Irish Genealogy: The Language of Adoption

It can be hard to discuss adoption; even the language is tricky.

It can be hard to discuss adoption; even the language is tricky.

My mother has been quite irritable about a specific subject recently: The language of adoption. I was profiled in a local newsweekly some months ago, and in it I referred to her as my adoptive mother. This was, of course, simply to distinguish her from my biological mother. It is the right word in the circumstance, and it is the only time I use the word adoptive — to differentiate between the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who adopted me. In all other circumstances, I simply call her my mother.

Nonetheless, she doesn’t even like this one circumstance, and would prefer I refer to my biological mother as my biological mother, and her as my mother, without any word stuck in front to remind her of the fact that I was adopted. I cannot accurately represent her viewpoint, as I am not her; moreover, I don’t understand it and am not especially sympathetic.

I am not exactly like my brothers. I am adopted. There was always a unique circumstance to the way I entered this family. And this uniqueness carries its own language.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to her discomfort about the subject of adoption. That somehow, at least as far as language is concerned, her being my adoptive mother makes her not my “real” mother. She would sometimes show that discomfort in the past, when the subject of my adoption would come up and suddenly she would slip into a little monologue about how I was every bit her son as her two other sons, who were not adopted, and I should not think of myself as any different, because I am loved just the same.

Now, there has never been any question for me about my status as a member of the Sparber family. There has never been any question that I was loved as much as either of my brothers. There was, honestly, never a need for that monologue. But there was something wrong with how she phrased it, and she was always wrong. I am not exactly like my brothers. I am adopted. There was always a unique circumstance to the way I entered this family. And this uniqueness carries its own language.

I think this is an easier subject for me as I have always known I was adopted. It has not been a subject of great concern for me, any more than the fact that I have blue eyes is a subject of great concern. It’s just part of who I am. But it does mean that my entire life, I was aware that I came from a different ethnic background than my parents. It means that I was aware that there were people out there in the world who were biologically related to me — a sort of invisible, unmet second family, a genetic family.

We don’t have very good language for this. “Family” is a word that is freighted with meaning, and it feels strange to use that word to describe people who, until a few months ago, were strangers to me. I have had contact with many of the people in my biological mother’s family, and I like them an awful lot, but I have not experienced a life with them in the way that I have with the Sparbers. On the other hand, there are relatives I have on my adoptive mother and father’s side who I have only met once or twice, and have almost no contact with, and they would be considered family.

So it is a word that encompasses all sorts of relationships. And the same thing is true of the word “mother.” In its most literal sense, it describes the person who gave birth to you. In my sense, it also described the woman who raised me, and, of course, she is the person that I think of as my mother.

Here is where she and I disagree on the subject. I am adopted, and, I have said, there is language that accompanies the experience of adoption. That language includes differentiating between the family that raised you and the family you share DNA with. The latter are called your biological family, while the former are called your adoptive family. These are terms of art to distinguish two different groups that would otherwise just get clumped together under the imprecise word “family.” And so I use them, and will continue to use them, when using them is warranted — primarily, when I must distinguish between the two groups and am worried there might be confusions. Practically, this means when I discuss adoption, which I do with some frequency.

And here is the reason I don’t have much sympathy for my mother’s irritation with this: Because it feels disrespectful of the fact that I was adopted. It takes away useful and sometimes necessary language to describe that experience. I have explained this, albeit sometimes fairly curtly. “It hurts my feelings,” she will say to me, “and if you don’t want to hurt my feelings, you’ll stop saying that.”

“I have another suggestion,” I will answer. “You’ve had almost a half-century to come to terms with the fact that I was adopted, and perhaps that’s something you could do.”

I don’t know that we’re going to come to an agreement on this, because I suspect when my mother hears or reads the word “adoptive mother,” she translates it to “not real mother,” although for me it is a neutral descriptor, like if I called her my pharmacist relative, or my nuclear family the Minnesota Sparbers. In the end, all I could tell her was that I will let her know what articles or news interviews to steer clear of so she doesn’t read or hear me use the term, and that’s the best that I can do.

But I’m going to file this one under: Things only adopted children have to deal with.

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 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.

Irish Travellers in America: Shelta

How much can we learn about Irish Travellers from one woman's experiences 80 years ago? Apparently enough to be a self-declared expert.

One woman’s experience 80 years ago; apparently still applicable.

You don’t often find Irish-Americans referring to Irish Travellers, but I did find a February 14, 1908, article in the Washington DC Evening Star in which the Gaelic League of the District of Columbia invited a speaker, Dr. Joseph Dunn, to speak about Shelta, the language of Irish Travellers. He “illustrated his talk with specimens of their written and spoken language.” From other publications I learn that Dunn was Professor of Celtic and Lecturer on Romance Philology at the Catholic University of America.

There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers.
There have been occasional non-Travellers who have developed an interest in the Traveller language, such as folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who I have mentioned before. Online slang books regularly reference Cant, another name for Shelta, although almost always as examples of the language of criminals. There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers. I shall likewise respect this privacy, and so will simply discuss the moments when the press became aware of the language without revealing too much about the language itself. I couldn’t anyway, as I am neither a linguist nor versed in Shelta, although I understand some of it is derived from Irish.

In 1946, journalist Westbrook Pegler, writing for the Idaho Statesman, mused on the doubletalk and
bafflegab of politicians, mentioned an Irish-American tradition he had heard about called “swerve” in Boston, which consisted almost entirely of nonsense phrases. Pegler dug deeper and discovered Shelta, and, upon being informed that there were still speakers of the language in New York, set out to find some. He fails to find any and ends his article asking “why the tribe of tinkers vanished from the earth.”

Of course they hadn’t, although interest in the use of the language mostly languished, but for some scholarly interest in it.  Joey Lee Dillard mentioned use of the language in 1985’s “Toward a Social History of American English,” where he claimed that most American Irish Travellers spoke Cant, a derivative of Shelta consisting of about 150 “secret words,” and few could speak the more than 1,000-2,000 Irish-derived words of Shelta. I’m not sure how correct this is, or even if there is any way to gauge its accuracy, without communities of Travellers who are willing to discuss the language and its usage, and that seems unlikely.

There was an uptick in discussion of the language after the release of “Traveller” in 1997, such as a series of letters written to The Dallas Morning News on October 10, 1997, in response to an article about itinerant con artists. The helpful but bigoted letter writers wanted to alert the author to the fact of Irish Travellers, Murphy Village, the movie “Traveller,” and the language Shelta, which one letter writer, with supreme confidence in their own unsourced knowledge, claimed is a “kind of a backward slang — ‘pig Gaelic’ — invented by Gaelic-speaking tinkers a couple of centuries ago to confuse the Irish and Scottish authorities.”

A 2000 truck accident that killed five young Travellers also brought the language to the fore, as newspapers caught a whiff of controversy when family members proved less than eager to talk to the press, especially as some of the boys may have had false IDs. The Dallas Morning News, in a story on January 23 of that year, wrote “The discrepancies fanned long-held suspicions that the Irish Travelers are more than they seem. Don Wright, an Elkhart, Ind., writer who spent more than a decade investigating the group, says they’re accomplished professionals at running assorted home-improvement scams and other frauds.”

We’ll come back to Don Wright, a travel writer and self-declared expert on Travellers who has probably been the single-most pernicious defamer of Travellers, ever eager to get in front of cameras and claim that every single Traveller is a criminal. But for now, back to the article:

They share a secret language – alternately called Shelta , Gammon or Cant – a linguistic cauldron with roots in English, Gaelic, Hebrew and Greek. It can still be heard on certain citizens band radio channels.

And this is how it goes: News articles that insist Travellers are a criminal conspiracy then bundle their language in as part of that conspiracy, implying if not stating outright that the language is mechanism for hiding their wrongdoings. The New York Daily News provided a depressing example of this in writing about Madelyne Toogood, the woman who was caught on camera beating her child in 2002. “Monster Mom is the Product of a Sad Irish Subculture” read the September 24 headline, authored by Denis Hamill, an author of thrillers who had written a book called “Fork in the Road” which tells the story of an Irish-American who falls in love with a Traveller in Ireland, who turns out to be a thief from a family of thieves. Hamill presents himself as being an expert on the subject and insists that Toogood isn’t an aberration, but comes from a world ” where women and children are often abused.”

He offers no evidence, although he claims he met many “tinkers” (a word he insists on using despite admitting that it is considered pejorative)  when he spent a semester in school in Dublin, and “there was something sad, lost and heartbreaking in the eyes of many tinker children.” Apparently, one semester in Dublin and seeing a few sad-looking children is enough to make him a specialist in the subject, although he also cites a book called “Nan: The Life of an Irish Traveling Woman,” which he describes as definitive. In fact, in “Fork in the Road,” he credits the book as one of his primary sources, and in the article Hamill claims the book “reveals a life of squalor, beatings, infant mortality, childhood illnesses, alcoholism, incest, illiteracy and general unbearable sadness.”

The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.
Firstly, to get this out of the way, “Nan” is the story of one Traveller, mostly set during the 1930s, in Ireland and England, and the abuse she suffers is almost entirely at the hands of one man, her second husband, an alcoholic. The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.

Hamill has this to say about Shelta: “The research for this novel was complicated because very little has been written about this subculture, the history of which exists almost entirely in oral tradition, and which has its own impenetrable language called Gammon or Shelta, a kind of Gaelic pig Latin.”

I can’t help but read a sort of casual contempt in this phrase. There is evidence that Shelta dates back quite far. As early as 1904, Irish scholars were noting that Shelta seems to have more in common with Old Irish than modern Irish, which puts its origins back somewhere around 900 AD. Modern English, by comparison, only dates back to about 1500 AD. While the sorts of Shelta words that are regularly published do seem to involve some pidgin language uses and some backslang, it is a private language used by a private culture, and so little of it is broadly known outside the Traveller communities.

I generally feel it is a good idea to be cautious when discussing a language you know little about from a culture you’ve mostly read about, and calling the language a “Gaelic pig Latin,” especially as part of an article that argues that Travellers everywhere are impoverished, pathetic, and abusive, is not that.

Irish for Americans: Slán

Did Walt Whitman introduce an English phrase borrowed from the Irish language? The answer is: who knows?

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!
Erin savourneen!
Erin savourneen!
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 dté tú 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.

Just to be safe, I say we stick with the Irish.