Irish for Americans: Och

Sydney Owenson, author of "The Wild Irish Girl" and a writer who knew how to deploy the word "och."

Sydney Owenson, author of “The Wild Irish Girl” and a writer who knew how to deploy the word “och.”

We all have those moments when our mind wanders afield and treads poorly, stumbling over a displeasing memory, or recalling something we should have done but didn’t, and, unconsciously, our dismay vocalizes itself in a single utterance. I don’t know about you, but it’s a sort of “oof” noise, as though I had just been struck in the stomach, or an “ah” noise, as though all the wind had just come out of me.

A lot of cultures have codified this noise: They are the oys, the uff das, the ay yai yais of the world. And, as you may have noticed, the Irish have a lot of them, but none catches the puffing explosions of unhappy breath quite so well as “och.” I even say it without thinking of it, especially when exasperated, although it tends to sound more like “uuugggccchhh” when I do it.

They are the oys, the uff das, the ay yai yais of the world. And, as you may have noticed, the Irish have a lot of them, but none catches the puffing explosions of unhappy breath quite so well as “och.”
William Shaw noted the word all the way back in 1760, in a book called “A Galic and English dictionary,” translating it, simply, as “Oh!” This doesn’t convey the sense of sorrow, or shame, or consternation that the word is now associated with, although the first time I find it in a sentence it is used with marvelous ambiguity. It appears in an epistolary novel called “The Wild Irish Girl” by Sydney Owenson, which was rather a runaway hit in 1806. There is a scene in which the narrator gives money to the title character; she is starving and the money is for food. Instead, she buys whiskey, and the narrator is incensed. He is lectured by a character named Murtoch, who expresses the following:

“It is so, please your Honour,” replied he, ” but then it is meat, drink, and clothes to us, for we forget we have but little of one and less of the other, when we get the drop within us ; Och, long life to them that lightened the tax on the whiskey, for by my safe conscience, if they had left it on another year we should have forgotten how to drink it.”

The word appeared with as a clearer expression of anguish in song, such as the marvelously named “Morning a Cruel Turmoiler Is” by the Scottish composer Alexander Boswell but intended as an Irish air. The chorus includes the following:

Och! then you rogue Pat O’Flannaghan,
Kegs of whisky we’ll tilt,
Murtoch, replenish our can again,
Up with your heart-cheering lilt.

I don’t know when the song was composed, but it was published in 1814 in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “A select collection of original Irish airs for the voice,” and I suspect it was directly influenced by “The Wild Irish Girl” — I mean, for heaven’s sake, the song includes both whisky and a man named Murtoch, which seems an unlikely coincidence.

There’s a song that celebrates the shillelagh in an 1820 collection called “A Capital Collection of Popular Songs.” Just as Germany is sometimes called the Land of Chocolate, this song considers Ireland “The Land of Shillelagh,” and that is what the song is named. The lyrics include the following:

The Irish shillelagh, och! faith it’s no joke,
Is nearly a-kin to the old English oak;
Their relationship no one will doubt, sure, who knows
The striking similitude felt by its blows.

That sure sounds like an unhappy use of “och,” and not simply the exclamation “oh.”

It’s an expression of irritation when it first comes to America. The first time I find it on our shores is in a poem titled “The Irish Angler” that appeared in the Greenfield Gazette on November 28, 1792. The poem is both short and funny, so I will reproduce the entire thing:

by Peter Pinder

An Irishman angling one day in the Liffey,
Which runs down by Dublin’s great city so fine,
A smart show’r of rain falling, Pat, in a jiffey
Crept under the arch of a bridge with his line.

Why that’s not the place to accommodate your wishes
Cries DERMOT — there devil a bite will you get!
Och, broder! says Pat, don’t you know that the fishes,
Will flock under here to get out of the wet.

The word continued to show up in jokes, and so, what the heck, here are a few.

From the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, January 6, 1840:

A gentleman was observing an Irish servant girl, who was left handed, placing the knives and forks in a similar position on the dinner table, remarked to her that she was laying them left-handed. “Och indade!” said she, “so I have; be pleased, sir, to help me turn the table around.”

From the Idaho Statesman, July 7, 1903:

A faithful Irish maid called upon her former mistress, who had recently lost her mother. “Och, mum!” Nora began, “an’ the shwate lady’s gone; sure Oi niver knowed it till a wake afther th’ buryin’. She wuz loike wan av me own, an’–” with a fresh burst of tears, “there wasn’t nobody Oid rather hov seen dead than yure darlin’ ould mother.”

The word survives in America now mostly thanks to crossword puzzles, which find the question “kin of ‘och'” to be useful; it apparently still has currency in Ireland, where it is often spelled “ach,” which is closer to how it is pronounced, at least in Belfast. The BBC’s Northern Ireland Voices webpage gives several common uses for the word: “Ach sure,” “Ach alright,” and “Ach ay.” In this case, it seems the word is being used as William Shaw first defined it in 1760, as a version of “oh,” except, in the context of the fuller quotes, there is a frustration or ruefulness expressed:

  • Ach sure, we nivver died o winter yet.
  • Ach alright, 20 quid and it’s yours.
  • Ach ay, it’ll be ready for you at six.

I am sure we Irish-American are capable of similar linguistic creativity, but, for the moment, let’s begin just by reintroducing the word to our vocabulary. Next time you drop your phone and hear the lens shatter, just lean back and say “och.” Next time you write a nasty email to a friend about a mutual acquaintance, and then realize you have accidentally emailed it to the acquaintance, throw back your head and shout “och.” Next time you’re at Thanksgiving and that certain uncle brings up politics, just roll your eyes and let loose with a pointed “och.”

You’ll be surprised at how right it feels.

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Max Sparber

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