox' (sionnach).

That it first appeared in print in California, during the 1850s goldrush, lends some strength to Hibernian claims. But the late Diarmaid Ó Muirithe of this paper had his doubts, and there are possible English and Spanish derivations too. So maybe the OED is right.

“Shebang” also tends to be declared of unknown parentage. But if it is an orphan, it’s an orphan with red hair and freckles. You’ll find it next door to “Shebeen” in dictionaries, and that’s where most etymologists look for an explanation.

The American civil war also seems to have been implicated in its birth, since the word first appears in print during the early 1860s.

According to the blog, the earliest known example is in an 1862 US government report that notes a tendency near Indian villages for people to establish an “inn or ‘shebang’ [...], ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor”.

But in the same year, Walt Whitman used “shebang” to describe the ramshackle accommodations, sometimes comprising only “bushes”, that soldiers at the Battle of Fredericksburg endured. And although more often referring to tents, this seems to have become the standard war-time meaning, evolving postwar to describe any accommodation of low standard.

In 1872, Mark Twain queered the pitch by using “shebang” to describe a hired vehicle – presumably a confusion with “charabanc”. But around the same time, the word was also expanding generally, to refer to an entire military encampment, or “the whole shebang”.

As to the origins of this now all-encompassing term, concludes that a simple shift from shebeen to shebang is “very plausible”. But of course, in the context of drinking saloons, so many things are.