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:
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 Seán 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.
Did Walt Whitman introduce an English phrase borrowed from the Irish language? The answer is: who knows?
Those of you with an instinct for language may already suspect that slán, the Irish goodbye, is related to sláinte, the Irish way of saying “cheers,” and you’re right. Slán, in its various permutations, relates to wellness and safety, and so, just as when you toast somebody you’re wishing them goof health, so do you send people away with an adieu that looks toward their wellbeing.
In fact, slán is a bit truncated. In Ireland, the person who leaves says slán agat, which about translates as “health to you,” and the person who remains says slán leat, which about translates as “health with you.” There are other versions as well: slán libh, said to two or more people who are leaving, and so it the plural form of “health to you,” and, if you are leaving two or more people, you are also going to want to express your bon voyage in a plural form, and so: slán agaibh.
There’s also slán abhaile, which essentially means “safe home,” and, as you might guess, is said to someone headed home. This phrase appears on Irish roadsides on signs or murals. In small towns, it may appear to remind people to drive carefully. In Northern Ireland, it was often intended as a cocky goodbye to British soldiers who were stationed there. And there’s slán go fóill, which is used to mean “goodbye for now.” There’s even slán agus beannacht leat, health and blessings to you.
It’s a lot to remember, and so slán will do.
As is often the case, the word first appears in America in songs and poems, such as one titled “Irish Song,” authored by a Mrs. Crawford and originally published in Metropolitan Magazine sometime around 1842. The opening stanza:
Here’s a health to sweet Erin
When roaming afar,
She shines in her beauty,
My soul’s guiding star:
O’ ’tis long since the green hills
Of Caven I saw!
Slan laght go bragh!
The last part shows up in poems throughout the 19th century, and is translated, in some versions, as “Ireland my darling, forever adieu.”
It’s easy to find the word, and phrases based on it, in the Irish press in America. In early 1899, New York’s Irish World bid their goodbye to the previous year with a column titled “Slan Leat ’98.” The Irish American Weekly, from the same city, also made use of the word in headlines, such as an article a 1902 story about New York’s Gaelic society saying goodbye to member William J. Balfe, who was headed to Connecticut; the story was called “Slan Leat Balfe.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer decided to teach some Irish for St. Patrick’s Day in 1921, mostly consisting of the Irish word for the holiday, various simple greetings, and some words used to reference Ireland. They also offered up “go dtero tu slan,” which they defined as “success attend you” (properly, go dtétú slán), and”slant lib,” which they translate as “safety be with you,” and is our very own slán libh. They warned that their versions might not be ideal, writing “all of which the unattended had better refrain from attempting to produce from our spelling, for many of the letters used by us are modified or altogether silenced by accents which we cannot reproduce.” Come on, Inquirer. In 1921, you didn’t have cold press type that could print a fada?
There is also a disputed argument that a popular English phrase comes from slán— I speak of “so long,” which, the argument goes, comes from an American mishearing of the Irish phrase. “The Irish and the Making of American Sport” from 2014 repeats the origin story as fact, but there are no facts when it comes to slang, just conjecture. There are other possible candidates for the English goodbye. The Germans apparently say so lange, which is a good match, as is the Norwegian så lenge and the Swedish så länge. There is also shalom in Hebrew and salaam in Arabic. There’s even selang in Malasian. But we Irish like to claim that we originated things, and if we want to try and get our grips on so long, I won’t get in the way.
In fact, I’ll offer some weak help. It seems the first appearance of the word “so long” in print is in a poem by Walt Whitman, titled, perhaps unsurprisingly, “So Long.” Whitman was obsessed with the New York youth movement called the “Bowery B’hoys,” a dandified collection of street toughs who habituated the theater, got into fights in the Five Corners, and tended to congregate at volunteer fire departments, which the used as social clubs and opportunities for recreational violence. The Bowery B’hoys had a strong Irish immigrant influence, as their name suggests, and Whitman was obsessed with their slang, going so far as to carefully make note of it and use it in his own poems.
So does “so long” come from slán? Maybe. Of course, there was a riot of languages in New York when the Bowery B’hoys were about, including German, Norwegian, Swedish, and even Malasian, so maybe it didn’t.
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:
THE IRISH ANGLER
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.”
It does not mean “Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor”; at least, it doesn’t in Irish.
There’s some argument about this word, and I’m not scholar enough to know who is right, so I’ll just share all the interpretations. Generally, “musha” is treated as an expression of surprise. Some insist it comes from the Irish “má ea,” meaning “it is so”; others say the word originates with “māiseadh,” meaning the same thing, approximately, and some spell it “muise” and insist it means “indeed” and can be used wherever indeed would work. (“Irish English as Represented in Film” by Shane Walshe claims it also essentially means “well, well” and “is that so?”) And, finally, some claim that it is yet another minced oath, this time a way for saying the name of the Virgin Mary without actually saying it.
Whatever it is, there’s also some controversy about whether anyone uses it anymore. Dictionaries declare it archaic, and, when I find it online, it is mostly in stories about people’s parents or grandparents from Ireland, who apparently used it all the time. And, of course, the word appears in the popular Irish folk song “Whiskey in the Jar,” in the chorus: “Musha ring dum-a do dum-a da.” It may mean nothing in this context, although some will argue that it’s garbled, but it’s Irish.
So if I can’t tell you precisely how the word originated or what it means, I can tell you how it is used. Let me give you an example from “The Anglo-Irish of the Nineteenth Century,” a novel that actually is from the 19th century (1828, specifically) by John Banim. In it, a character is interrogated about a letter he had written to his landlord to plead leniency regarding the rent. “And even he did not answer you better?” asks the interrogator.
“Musha, sir, not he,” comes the response. “Who’d expect it?”
What fits into this? Indeed does, yes, as does “well, well,” and, to an extent, “it is so.” Let’s look to another example to see if we can get a clearer sense of the use of the word. Charles James Lever wrote a book in 1841 called “Charles O’Malley, the Irish Dragoon.” In it, the narrator tells of his seagoing father, who, in one tale, mixes nine tumblers of alcohol for his captain, who waves away the final one.
“Misha, but it’s sorry I am,” the father declares, “too see you this way, for ye must be bad entirely to leave off in the beginning of the evening.” The next morning, the captain is dead.
All of the translations work perfectly well here too, god damn it. Well, let’s travel to America and see how the word was used here, and maybe that will give us a clue.
New York’s Daily People has a piece titled “The Tenement Forum” from August 19, 1901, consisting entirely of an Irish immigrant complaining about an Italian family that had moved to the apartment upstairs. A friend tries to argue that it is entirely natural that another ethnic group might move in. “Isn’t it natural for the capitalist to go to the cheapest labor market for his goods, the workingmen?” asks the friend, sounding like a character from an Ayn Rand novel. “Musha, I suppose it is,” says the Irishman. I don’t quite know how to read this, except as capitulation.
There’s an interesting use of the word in the November 7, 1908, edition of the Indianapolis Freeman telling of an Irishman who discovers a group of Irish speakers in the Bahamas who happen to be black. He believes them to be descendants of Irish slaves banished in the time of Oliver Cromwell, and, upon meeting them, calls out “Musha, a surprisin’ thing to hear.”
This does seem to be an example of musha being used to express surprise, although “indeed” works perfectly well as a translation too.
Let’s close with a tail from the Omaha World-Herald from August 22, 1920, in which an Irish woman expresses amazement at learning another woman had a lover once. “Why, what at all?” she asks. “Musha then! Why, Kate, my darlin’! and what happened him that you nivar mentioned his name?”
There it is, the surprise again. And so that’s how we will use it — exactly as you would use “it is so,” or indeed,,” or “well well,” just so long as you are a bit surprised when you say it.
Note, there is another usage, “ara musha,” and it is a term of endearment and should not be mistaken for this usage.
This Side of Paradise: Och, mavrone, I don’t know what it means to be Irish-American.
It will probably surprise nobody that the Irish have a few ways of expressing grief. Everybody has a few. In English, we’ll shout out “woe,” or, at least, we do in moody Victorian literature. Jews have their “oys” and “gevaults.” Spanish speakers will sometimes cry out a heartfelt “Ai yai yai.” We all feel sad sometimes, we all feel bad now and then, and we all need a way to communicate it.
However, the Irish seem to have a philosophy that there is no use having one word for a thing when you can have a hundred instead. It’s something Flann O’Brien jokes about, claiming that while it is possible to make due with 400 words in English, the average Irish peasant needs 400,000. He wrote:
The plight of the English speaker with his wretched box of 400 vocal beads may be imagined when I say that a really good Irish speaker would blurt out the whole 400 in one cosmic grunt. In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time. Their life (not to say their language) becomes very complex at the century mark; but there you are.
And so Irish has a lot of words for grief, and we’ll address a few of them: “och,” “ochone,” and “wirra.” But it’s fitting we start with “mavrone,” as the word literally means “my grief.” The word appears twice in James Joyce’s writings, both in sentences that seem designed to remind readers why Joyce can sometimes seem to be incomprehensible. Her’es the word in “Finnegan’s Wake”:
And we to be there, mavrone, and you to be unbeknownst sending us your conglomerations the way we to have our tongues out a yard long like the drouthy clerics do be fainting for a pussful.
Of course, if there was ever someone whose language use we might treat with suspicion, it is Joyce, who sometimes seemed to write as though he thought composing an entire book in fake Latin and Irish would be fun. But mavrone is a real word, folks. It probably dates back quite far, but the first example I find is from 1810, from a book titled “The Shamrock, Or the Hibernian Songster.”
The book includes a song called “Judy O’Flannikin,” a daffy love song to, I believe, a tavern-owner’s daughter, which features this couplet:
Oh, hone! good news I need a bit! We’d correspond but larning would choke her. Mavrone! I cannot read a bit; Judy can’t tell a pen from a proker.
From here on it, the word makes frequent appearances in Irish song, poetry, and fiction. My favorite is in the boastful song “The Rale Ould Irish Gintleman,” which contains a torrent of expressions of grief:
But och mavrone! once at a row ould Barney got a knock, And one that kilt him, ’cause he couldn’t get over the shock ; They laid him out so beautiful, and then set up a groan, Och ! Barney, darlint, jewel dear, why did you die ? och, hone !
When the word came to America, is was likewise embedded in stories, songs, and poems. I first locate it in a tale called “The Legacy; Or, The Miser’s Bargain,” published New York’s Irish American Weekly in 1858. In it, a relative tries to talk a miser out of his ways, arguing that at his death, the miser would want good stories of him in life. “Oh! marvone, why not?” responds the miser.
We first find the word used in America in a non-literary way on March 11, 1864, in a letter from a Tennessee soldier to a friend, published in the Daily Illinois State Register. The letter is presented as a humorous account of military life, although it now less reads as comedy than horror. He complains of new recruits who are age 12 to 16 — we would consider them child soldiers now. He makes frequent use of racist epithets. “Och marvone,” he says, “the way I excoriate these fellows is a terror.”
The word became associated with literary, and especially theatrical or Tin Pan Alley-styled Irishness (sometimes called Oirishness, because of its use of stagey Irish accents.) Perhaps the most famous example of this is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” The book’s protagonist, Amory Blaine, who tries his hand at writing a poem at one point. The poem is titled “A Lament for a Foster Son, and He going to the War against the King of Foreign,” and is written in a thick literary brogue, as well as being peppered with Irish words and phrases. The poem includes:
Mavrone go Gudyo [My sorrow forever]He to be in the joyful and red battle Amongst the chieftains and they doing great deeds of valor His life to go from him It is the cords of my own soul would be loosed.
Fitzgerald’s Irishness was always a bit ambiguous, and Amory Blaine is clearly just Fitzgerald by another name. He’s reaching out to his Irish past in the face of the Great War, but all he can find are cliches and language so foreign that he must translate it parenthetically, and by the end of the novel, Amory is sick of it — “tired of the Irish question,” as Fitzgerald wrote.
In 1987, Irish author Julia O’Faolain wrote “No Country for Young Men,” which included a number if Irish-Americans who come to Ireland, and likewise have complicated, difficult relationships with the country. One cries out:
“Words! The Irish are great with words!’ he exclaimed. ‘But they don’t mean anything,’ he roared. ‘They obfuscate. They play about with. They lie and deny. They skirmish and ambush. All your whole goddamn literature is about evasion. The exile who had to go away. The lover who lost his lass. I bought a book of popular love songs to fill my empty hours—I told you I’m like a kept woman. I have to fill the time. And I see now what you meant by negatives. Renunciation. Dig my grave both deep and wide. Laments. Goodbyes. No commitment to anything but giving up. The system is the way it is and ochone and mavrone and leave me alone and I’ll sing a song about it.”
And this seems to be what the word has become — not just an expression of grief, but an ambiguous expression of grief, representations of a foreign Irishness that we’re not sure we share.
I’m not sure it needs to mean this, but ochone, mavrone, what is to be done?
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.
Stand back, said the Edison film, I’m going to sneeze.
As much as is possible, I have tried to steer clear of overtly religious language in this project, recognizing that not all Irish-Americans share the same religion, or even subscribe to any religion at all. But one cannot discuss Irish honestly without recognizing that it is a language deeply informed by Catholicism from a country where a sizable percentage of the population was and remains religious. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that a typical response to someone sneezing is the phrase “Dia linn,” meaning “God be with us.” After all, how many Americans say “God bless you” when someone sneezes?
I will note that some Americans have adopted the word sláinte, meaning “health,” as an alternative; I grew up in Minnesota, and so grew up with the word gesundheit, which means the same thing, although when I say it in places without so strong a German presence, people sometimes respond with confusion, because why did I just start speaking German? Sláinte is liable to get the same response — to many people, including most actual Irish people, it’s a toast, and so calling it out after a sneeze would sound a bit like crying out “Bottom’s up!”
And so, if you wish to be widely understood, it’s probably best to stick with Dia linn, and why not? Saying something after a sneeze is a superstitious gesture anyway, and it seems strangely churlish to say “I am okay with a protective magical shout after sternutation, but I draw the line at invoking deities.” But use language as you see best fit, or don’t use it at all, if that’s your preference. This project is a smorgasbord of Irish words and phrases, and you may choose to use or not use any of it, depending on your tastes.
For those who wish to use Dia linn, however, I would like to point out that the phrase has made it to America. In fact, as I am a Minnesotan, you’re not going to be able to stop me, as Dia Linn was the name of the very first treatment center exclusively for female alcoholics, located in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The center was founded in 1956 and named after its founder, Pat Butler, took a trip to Ireland.
One can’t help but wonder if sláinte was considered.
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.
A program in which you take a sentence and sort of explode it.
I have just completed Pimsleur’s 10-lesson “Learn to Speak Irish” program, which, despite some lukewarm reviews, does have the benefit of being on of the easiest programs to use on an iPhone on the way to and from work. It’s easily found in the iTunes store, relatively cheap (each lesson is under six dollars), and, at about half an hour per lesson, is the perfect length for a commute, especially if, like me, you take the bus.
I’m going to talk about my experience using this, although this shouldn’t be considered a review. After about two months of studying spoken Irish for an hour per day, I know about 300 words and a few sentences, which gives me the language skills of a 3-year-old. (Although, credit where it is due: It took me three years to learn this much English, and I couldn’t read English as a boy, and I can almost read Irish now, so I am, at least in this way, better than a child.)
This is little enough language to put me squarely in the land of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the phenomenon of knowing so little that you don’t know what you don’t know, and so you overestimate your accomplishment. I always try to be aware of the curse of Dunning-Kruger, and this is one instance where I am achingly aware. I am not capable of having even the most rudimentary conversations in Irish, although I could point at a cup of juice and demand it, which is, I gather, most of what 3-year-olds talk about.
So I don’t know how good or not good the Pimsleur course is, except by comparison. I have been through some language programs before, in Hebrew and Yiddish and a little Spanish. Based on past experience, I feel like the phrases the Pimsleur course offered where useful, albeit not the sort of thing that might make for great conversation. I can tell people that I speak Irish, which isn’t really true, but I can add that it’s just a little Irish, which is true, and that I don’t understand what they are saying, which will certainly be true. I can say that I want to eat, although I would not be able to say what I want to eat. I can say that I want to shop, although I cannot tell people what I want to buy. I can ask directions to a street or road, although I wouldn’t understand a word of direction that was spoken to me, but for the phrases “here” and “there.”
There is a puzzling lack of completion to the Pimsleur program in this way. I can order wine or beer, but not whiskey, which, frankly is absurd. I can order lunch but not breakfast or dinner. I can tell the time from one to five, and from eight to nine, but not for any other number, which will be trouble if it is six o’clock, or, God help me, 6:12.
But, then, how much can you teach in 10 lessons? Pimsleur may have given me a series of incomplete lessons, but I get the sense that they don’t have much interest in creating long word lists of everything you might want to buy in a grocery store or every single number or every day of the week or the name of each month.
No, instead Pimsleur’s courses did something I found I quite enjoyed. They would build a little sentence and then just sort of explode it, taking it to pieces and remaking it, plugging in new words, or modifying the words in the original sentence. You might say “I know Irish” in one minute and then say “I know a little Irish” a moment later, and ever later say “I know Irish, but not much” and then say “I understand a little Irish.” And the program does this with sentence after sentence after sentence after sentence. The program sort of creates little building blocks of language that can reassembled in new ways, and so, even if they didn’t bother to teach me any meal other than lunch, once I learn how to say breakfast and dinner (and I do know those words, having learned them on my own), I can just swap out “lunch” for one of the other meals.
Additionally, Pimsleur makes extensive use of something called “spaced repetition,” which is a surprisingly effective trick for leaning new vocab words. They tend to repeat a new word quite a few times at the start, and then bring the word back with increasingly long breaks between uses. In this way, you’re constantly reminded of the word, but just at the moment when you were about to forget it, or just forgot it. From what I have read, there is evidence that this is how the brain actually moves things from short-term to long-term memory — it’s a constant process of forgetting and remembering again, learning and relearning, and each time the memory gets a little strong. And, I must say, having used audio programs in the past to learn other languages, I found this very much to my liking. Learning new words felt less like a process of blunt, route repetition and more like something that I absorbed relatively effortlessly.
Well, “effortlessly” might be overstating it. I’m not clear on how long Pimsleur wants students to listen to each lesson — from the way the narrator speaks, it sounds like you’re supposed to do a lesson a day. I did a lesson a week, and still struggled to really feel comfortable with the information from the lesson. But, at the end of 10 weeks, I feel good about the program — I am satisfied with the amount I learned, and also the degree to which I can use the language I have learned. I may not be able to say much, but I’m confident in what I can say.
A few notes: The program isn’t explicit about this, but the program is taught in the Munster dialect. From what I have read, this is a pretty common dialect used in teaching Irish, perhaps because the dialect was important in the Gaelic revival of the early 20th century, and many people consider it a sort of “standard” Irish dialect, in the way the Midwestern American accent is treated as being a sort of neutral American accent. But, still, it is nice to know which dialect you’re speaking — although they are mutually comprehensible, all of the Irish dialects have their own idiosyncrasies, which can be significant.
It’s also worth noting that the Pimsleur course lacks a transcript, as it was intended as an audio course, and so doesn’t offer any education in the thicket that is Irish spelling. For those who have learned how to read Irish, however, an unofficial transcript exists of the first eight lessons.
I have coupled this program with another that I shall detail in a later post, and I must say I had forgotten how much work it is to study a new language. On the other hand, I’ve only been at it a few months and my experience of Irish has changed dramatically in that time. At the start, Irish couldn’t have been more alien a language to me — not only did it sound like a sort of incomprehensible language of elves, but that’s literally how it was used in “Hellboy 2.” It can be overwhelming when you come face to face with a language so different from English — initially, all you hear are blocks of noise, with no identifiable form, often containing unexpected and bewildering combinations of vowels and consonants.
Now it has become something far more comfortable. Even though I don’t know much yet, the shape of the language has started to reveal itself to me, enough so that it is no longer overwhelming. It no longer sounds like something unfathomable foreign. I don’t quite know what it sounds like to me, but it is something more familiar, something I am comfortable hearing even when I understand so little of it.
Let’s begin with the definition: Simply put, “begorra” (sometimes spelled “begorrah”) means “by God,” but in the way that we crush up “damn it” to “darn it” and “Jesus” to “gee!” Properly named, it’s called a “minced oath,” and this one dates back to at least 1839, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Wiktionary describes this word as “dated, Ireland, now literary,” meaning it is the sort of word that the Irish don’t use, aren’t sure they ever used, think maybe it’s something Hollywood made up, and don’t really like to hear, like “top o’ the morning.” Critic Terry Eagleton wrote that “if you hear anyone say ‘Begorrah’ during your stay in Ireland, you can be sure he’s an undercover agent for the Irish Tourist Board pandering to your false expectation.”
“Nobody in Ireland has ever been known to use this word,” Eagleton insists, “just as no American actually says ‘Jeepers creepers.'”
He’s not right — both “Begoora” and “Top o’ the morning” are authentically Irish, if long-abandoned. (Also, a cursory glance at American newspapers from the 1930s and 40s shows numerous uses of “Jeepers creepers” in the wild, including an ad from “Everybody’s Poultry Magazine” from 1942 in which the text screams ““Jeepers! Creepers! They’ve chopped off I one of my fingers since last month’s ad.”
Certainly, by the 20th century, “Begorra” had become the language of stage Irish, sometimes in the phrase “faith and begorra,” but perhaps most notoriously as a description of the difference between the decidedly outre Gate theater, with gay management, and the more staid, rural, naturalistic Abbey theater: They were called Sodom and Begorrah.
But if the phrase fell into disuse in Ireland, Americans, who like their Irish antiquated and twee, aren’t going to let it go anytime soon. We’ve been putting the phrase in the mouth of Irish characters as long as we have had Irish characters, no matter how unusual the circumstance. There was, as an example, the tale of an Irishman to be executed during the Mexican-American War, published in the Daily Ohio Statesman on October 7, 1852, the first American use I can find of the word. The soldier is visited in prison by his father, and the soldier pleads with his father to arrange a meeting with the General, so that the soldier can state his case for innocence. “Begorrah, Teddy, an’ I know this; but the Gineral don’t” the father says, “Oh, he will hang yez, I know he will!” And he does.
For instance, there was pulp novelist Edward S. Ellis, whose 1882 novel “The Huge Hunter, Or the Steam Man of the Prairies” had an Irish character named Mickey who, at one point, cries out, “Begorrah, but it’s the ould divil, hitched to his throttin ‘waging, wid his ould wife howlding the reins!” This is not the sort of dialogue we typically associate with the Old West, but, apparently, even on the frontier, Irish gonna Irish.
They did so on the railroads, at least in the 1933 novel “A Yankee Dares: A Romance of the Railroads” by Frank J Nevins, where the Irish who work the rails yelp out “Begorrah” every so often. There was even a dog who used the word, sort of: Tramp from the 1955 Disney film “Lady and the Tramp,” a film that really loved its stereotypical ethnic characters. At one point, Tramp goes on a bit of a tear, speaking in a cod Irish accent. “Now, O’Brien’s here is where little Mike – sure’n that’s me again, Pidge – comes of a Tuesday,” he says. “Begorra, that’s when they’re after havin’ the darlin’ corned beef.”
And the word still has currency in America: I find a story from the Brooklyn Daily from this past October titled “Sure and begorrah — Irish Eyes are Smiling,” which manages to combine two cliches into one headline. A month earlier, Daily News columnist Denis Hammill offered his view on gay marchers in the New York St. Paddy’s Day parade, writing “Begorrah, let’s hope both sides will forget the hard feelings.”
I’m all for it. If the Irish themselves have abandoned the phrase “Begorrah,” I say we get it. It won’t be the first time something authentically Irish had been rejected by the Irish and celebrated by Americans, who made it their own. Go ahead and say it. Say it wherever you like. Say it in Ireland, if you want to.
You’ll probably get snapped at by an irritable Irishman, who will remind you that it’s not actually something Irish people say.
“Sure and Begorrah, it’s not,” you can tell him. “But it is something Irish-Americans say.”