Irish for Americans: Fluthered

Author Frank McCourt, a man who knew how to get fluthered.

Author Frank McCourt, a man who knew how to get fluthered.

Fluthered isn’t a word from the Irish language. It is, instead, mostly likely based on the English word “flutter,” and there’s a long tradition of using the word “fluttered” in the British Isles to describe someone who is agitated. It’s a vivid image, especially if you’ve ever seen a distressed or trapped bird engaged in especially frantic fluttering.

But the Irish have something we don’t in English — soft versions of hard consonants. And so you’ll find that entirely ordinary words, when spoken by some Irish people, sometimes take on an unexpected sibilance. Oddly, the Irish tend to replace th’s with hard t’s when they appear at the start of a word, so while “butter” is sometimes pronounced “buther,” “three” is sometimes pronounced “tree.”

The Irish have a lot of slang words for drunk, and I’ll offer a few of my favorites:

  • Bulloxed
  • Gee-Eyed
  • Langered
  • Motherless
  • Ossified
  • Paralytic
  • Strocious

However, I’ve chosen to highlight fluthered for a few reasons. Firstly, I like that it highlights one of the idiosyncrasies of Irish pronunciation. Secondly, it recalls a character from Se├ín O’Casey’s “The Plow and the Stars,” one of the better-known Irish plays in America.

The character is Fluther Good, a trade-unionist and carpenter with dual tastes for drink and alliteration; at one point he cries out “lt’ll take more than that to flutther a feather o’ Fluther.” I don’t know whether Fluther Good inspired the word fluthered, the opposite happened, or both occurred independently, one of those coincidences of history, like the fact that Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray applied for patents for telephones on exactly the same day. Sometimes it’s just time for a thing to exist and it will appear in multiple places at once, and so it may be with fluthered.

The word hasn’t made many appearances in America, but that just means its time is due. Past due, really, because my research suggests Irish-Americans have been occasionally attempting to introduce the word since at least January 3, 1958, when sports writer Bill Cunningham included it in a Boston Herald article about the popularity of football on New Year’s Day. Prior to the advent of televised sports, Cunningham argues, the first day of the year had little associated it but for some religious rituals and some irreligious hangovers, “with the pious going to church and the pagans getting deliberately fluthered.”

A sentence like that should immediately have cemented the popularity of the word, but didn’t. Frank McCourt also took a shot at it, many years later in 1999, in his celebrated book “Angela’s Ashes.” He tells the story of working as a messenger boy, and of an English woman who fed him sherry and then pushed a ham sandwich in his mouth, which he responds to by turning it into ejectamenta. The produces the following, dazzling condemnation:

And after all we did for him, giving him the telegrams with the good tips, sending him to the country on fine days, taking him back after his disgraceful behavior with Mr. Harrington, the Englishman, disrespecting the body of poor Mrs. Harrington, stuffing himself with ham sandwiches, getting fluthered drunk on sherry, jumping out the window and destroying every rosebush in sight, coming in here three sheets to the wind, and who knows what else he did delivering telegrams for two years, who knows indeed, though we have a good idea, don’t we, Miss Barry?

And last example, from Andrew Greely, the priest, sociologist, and popular author, who wrote the following in his book “Irish Linen: A Nuala Anne McGrail Novel”:

I treated myself to a second jar of Middleton’s, aware that if I came home fluthered, I’d be banished from our marriage bed. Well, that never happened, because it takes at least three jars to fluther me.

Another fine sentence! Another argument for the widespread adoption of the word!

I mean, you’ve got plenty of words to choose from. Get paralytic, if you like. Get paralytic, if that’s your preference.

But if you choose to get fluthered, you’re following in the linguistic footsteps of one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights, an American sportwriter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and a priest.

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Max Sparber

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