Royal Irish Vocabulary – Frank McNally on the OED’s latest update, which includes bockety, bean an tí and Old Segotia

An Irishman’s Diary

The Oxford English Dictionary’s latest quarterly update is a Hiberno-English special. Photograph: Oxford University Press

I’m delighted to see that one of the great Irish adjectives of imperfection, bockety, has finally made into the Oxford English Dictionary.

So too have the words ciotóg, ciunas, and cúpla focal. “Holy Hour” is in too, as is shift, which was there already in multiple meanings but has now acquired the additional Irish one of something you might do in Copper’s nightclub.

These and dozens of other terms feature in OED’s latest quarterly update, a Hiberno-English special.

Also included in the round-up is that usual suspect Segotia, whose mysterious origins we wrote about here not long ago.


The dictionary still declares it of “origin unknown”, but I may have some fresh intelligence on that subject, of which more later.

Another of the OED’s new entries is banatee, “woman of the house”. That’s an example of what the OED calls “orthographic variation”, with the headword followed by 13 variant spellings including the Irish original bean an tí, bean tighe, and banati.

I can add a possible 14th. When the Fine Gael politician Mary Banotti was a woman of the House – Leinster House, that is – it was the habit in certain circles to pronounce her name with the stress on the last syllable.

But perhaps even for the vast combine harvester that is the OED, constantly sweeping into its maw words and meanings from all over the world, that may be too obscure even for a footnote.

Speaking of maws, Flann O’Brien fans will be delighted to know that béal bocht has made the new list too. The OED already had “poor mouth”, found in American newspapers as early as 1868. Even “poor mouth journalism” was a thing there by 1893.

So this island may not have invented the concept, unless we exported it early. Either way, the dictionary credits Flann, aka Myles na gCopaleen, with popularising the Irish version in English via his 1941 novel.

Also included in the update is sean nós: an Irish term that, as used in English, is old in meaning but not in actual age. Typically used of singing or dancing, it means “old style”.

But the earliest citation in English is from the Irish Press in 1964.

In any case, it's elevation to the OED has not come a moment too soon. Within the past week, I heard someone on RTÉ pronounce it with two fadas, as if the sean in "sean nós" were a person.

As for our old friend segotia, the update mentions one popular theory about where it came from, ie French, and the phrase “mon cher gosse” (“my dear child”).

But the OED finds no direct evidence for that, and is even less convinced by the Irish seo dhuitse as a root. It concludes for now that the word is of “origin unknown”, with the earliest print citation being the Nenagh Guardian in 1917.

When we last broached the subject here, I mentioned a verbal skirmish that broke out in this paper once, in 1958, starting in Myles’s Cruiskeen Lawn and spreading to the adjacent Irishman’s Diary.

Then, a Dublin reader sought to correct both the diarist and “that other Country Gawk, the Copaleen” to the effect that the real word was segocioner.

Another correspondent, agreeing, went further, claiming the “Old Segocioners” were a society in Edwardian Dublin, former by members of the Dolphin Rowing Club, Ringsend.

As I have since discovered from other archives, the society had club-rooms in Dawson Street, where they wore badges bearing the letter “S”, and were required by rules to address each other as “Hello, my Old Segocioner”.

They were notable for charitable work – too notable, because public wearing of the badge had to be discontinued eventually, thanks to the attentions of Béal Bocht types.

And regardless of the actual fare, they always the paid the cabmen who waited outside the club a half sovereign, so that expectant drivers took to greeting them with “Hello, my old Segocioner” too.

In the early 1920s, they regularly topped the list of contributors to such charities as the Mansion House Coal Fund and the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society.

But a 1928 news item in the Evening Herald refers to their “Twelfth Annual Dinner”. That takes us back only to 1917, the same year “old Segotia” made its known debut in print.

I have found nothing in print so far that dates to Edwardian times.

So whether Segotia was a contraction or Segocioner, or the latter an embellishment of the former, remains a mystery.

If anyone can clear it up, the OED and I would be interested to hear from you.