Irish for Americans: Avic

Joey Lips: Don’t get snotty with me, avic.

In 2004, on an Irish translation forum, a curious genealogist mentioned that his father’s gravestone had the Irish phrase “Slan Leat Avic” on it, and wondered what it meant. Well, none other than William Butler Yeats defined the final word in this way in “Irish Fairy and Folk Tales”:

Avic (a Mhic) = my son, or rather, Oh, son. Mic is vocative of Mac.

The Web being a place of instant expertise, our web questioner was immediately informed that his father’s eiptaph was the Anglicization of the original Irish “Slán leat a mhic,” and that while “mhic” literally means “my son,” it is more informally used as a phrase of affection. As a result, the best translation of the epitaph was “Goodbye fond friend.”

“Fond friend” seems a pretty good definition for avic, sometimes spelled avick. “Son” is pretty commonly used in Great Britain and Ireland as an avuncular expression of affection (or, with seemingly equal frequency, avuncular mockery). An example of the former might be found in the 2000 film “Snatch” when Doug the Head tells Frankie Four Fingers, “Slow down, Franky, my son. When in Rome.” An example of the latter might be found in Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel “The Commitments,” when band manager Jimmy Rabbitte meets trumpeter (and self-promoter) Joey “The Lips” Fagan:

–What’s your name, pal?
–Joseph Fagan, said the man.
He was bald, too, now that he’d taken his helmet off.
–Joey The Lips Fagan, he said.
–Eh. ——Come again?
–Joey The Lips Fagan.
–An’ I’m Jimmy The Bollix Rabbitte.
–I earned my name for my horn playing, Brother Rabbitte. How did you earn yours?
Jimmy pointed a finger at him.
-Don’t get snotty with me, son.

Avic seems as though it can be used both ways, affectionately and sardonically. For instance, in “Tony Pastor’s Irish American Comic Song Book, ” published in 1870, there is a poem called “The Fun at the Fair, ” which is mostly just a list of people going to a fairground, and all are Irish: Murphys, O’Ryans, Duffys, Brians, Careys, Learys, Laughlins, O’Shaughlins, etc. One meets another in the poem and says, “Arrah, Norah, my honey, is it you I see there?” To this the the narrator gets the response, “‘Tis Murtoch, avic, I’m off to the fair.” In this case, avic is used in a mildly sociable way, as one would speak to a buddy.

A more tender example can be found in a story from the Fighting 69th, a Civil War regiment made largely of Irish and Irish-American soldiers. The book ” Father Duffy’s Story,” written by the group’s chaplain, tells of Barney Farley, who dressed the wounds of his fallen comerades and then handed them cigarettes, saying, “Here, take a pull out of this, avic. It’ll do ye good.”

It was a word that was almost exclusively associated with immigrant Irish — I can’t find a single example of it being used by a second-generation Irish-American — and as such was often used comically, to represent someone new enough to this country that his interactions with it were a bit of a travesty. An example of this was published in the Irish American Weekly on February 27, 1869, in a piece called “Letters of Terry Finnegan.” The piece purported to be a letter home from a recent arrival, and began in this way:

Deer Larry.–Well, avick, here I am at last wid a light heart and a thin pair of britches; and thanks be to God for that same, seein as I survived the terrors of rail and the punch of the conducther so that every now and then I was brought to bear upon the ticket in my hat. 

 This was a sort of literary version of the Irish dialect comics popular in America at the start of the 20th century, and the genre reached its apex with the fictional Mr. Dooley, a barstool social commentator created by columnist Finley Peter Dunne and originally published in the Chicago Post in the 1890s, and was soon nationally syndicated. Mr. Dooley spoke entirely with the comic immigrant wisdom of Chicago’s South Side. Dunne had Dooley speak in thick Hiberno-English, so much so that his columns verge on incomprehensibility nowadays. They were written idiomatically and in dialect, and were peppered with Irish phrases, and it’s astonishing nowadays to realize that this was so widely understood during the years leading up to the turn of the century that Mr. Dooleywas regularly read aloud at Theodore Roosevelt’s cabinet meeting. Here is an example of his text, including the word avic:

“Ahoo,” he says, “ahoo, but me insides has torn loose,” he says, “an’ are tumblin’ around,” he says … “Say a pather an’ avy,” I says, f’r ye’re near to death’s dure, avick.”

I won’t leave you fumbling for understanding. The context is that this is a tale of a boat journey, and one character has gotten seasick, which is why he is complaining about his insides. When Dooley tells him to “say a pather and avy,” he is referencing an “our Father” and “Ave Maria,” because his friend is close to death’s dure.

I’ll let you work that last one out yourself.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.