I don’t care how thick he gets, I’m not inviting him!
I overheard this in Galway recently, and it prompted me to write a few notes on the word thick as it is used in Ireland. As well as the familiar adjectival and adverbial senses (dense, stupid, hazy, viscous, not thin, numerous, closely acquainted; thickly, densely…), which need no elaboration, thick has common colloquial senses in Irish English that do not seem to be well known or widely used in other dialects.
In the line quoted above, thick means angry, argumentative, sullen, or belligerent. It’s a versatile usage that often collocates with get and is typically associated with moody or petulant grumpiness, and sometimes with drunken antagonism. I heard the phrase regularly when I was growing up in the rural west of the country, and now in the urban west I still do, occasionally, in expressions such as:
Short digression: “X out” is a common construction in Irish English speech, where X describes someone’s general state or predominant characteristic at a given moment, e.g., happy out, busy out, tired out, sound out, hardy out, clever out, handy out, cute out, proud out, killed out. “Is he any trouble? Ah no, he’s easy out.” The out serves as a mild intensifier and colloquial marker. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s a culchie (rural) thing.
Thick is also used to mean stubborn, obstinate, or obstructive. This can overlap with the foolish or angry/sullen senses. When I asked about the word on Twitter, some ten people mentioned variations on this sense. Here’s a sample:
obdurate with a good dash of dumb (@ciarasidine)
obstinately sullen (@tomlowe)
angry/difficult/stubborn/pain in the face (@eolai)
connote[s] stubbornness, belligerence (@frankmcgahon)
stubborn in an obstructive way (@fintan)
It’s not always bullish contrariness, though: @whyowhyvonne points out that “thick/stubborn is sometimes right leading to thick/told you so.”
Note: A few of the Twitter links in this post block general access, where the user has made their tweets private.
* * *
Thick has been used as a noun in a few ways: to mean thick fog (military slang, mid-20C), thicket (Old English), most intense part (“in the thick of battle/traffic”), and thickest part (of a limb or liquid). In Irish English, there’s an additional nominal sense: thick = thick person, i.e., fool.
This is not a usage I’ve adopted, nor am I the only one who doesn’t care for it, but it’s another phrase I’ve been hearing since childhood (not directed at me, mind). It’s like thicko, thicky, and thick-a. The Shorter OED records it as “originally school slang”, and quotes two Irish authors:
The thick made out the Will wrong. (Seán Ó Casey, Juno and the Paycock)
These awful country thicks wanted to take your stool. (Maeve Binchy, Circle of Friends)
Bernard Share’s marvellous Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang has a fairly thick (bountiful) entry with a few more examples of the word’s fool sense:
The dog was no thick. He could nearly talk… (Roddy Doyle, The Van)
“That fella is only a thick-a!” which implied that whatever little brains he had were in his backside (Críostóir Ó Flynn, There is an Isle)
What kind of thicko will make a nuisance call any more… (Maeve Binchy again, in the Irish Times)
Irish internet forum Boards.ie offers many recent examples, such as:
* * *
Within a couple of hours of asking about these usages on Twitter, I had received responses from 50 or 60 people.* The way I phrased the question was slightly ambiguous, and some people read it as an either–or question. Some reasonably assumed an interest on my part in other senses of the word, e.g., its synonymy with stupid or friendly/intimate.
Focusing on the distribution of the usages detailed above: @sciamannata (Italian, in Dublin for 20 years) has heard neither; @cubikmusik (Dublin) “never heard it to mean angry”; @Qaoileann (Dublin) has “heard both”. @L_Q_S hears getting thick with “usually [from] Wicklow/Dublin people”. @cardimarie reports that “Thick as in angry is something I hear a lot from letterkenny [Donegal] folks”.
@KBreathnach “only ever hear[s] it used in that adjectival sense by friends who are from outside Dublin [...] Sligonians, generally”; @fearraigh75 confirms both usages’ “common currency in Sligo”. @Cat_OConnor thinks “it’s a Southern thing [...] Cork, Kerry, Lim[erick].” @DAngland says “I’m thick with you” is very common in Munster [S, SW]. @midnightcourt (Limerick) says he didn’t hear thick (adj.) “in [the] sense of umbrage” until he was about 20, and may have heard it first in Tipperary or Galway.
@doogarry, a “Dub in Cavan”, said that in Dublin thick = stupid, and “in Cavan thick = angry/grumpy as in ‘a thick fecker’”. She also told me that “a regular Cavan phrase is ‘thick jinnet’ [...] Means a grumpy fecker”. Probably jennet is what’s meant; I’ve heard of the word (which refers to a female donkey or small Spanish horse) being used to derogate people, albeit sometimes affectionately. Ditto donkey. The phrase doesn’t feature on this page of Cavanese.
Selected examples of thick (adj.) meaning angry, argumentative, belligerent, or sullen:
he’s got a thick head on him. (@sharonf, Down)
he was pure thick (@cardimarie, Dublin)
“Don’t get thick with me,” as in don’t get argumentative (@Darcification)
don’t be thick with me (@curlydena on behalf of a friend)
he got really thick with me (@CarlowWeather, Carlow)
My boyfriend stood me up, I was so thick=angry (@MisiJenkins, Edenderry [Offaly])
she’s gone totally thick over it. (@wordhoarding, Cork)
pure thick with the drink (@Donal_OKeeffe, quoting D’Unbelievables)
Ah jesus Mary, he was getting pure thick with me (@Cat_OConnor)
Would you look at the thick head up on him! (also from @Cat_OConnor)
fine thick head up on him (@Carmeltw, south-west; she describes it as “very west cork in particular!!”)
yer man got fierce thick when I spilt me pint down his neck (@CiaranCrotty, Limerick)
‘he’s getting a bit thick’ meaning ‘getting aggressive/argumentative’ (@tillytoogood)
that thick fella was getting thick with me (@misterebby, Galway)
yer man started getting thick with me so I hit him (@paraic, Cork)
Examples of thick (n.) meaning thick person, idiot:
He’s an awful thick. (@psneeze, Kildare)
… I’d exclaim ‘ya big thick’ at myself (@eolai, Dublin)
That feckin thick (noun) was thick (adj) with me (@jksbeard)
yer man, Cowan/Ahern/etc, the state of him, the big thick (@pkel, Dublin)
Of course it’s potatoes for dinner, don’t be such a thick. (@liamdunne, Dublin)
ah, yer man’s A Thick (@kath_graham)
Thick is an old word, but I don’t know how old these usages are. The OED dates the noun form to the mid-19C, but I’d like an Irish source for it. There’s no mention of either usage in P. W. Joyce’s English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), Loreto Todd’s Green English (2000), or T. P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2006).
Nor can I say where the expressions might have originated. They occur all over the country, though their frequency presumably varies considerably. Some people in Dublin have never heard one or either, and I would guess that the usages didn’t arise there. The south-west seems a good bet.
It would take a systematic survey (or a reference book I haven’t checked) to tease out more detail; for now, it’s enough to record these idioms and demonstrate their continuing popularity. A gracious comment by @Ariadnaquape echoes my thoughts on the matter: “it’s the nuances of meaning that amazes and intrigues me”.
Any additional thoughts, reports and examples would be very welcome.
Note: An edited version of this article appears on the Visual Thesaurus. You’ll need a subscription to read it during its first three months there.
* Given that it was an impulsive request on a bank holiday Sunday morning, this shows Twitter’s impressive utility and the generosity of its users. My question was helpfully retweeted around Ireland and in the UK, US, India, and Lebanon, and more responses continued to trickle in over the next couple of days.