Irish english, English Irish

“Well boy[1],”
“Alright, what’s the craic?”

Translates as:
“Hello my friend, how are you keeping?”
“Hello. I’m very well thank you, how are you?”
“I’m in excellent health”

The use of vernacular in language is nothing new, all (living [2]) languages use it. One of the defining features of the Irish language is that it is a spoken language primarily, it has also spread around the world through its use by the Irish diaspora, and slowly dropped certain words or phrases in to use as part of the English language. It has also shaped how we, in Ireland, use English, either by:
* Directly using Irish words in English such as “craic” (which may have originated through an older English word) for fun or sport, “Brogues” for shoes and so forth. This is a very normal slipping of words from one language to another and will likely continue as languages develop and the social contexts in which they are used continue to evolve.;
* Using Irish idiom in our English, “Be safe” or “Be well” instead of goodbye. They come from the word “Slainte” for goodbye, being or course “be healthy/safe”

  • * Using words which have long ago transitioned into English, so much so that their origins are not always clear. These words no longer have a sense of their origin and are considered as part of normal English use, An example of this is the word “Slogan”, it is believed originated as sluagh-ghairm or a battle cry of the old Gaelic Clans.

Of course at this stage I should lay out my stall: in Ireland, when talking in English (which is just about all of the time) we refer to our native language as “Irish” in normal conversation, not “Gaelic” ach, nuair a labhairt inár dteanga dhúchais tagraímid dó mar “Gaelige” . There is another aspect to the considered in the use of Irish in English: Colour. It is felt that Irish is a more “Colourful” language than English and Irish words are often used to convey a certain attitude, behaviour or contextual meaning which may not be quite so readily evoked through a single word or two in English. Two very common examples of this are “Craic” as mentioned above conveys a good natured fun usually involving an interaction with others that should have no malice associated with it, and also


This is a word which offends some people because the immediately and erroneously associate it with another word of German origin (“F*ck”). Although it is often used in a similar context, the specific meaning is different. “Feck” comes from the Irish verb to see (Feic) or sometimes used as to steal, while the other word is a slang verb referring to activities associated with procreation. It is also acceptable in informal conversation. The use of the word in a sentence usually conveys that a situation, although worthy of an expletive, is not so serious as to use a certain other word. For example “Ya Feckin ejit” is a much softer way of saying “You F*cking idiot”, the former can usually be laughed off, while the latter my provoke a harsh response (which may include a fist). Now that we have some of the background out of the way let’s have a look at some well-known words and phrases.

Chance your Arm

As with many histories, there are often competing versions of the truth and with words and phrases it can be hard to pin down which is the true origin. Personally I shall be looking for context and entertainment. One candidate for the origin involves tailoring and sleeves, but as there is no substantive evidence to back it up, we’ll move on. Another possibility is a military one which dates from around WWI, and refers to people taking risks, for example a non-commissioned officer might risk one of his stripes by his actions and so could be deemed to be chancing his arm. Nice but no biscuit. The version I prefer is the one involving two of the most powerful families in Ireland at the time and how they resolved a difference they were having.
The Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare, were two of the most powerful Norman-Irish families or clans, and who continue in one form or another to this day. At the time the Ormondes were even cousins of Elizabeth I. As with most histories; big families in a small area don’t mix. The families were regularly at war with each other and in 1492 things were no different with both families involved in a bitter feud. The focus of the feud was the position of Lord Deputy of Ireland (the Monarch’s representative). The families were both sufficiently powerful to be of the opinion they should hold the post and the other not. Obvious to mention the disagreements did not contain themselves to the parliamentary chambers or their clubs. Following a mêlée between representatives of both families outside the city wall of Dublin, the Butler clan repositioned themselves in the Chapter House at Saint Patrick’s cathedral. Surrounded, cooler heads prevailed and discussions were had to negotiate a piece. The Butlers were nervous of a possible trick and were reluctant to come out. To move on the negotiations The Fitzgerald had a hole cut in the door of the Chapter House and put his arm in through the hole, offering his hand in peace. The gesture worked and the Ormondes shook his hand and emerged from the chapter house.
The door still exists and is known as the “Door of Reconciliation”, it is on display in the Cathedral. Evidence suggests this could have happened and of the various stories, it is certainly the most entertaining and has a certain amount of provenance, so we will chance our arms and go with that.
Time for a couple of qucikies:



Formally clocc in old Irish which meant Bell, it made its way into German (old High) and today the German word is Glocke, it eventually made its way via Flemish to English. The internationalisation of the word stems from the use of bells by Irish missionaries in the Dark Ages and early Medieval period. We still use the word Clogg in modern Irish.



From the Irish Name Ó hUallacháin, (anglicised to O’Houlihan)), The word hooligan dates from the 1890s in English, Its use as another name for a criminal or hoodlum is thought to come from a notorious Irish troublemaker called Patrick Hoolihan and his disorderly family who lived in London at the turn of the 19th-20th century.



This modern word owes its immediate origin to the English word trowse, this however is a word borrowed from Irish; triubhas and has been recorded in transferring to English as early as 1630. documentation since



Despite it being a word we all use the origins are it is often thought to originate from the Irish/Scots English pother, ‘to cause a commotion,’ or ‘to bustle about,’ which is in turn probably related to the Irish for noise, bodhraim, or deafen, bodhraim. The author heard an interview some time ago discussing the origins of the word and its meaning. Even today it has the standardised English meaning pertaining roughly to “annoy” where as the Hiberno-English variant is a more sublime meaning and often used in the negative to denote a positive frame of mind – for example a favour was “no bother” to be done. It was no trouble or inconvenience.



We have Captain Charles Boycott to thank for this, by the way, the title of “Captain” is most likely to have been a nick-name given to him by locals. Unlike many other words here which have an evolved history, Boycott came into use and stuck all in the late 19th century, in not the most pleasant of circumstances. Captain Boycott was the local agent for John Crichton, the Earl of Erne; the Landlord, who like many of the aristocratic landlords of the time was what was known as a “absentee landlord”, primarily resident in England. Boycott was no blow-in who did not understand the situation. He had been farming on Achil island for nearly 20 years (17), but for a number of reason wanted to move to the mainland and a bigger farm. Boycott took out a 31 year lease and was technically a tenant farmer himself. Things went well, the land was good and he prospered, becoming the largest employer in the area. He took part in the local activities, even racing two horses on the one day in the colours of Lady Gore Booth. One of his responsibilities was to collect the rents from the 35 or other tenants on the Earl’s estate.
The economic down-turn of the 1870’s brought back famine conditions, rent-racking and evictions. James Daly, a native of Lahardane, Co. Mayo, editor and joint owner of the Connaught Telegraph newspaper, organised a mass meeting of tenants at Irishtown, Co. Mayo, on 20 April 1879 to protest against their landlord, Canon Geoffrey Bourke PP, and forced him to withdraw eviction notices and reduce rents by 25%. The Connaught Telegraph was the only Mayo paper to publish an account of this event.
On 22 September David Sears, a process-server, and an escort of seventeen RIC constables began serving Lord Erne’s defaulting tenants around the Neale with eviction notices, but they were soon forced back to Lough Mask House by the local women under a shower of stones, mud and manure. It seems that at this stage ‘Captain’ Boycott had been targeted by the Land League as a test case ‘to gain the eyes and ears of the world’, because the following day his farm was invaded by a mob of up to 100 people and his work force warned off. Local curate Fr O’Malley is reported as having congratulated them on ‘the great victory you have achieved and the noble example you have set’. Fr.O’Malley is credited with coining the verb ‘boycott’, saying that the people would not be able to remember ‘ostracise’.)
Boycott now found himself in a very difficult situation, as he had horses, cattle, sheep and poultry to look after and crops to get in with very few helpers. Three of his staff refused to leave and he had four guests staying at the time, a teenage niece, two teenage nephews and his niece’s fiancé. They carried on as best they could, with the men being escorted everywhere by armed police, but by night fences and gates were broken, trees and hedges felled and crops stolen or ruined.
Boycott needed and sought no more than about twelve men to harvest his crops, but by the first week in November 1880 the matter was out of his hands; the Ulster ‘Boycott relief expedition’ had organised 50 volunteers, Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan, to ‘get in the Captain’s turnips’. One of the leaders of the expedition was a Captain Somerset Maxwell, who had been a trustee of the Achill Mission. The volunteers arrived at Lough Mask House on 12 November, escorted by a large company of soldiers, having had to walk all the way from Claremorris railway station in driving rain as none of the local drivers would carry them, and they were accommodated in tents on the lawns, in barns and in the boathouse. On 27 November they left along with the relief expedition, and it was reckoned that it had cost up to £10,000 to save a harvest worth at most £350.


In 1886 Boycott sold his interest in the house and surrounding farm to Bernard Daly of Ballinrobe, whose descendants have farmed there ever since. I would recommend further reading on this man, his “exile” in America, return to Ireland and later life in England.



Phony first appeared in English in the late 19th century as an adjective meaning ‘counterfeit’ or ‘insincere’; its earliest use as a noun, meaning ‘an imposter’ dates from 1902. Its etymology is debatable, but the most likely theory is that it is an alteration of the Irish word for a ring, fáinne, and was borrowed into English via an old fraudster’s trick called the ‘fawney rig.’ According to an 1811 Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue, the fawney rig involved ‘a fellow’ who drops ‘a brass ring, double gilt, which he picks up before the party meant to be cheated, and to whom he disposes of it for less than its supposed — and ten times more than its real — value.’
Ed. Note: The author and a colleague were accosted in Moscow in the early 21st century by what became 3 “fellows”. It involved a fake wad of cash, we were good enough to shout out that the person in front of us had dropped it. Long story short, there was supposed to be a second wad of cash and now a suitable close-by “police” officer came by. Thankfully we got wise to what was unfolding and managed to get away with only a token loss of cash (which was claimed back on expenses).



Calling a slovenly person a slob dates back to the mid 19th century in English. Before then it meant ‘mud,’ or ‘marshy, boggy land,’ and is descended from the Irish word slaba, meaning ‘ooze’ or ‘slime.



The word bog comes from the Irish word for soft. Peat bogs cover one sixth of Ireland and have been used as a source of fuel for centuries in Ireland. After the Ice Age, Ireland was covered in deciduous and pine forests. The wet mild weather caused minerals to be leached from the soil, forming an impermeable layer. As a result water couldn’t soak through and peat began to form.



Originally the term was used to describe an Irish outlaw which came from the verb “toir,” to pursue. The word for an outlaw was tóraidhe. It was later used to describe English Jacobite supporters and as happens still today, it was later adopted as a badge of honour by English conservatives.



Whether or not the word “quiz” was created on that historic occasion is probably still open to final judgement. There is some reference to the word quiz before the Daly incident. We also need to remember its linkage to “inquisition” the asking of question. In all likelihood what Daly did was popularise a word certainly and possibly defined a standardised meaning. The story of the quiz is one of a night’s merry-making.

Richard Daly, the then manager of the Smock Alley Theatre (still standing and now used as a school of acting). As with the fashion of the time for clubs and such Daly and friends were celebrating the birth of an heir to the Duke of Leinster on 21 august 1791. They great and the good of Dublin society were there and among the reports of the night, Daly was described as somebody with a habit of making wagers over the smallest thing.

As the night went on there was a difference of opinion over a French phrase and as a result Daly, true –to-form, made a wager that hewould add a new word to the English Language ‘within forty-eight hours … be on the mouths of the Dublin public, of all classes and sexes, young and old’.

The word had to be ” altogether new and an unconnected by derivation from any wold in any other language’

Daly sent his various theatre staff around the city to chalk the word “QUIZ” on doors, walls and anywhere else they could find. Sunday morning gave Dublin the word “Quiz” all over the city, after much speculation, it was thought the word might mean a hoax or something strange

The Oxford English Dictionary attests the use of the verb quiz to mean “to question or interrogate”, with a reference from 1843: “She com back an’ quiesed us”. In all likelihood “Quiz” comes from the same source as “inquisition” and Daly possibly did make a new word, one likely to mean “hoax” for a while at least, and then probably merged over time with “quies” and other such variations.

An interesting side note is the involvement of the family of the Duke of Leinster in this, after all it was the same family involved in the coining of “chance your arm”…the world turns…

Some words either only found in Ireland or used a certain way:

“Culchie” strictly speaking society in Ireland is broken down into two distinct groups; “culchies” and “Jackeens”; the former are non-Dublin citizens coming from any part of the country, while Jackeens are those people native to Dublin. The origin of Culchie is slightly obscure with a few candidates for the origin, but only one really sticks out, Some say it is a contraction from “agricultural”, but I don’t think so, others say it comes from Kiltimagh a town in Co. Mayo, Ireland; again no dice from me. The origin story I like is that the word derives from “Cúl an tí” back of the house – essentially a culchie was somebody who used the “back of the house” or back/tradesmen’s entrance. As most of those who worked in service or were visiting traders/merchants were from the country rather than Dublin natives the name took shape and eventually stuck.

“Jackeen” To everything there is an equal and opposite response, and here it is. Whilst any of us not born in Dublin are “Culchies” Dublin natives are Jackeens. They earned this nickname by virtue of their ability to wave small Union Jack flags at visiting Royalty, must to the disgust of non-Dubliners having to put up with such a blatant show of “West Britism”. It is a 19th century term. Strictly speaking both Culchie and Jackeen are terms of mild abuse/badges of honour.

“Ara”, such as in “Ara get out of that”, “ara, that’s fine” is usually a way of signalling that the speaker approves of a situation but is not to bothered by it.

“Yara” is a  negative word of similar meaning, “Yara, get out of that” signals mild disapproval on a par with “Feck off”

“Hames” – mess; to make a “Hames” of something is to make a mess of it.

“Langer” – Yara, ya langer, ya made a hames of that! “langer”, like “Feck” is one of those words with multiple meanings – A person may be described as a langer (feckin ejit) or his state of being may be described as langered (drunk or tired) it also refers to the male appendage. It is a piece of Corkonian slang never used outside of the People’s Republic of Cork
“Come here” regardless of whether the person you are talking to is a foot or a thousand miles from you, no movement is necessary, This means “Listen to what I am about to say” and donot move yourself… The author uses this phrase a lot and only discovered he did so after an American friend decided to make a play of it and comment each time it was said.
Maryah has various spellings all based on the Irish phrase mar dhea. It’s an ironic or sceptical interjection used to cast doubt or mild derision on an assertion . Personally I grew up using the Irish words directly in English, rather than maryah.
“Give out“, in Ireland commonly means to scold or complain: You can give out to someone, or just give out. It’s often intensified in different ways, e.g. He was giving out stink to them.
Enough for now, the next installment is on Irish Vampire legends…
[1] Like the humble Blaa ( a bread role) the salutation of “Well boy” is particular to the part of Ireland around Waterford and the South East , guess where I grew up.

[2] I say living in case somebody comes and tells me that some ancient language did not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s