Irish for Americans: Maith thú!

A phrase popular enough in Ireland to have a children’s activity book named after it, but relatively unknown in the US.

Here’s a word that doesn’t seem to have much of a history in the United States, but I am including it in the collection because it’s just so darn useful. “Maith thú,” approximately pronounced “Mahu” means “good for you,” or “good on you,” if you’re Australian (it may have been the source of that phrase), or, mostly simply, “congratulations.”

Sure, the English will do in a pinch, but there are so many circumstances when the Irish would be a better option. Did a traditional musician just set the local pub rattling and shaking with an especially daring bodhran solo? You’re going to want to offer him or her maith thú, not congratulations. Did your nephew and his wife just have a baby they named Caoimhseach? A card, a cigar, and a maith thú is going to be most welcome. Did your daughter just dazzle judges at a dance competition with an improbably ferocious jig? She should be feted with maith thú, obviously.

It’s hard to tell how long this phrase has been in use — I first find it used as a congratulatory expression in a story in a book titled “Ships That Sailed Too” from 1918 (the story itself seems to date to 1916) and written by Aodh De Blácam; he has a scene in the book in which a group of men around a fire cry out “Maith thu, Crochuir Mor McSweeney!”

It appears like this, hither and yon, in Irish books throughout the 20th century, but only recently seems to have made the jump to America. It’s puzzling why so useful a phrase would not have found a home here. I suspect that its widespread usage in Ireland dates to after the brief rise and fast fall of the Irish language revival movement in America, and so hasn’t ever had much advocacy here. Well, the phrase has at least one advocate in the US now: me.

There is another word, comhghairdeas, which is approximately pronounced “co-gair-djas,” means “congratulations”; feel free to use this as well, although it’s less chummy and more formal.

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Max Sparber

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