Irish for Americans: Feck

Wait a second: Can you call a whiskey that?

This is a word that is often shocking to American eyes. I mean, it’s a minced oath, yes, like “gosh” or “darn.” But it looks and sounds so much like the oath it is mincing, and that oath is such a strong one. If it helps, “feck” is sort of like the Irish version of “freaking” or “frigging” or “farging” or any of the minced versions we use of the same cuss word. It’s considered mild enough to be used on Irish television, most famously in the “Father Ted” sitcom, where it was used vigorously, and in an ad for Magners Irish Cider, although that raised some complaints. The word also makes an appearance in the recent children’s film “Song of the Sea,” albeit with a faux-Hibernian spelling, on a sign outside a mount inhabited by several surviving fairy folk: They have left a note that says “humans — feic off.”

So, no, feck is not an Irish word. It originates from the same Germanic word that we know so well, the one that mean to strike, or to rub, or to have sex with. The one that has come to mean a million things in English, and has been adapted to be used a million ways, including being one of the few words that can be inserted into the middle of an existing word to strengthen is. I will demonstrate this with the word feck, but you’ll know what I mean: It’s unbe-fecking-lievable.

As you might expect, the Irish have claimed it and made it their own. For one thing, in Ireland, it can be used to describe a theft. Here’s a sample from a comment on an Indymedia Ireland article on bicycle theft: ” Be happy about it and feck another one for yourself whenever the need arises?” James Joyce uses the word this way in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in the following dialogue:

— I know why, Cecil Thunder said. Because they had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.
— Who fecked it?
— Kickham’s brother. And they all want shares in it.
— But that was stealing.

It also can be used to describe throwing something — I find a recent example of this on Twitter, from Irish author Marian Keyes describing throwing out flowers: “I took it outside and fecked it in the bin.” In fact, Shane Walshe, in his book “Irish English as Represented in Film,” warns about using feck to mean “sex.” He points out that the phrase “I fecked her down the alley beside Supermac’s” is liable to be interpreted as “I threw her down the alley beside Supermac’s.”

The word has started to enjoy some popularity in America, where it is especially associated with the Irish, perhaps in part due to the widespread availability of Cooley’s distillery’s Feckin’ Irish Whiskey, perhaps because it has been an easy way for authors to signal a sort of belligerent Irishness when writing about subjects like Celtic punk music — the American review and news site Shite’n’Onions uses the word almost as much as anyone on Father Ted. Popdose offered an article about the subject titled “What’s the Fecking Deal with Celtic Music?” I even used the term, back when I had my own Celtic punk band named The Peter O’Tooles: We used to have a monthly cabaret and variety show called “This Is The Peter O’Tooles: A Feckin’ Adults Only Variety Show.”

And this seems like the right use of the word here. “Belligerent Irishness” is one of the more popular forms the Irish-American identity takes, and never ceases to be appealing, at least for me. We’ve had a rough road, we Irish-Americans, and so we probably should be expected to meet the day with a snarl, a power chord from an out-of-tune guitar, and, at the very least, a minced oath that is the mild, family friendly version of a much rougher curse word.

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Max Sparber

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