Ifs and Butties and Old Segotias – An Irishman’s Diary about Dublin words for ‘friend’

I was writing here a while back about the dubious privilege of being called “pal” in Dublin. It’s a simple word, with a long-established meaning (from a Sanscrit term, via Romany, meaning “brother”).

But for some reason, it also lends itself to aggression, so that depending on context, it can range from a greeting of friendship to the prelude for assault.

A much less ambiguous synonym, and pure Dublinese, is “segotia” – or “old segotia”, the form it usually takes. That also means “friend”, and crucially it never means anything else. It would be very difficult to start a fight, even in Dublin, by calling somebody your old segotia.

But the contrast with “pal” also extends to etymology. Because, safe as segotia is to use in company, nobody seems sure of the word’s literal meaning, or where it comes from, or even how to spell it.


On this last question, apart from the version already used, you will also see it written as "secocia", and "segosha".  If you read James Joyce, meanwhile, it becomes "skeowsha", although that was in Finnegans Wake, which is not exactly a bastion of orthodox spelling anyway. Then again there is also a school of thought, to which we'll return, that all these versions are missing a syllable, as pronounced in an older, truer version of the term.

As for its linguistic origins, the most plausible are in Irish and French. From the former, it could be an anglicised version of Seo Dhuitse (“Here you are”), which is one of those existentially reassuring things Irish people say to each other as greetings. They also include “There you are!” and “Ah, it’s yourself!”.

On the other hand, segotia has just as convincingly been cast as a phonetic rendering of the French Mon cher gosse ("My dear child"). This would fit with a theory once reported by Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, late of this parish, that segotia was an old Dublin Fusiliers' term, reserved exclusively for addressing children.

But back to the missing syllable theory. As long ago as 1958, the then incumbent of this column, “Quidnunc”, was taken to that well-known correctional facility (“task”) over allegedly misspelling the term. And not just him, either: the same supposed crime was said to have been committed by a vastly more illustrious columnist, Myles na gCopaleen.

Hence the quoted letter, from a fluent Dublinese speaker called Liam O’Briain, which began: “Dear Quidnunc, Both you and that other Country Gawk, the Copaleen (sic), are wrong. The word is ‘Segocioner’.”

This was supported by a second letter, from "J.J.M.", which included the most impressive level of detail I have seen anywhere about the phrase. J.J.M. claimed it went back to a society in Edwardian Dublin known as The Old Segocioners, members of which met weekly "in the inn of the late Joe Mills in Merrion Row". He further suggested the Segocioners had been formed mainly from the membership of "the old Dolphin Rowing Club, in Ringsend".

A related sub-theory holds that these Rowers (Merrion) or rowers (Ringsend) were very handsome tippers of cab drivers, and that when other well-heeled passengers proved less generous, the jarveys would give the tight-wads thanks as “me oul’ segotia”. If this is true, it would imply that there is, after all, a layer of sarcasm hidden under the phrase’s veneer of affability.

But I still don’t think it would be enough to start a fight.

Alas, the archives are silent on the activities of The Old Segocioners, never mind how they got their name. But speaking of tips, there was for a time in the early 1920s a racehorse called Old Segocioner: a not-very-successful sprinter, running on such tracks as the Curragh and Phoenix Park.

This in turn reminds me that yet another possible parent of segotia is the French sacoche, meaning "wallet" or "saddle-bag". But if the horse in question made money for anyone, it was the bookies.

As a spoken expression, I suppose, “old segotia” is now on the endangered species list.

You hear it rarely these days. Even so, it threatens to outlive other old Dublinese terms for friend, including “china” and “butty”.

There, by the way, is another word that lends itself to violent mood swings. The aforementioned Myles was very fond of it.

But he tended to use it in the context of drunk and disorderly behaviour, as in this example (from the Cruiskeen Court of Voluntary Jurisdiction): “[The accused] became abusive when asked to move and threatened to ‘take on’ witness, and ‘any ten butties’ witness could find.”