Irish for Americans: Cac

Reno: What an appalling cack-hole

I have been informed on good authority that Irish isn’t a very sweary language. This is not to say that the Irish don’t curse — they do, but they literally curse you. An example: Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat, which means “May the cat eat you and the devil eat the cat.” For my tastes, that a far greater thing to scream when you’re angry than any of the blunter curse words we have in English.

But if there is one universal, it is that words for excrement will find a second use as a word used in frustration, or for abuse, or for the sheer vulgar pleasure of it, and Ireland is no exception. The word in question is “cac,” and it means, plainly, dung.

But it exists also an an exclamation. Stub your toe, shout “cac.” Lose a bet, cry out “cac.” Buy something that turns out to be broken, declare it “cac.” Step in cac, go ahead and scream “cac.” You can also construct longer sentences:

Ithe cac: eat cac.
Chac sé ar na huibheacha: He made a cac of it
Cac ar oineach: Literally “cac on honor,” it describes a very low man
Cac capaill: Horse cac

You needn’t remember these — I’ve culled them off various semi-fluent Irish language discussion boards, but cannot vouch for their authenticity nor even if they are good Irish or not.

Cac, however, is credibly Irish and credibly a curse word. It’s hard to find a lot of examples of its usage, especially examples that date back more than a few decades, because it is vulgar and vulgarities were rarely printed. We do find some samples in the historical record, however, including samples from America.

As an example, there was a despondent letter written by an Irish immigrant to a friend in Boston, republished in “Ireland and Irish America: Culture, Class, and Transatlantic Migration.” The immigrant complained of his new home, describing the “Pluide is cac is aoileach ar go h-aon taobh diom,” translated as “Muck and shit and dung all around.”

There is an example of its use among Portland’s Irish-American community, according to Matthew Jude Barker’s book “The Irish of Portland, Maine: A History of Forest City Hibernians.” He discusses the various florid nicknames given to Portland’s longshoremen, which, in English, included James “Jimmy Shit” Mulkerm who must not have been greatly pleased with his name. But Barker also mentions that many nicknames made use of Irish words, and gives Cockaneeney as an example, which Barker identifies as coming from the Irish “Cac an éiní,” or “bird droppings.”

He wasn’t alone in this nickname. Michael C. Connolly’s 2004 book “They change their sky: the Irish in Maine” mentions Irish longshoremen on the other coast of America, including one named “Cac an Einin.” When quizzed as to the meaning of the name, the subject of the interview sheepishly says, “I wouldn’t call it to his face.”

It’s worth noting that cac has made it into contemporary Irish and British slang, often spelled “cack.” Alexis Munier’s 2009 “The Little Red Book of Very Dirty Words” includes the phrase “What a load of cack,” which is self-explanatory adn easy to spot in the wild (some recent uses on Twitter). The Peevish dictionary of UK slang includes an entry for cack, but also for “cack it / oneself,” with the example being the following: “I cacked myself when I looked over the edge of the cliff at the sea 200ft below.”

According to that dictionary, “cacks” have also been adopted as slang for underpants and “cacky” is used to mean “dirty.” On “Top British Gear,” presented James May referred to Reno, NV, saying “What an appalling cack hole!”

So they’ve managed to have more than a little fun with the word cac across the pond. It’s about time we did likewise.

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Max Sparber

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