Half-Life – Frank McNally on the Irish language’s damning diminutive

An Irishman’s Diary

The German scholar Kuno Meyer famously identified “the half-said thing” as an attribute of Irish poetry

The German scholar Kuno Meyer famously identified “the half-said thing” as an attribute of Irish poetry

 

If the word latchico/latchiko is indeed derived from the Irish leath-tiochóg, as we suggested last week, it is one of many expressions in the mother tongue that use the prefix “half” to curious, sometimes subversive, effect.

 Among the examples in Dinneen’s Dictionary is leath-lánamha, which can mean either “husband” or “wife” but is literally “a half-couple”. Similarly, leath-dhuine, implying “half person”, means a “twin”. Controversially, however, and with apologies to twins everywhere, leath-dhuine can also mean “half-wit”.

 Half-wits are common in English, of course. But a leath-amadán (“half fool”) may be more of an Irish speciality. It’s an example of a subset of these phrases wherein the halving of the word that follows the prefix can sometimes increase rather than lessen the insult. A full-blown amadán might not be able to help his condition, after all. A leath-amadán sounds like he should know better.

 Something similar applies to “half cut”, meaning drunk. One never hears of a person being fully cut, at least not in Ireland. Yet that concept was once well known in English. It related to the idea of having a cut leg, making it difficult to walk.

Hence a hungover character in Thackeray boasting “I was so cut last night”.

Now, in Ireland anyway, half-cut is the most anyone can be. And although it implies that worse is possible, it’s not something you would plead in defence to an arresting Garda.

 Then there is our old friend, leath-fhocal, the “half word” or “hint” that means more than it says but that you have to be a leath-amadán not to understand. The leath-fhocal is central to a concept attributed to old Irish poetry: “the half-said thing”, famously identified by the German scholar Kuno Meyer (1858-1919): “It is characteristic of these Irish poems that in none ... do we get an elaborate or sustained description of any scene or scenery, but rather a succession of pictures and images which the poet, like an impressionist, calls up before us by light and skilful touches. Like the Japanese, the Celts were always quick to take an artistic hint. They avoid the obvious and the commonplace. The half-said thing to them is dearest.”

We’ll come back to poetry in a moment.

First, returning to the subject of when and how “latchico” was introduced to English, the most entertaining suggestion I have heard from readers is that it arose from the visit in 1958 of the Spanish football giants Atlético Madrid, who were playing Drumcondra FC in the European Cup.

Proinnsias Breathnach recalls that Dubliners couldn’t pronounce the name, so took to calling the visitors “Latchico” Madrid. If the word had unpleasant connotations, it may be because they won 13-1 on aggregate. In any case, this theory might explain the l-word’s debut in this newspaper’s archives soon afterwards, via the name of a greyhound.

 On the other hand, and tending to confirm its origins in Mayo Irish, I have since seen a reference to the English version as far back as 1905, when the Western People quoted a politician saying that “every lad and latchico will be crying out that the rates are going up”.

 That doesn’t help much with the definition, however. As noted last week, latchico/lathchiko seems to have been credited with a wide range of vague meanings, some more benign than others.

But what have the poets to say? Well, as Terry Connaughton (Letters January 14th) has pointed out, there has been at least one ballad on the subject, popular in London-Irish circles during the late 1960s. It was a hit for a man named “Wexford Kiely” but composed by that prolific modern bard, Johnny McCauley, whose work included many songs for Big Tom.

The “Latchyko” (so spelt) of his ballad is a dishonest wastrel, a common attribute of the species. But interestingly, he is also a leath-dhuine. That’s the clever premise of the song, which is sung by the honest, hard-working twin, whose life is dogged by his lookalike other half, never seen but causing trouble everywhere.

 In this case, however, the neer-do-well has a redeeming feature. And if he too is derived from leath-tiochóg, he appears in the end to have escaped the rule of the damning diminutive, if only via martyrdom.

 In the tear-jerking conclusion, according to the only lyrics I can find, the singer sees what at first seems to be his own picture in the newspapers. Then he reads the story of how a young man ran into a burning house to save the occupants. “He gave his life but not before he set two children free,” the good twin laments; “So now I know the Latchyko is a better man than me.”

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