Making a hames of it

The word hame is usually found in the plural: hames are two curved wooden or metal pieces forming part of the collar of a draught animal’s harness; they fit around the neck and the traces are fastened to them. (A draught/draft animal is one used for muscular work, typically pulling – i.e., drawing – a cart, plough, or other heavy load.)

In Ireland, though, hames has been repurposed in the informal idiom make a hames of, meaning make a mess or a hash of. It implies the mess has resulted from carelessness, clumsiness, or ineptitude: a sports player who misses an easy opportunity, or a baker who forgets the leavening agent, can be said to have made a hames of it.

Hames is sometimes preceded by a modifying or intensifying term: you could make a right hames, a fierce hames, an almighty hames, an awful hames, or a complete and total hames of a task. Browsing Google Books we find a variety of things being made a hames of: jobs, plays, heists, documents, Bibles, sums, relationships, Socialism:

This was a good start: my first salaried job and I was making a hames of it. (Robert E. Tangney, Other Days Around Me)

Why should a carefully-prepared document be made a hames of by a typographically illiterate user who has set to display as 44pt Punk Bold in diagonal purple and green stripes? (TEX Users Group, Vol. 16, 1995)

Often it’s just it that appears at the end of the phrase, in which case the expression refers to something made obvious by the context:

“Expressed at its simplest, it’s ‘You can’t let the Irish run the country, sure they’d make a hames of it.’” (David McKittrick, Endgame: The search for peace in Northern Ireland)

“How did I make a hames of your play?” asked F. J. “You made a hames of it at that particular line when Donal says… (Garry O’Connor, Sean O’Casey: A Life)

Make a hames of is very much an Irish expression. Its meagre results in Google’s vast books corpus, and its total absence from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (and the Historical one), testify to the idiom’s limited province. But it’s in active use here. I heard it regularly growing up, and still do occasionally. I like how it sounds.

A search on the Irish Times website reveals several recent instances of its use from politicians, spokepersons, and journalists themselves, including the memorable line: “But why is the young Irish male making such a hames of the hip-hop hug?” It even shows up in headlines. More informal examples may be found in the Boards.ie forums.

The OED says hame is from Middle Dutch (Dutch haam) corresponding to Middle High German ham(e) = fishing rod, of unknown origin. Why it was incorporated into the phrase make of hames of is uncertain: maybe because it’s difficult to put hames on the right way. Michael Quinion says his “carriage-driving consultant tells me it’s all too easy to put the hames on a horse the wrong way up, thus making a complete mess of things”. Terence Dolan tentatively supports this etymology.

Chambers Slang Dictionary mentions hame and haym as variants of haim (etymology unknown), jazz lingo for “a job other than in the music business; . . . a job, usually tedious or unpleasant”, but there’s no obvious connection with the hames discussed above. I could try to forge one speculatively, but I would probably make a hames of it.

Update:

See this Twitter chat about Irish words that hames might have come from, including @Karenwq4′s suggestion seamlas whose meanings include shambles and mess, and a related list from Dulach Glynn.

[more posts on Hiberno-English]
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29 Responses to Making a hames of it

  1. WiseMona says:

    A word/phrase I use quite frequently.

  2. marc leavitt says:

    Re your ending comment; I probably would too.

  3. Stan says:

    Mona: Me too, and I’ve always liked it. Welcome, by the way.

    Marc: Not that the hames factor always discourages me from speculative etymology, but today it will.

  4. Shaun Downey says:

    Interesting stuff Stan. It’s a great expression which I use quite often too

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Stan ~ I use it too but nearly always with the qualifier “a right” and as a variation when I get too repetitive : “a right banjax”.
    Have you dealt with banjax in past posts?
    XO
    WWW

  6. Herself says:

    Your post made me smile Stan! Like wisewebwoman it was “a right hames” we made of things growing up. In spite of the implications, it didn’t sound too harsh and I still like the sound of it. I only heard “banjax” used as a verb, as in “you banjaxed that”!

  7. Stan says:

    Shaun: Glad to hear it. I’m curious about what other countries it has any currency in, so adding the UK and Canada makes three and counting.

    WWW: Many’s the time I use “a right hames” myself! I haven’t written about banjax(ed) yet but I’ll try to at some point.

    Herself: That’s very true, that it’s not necessarily a harsh word – though the political examples in the Irish Times are often intended to be very critical. But it can be used gently and light-heartedly too, and often is.

  8. Nurn says:

    Stan,

    Thanks so much for this post. This is a phrase (among many, many others) that completely puzzled me when I moved to Ireland as a kid, because I’d never heard it in the US. I’ve always wanted to know where it came from and what it meant.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    Thanks for this illuminating article.

    I would venture to guess that like most fellow North Americans (excluding expat Irishmen), most have rarely, if ever, heard the Irish-centric phrase “make a hames of it”, on this side of The Pond.

    At first blush, I rather like the sound of it. I may start using it, but would likely get some odd looks in return. Gotta start somewhere, right?

    Here in the U.S., (and Canada) we would likely merely say, “make a mess of it”, or “botch it up”, which hardly has the charm, or arcane air of your popular Irish-rooted phrase for messing up, or bungling.

    I was fishing around for a Yiddish equivalent, thinking “shlimazl” might readily replace “hames”. But in consulting Michael Wex’s informative book, “Born to Kvetch”, found that “shlimazl” is defined as “bad luck, or someone who has had bad luck”… (mazel= luck).

    So clearly my intuition on that one was way off-base.

    If there are any Yiddish speakers out there who might know a specific word for “messing up” in Yiddish, it would be cool to know.

    There has to be at least one, if not a slew of appropriate words, or phrases. The early creators of Yiddish appeared to thrive on coming up w/ choice words to describe aspects of the imperfect human condition; particularly our many short-comings, foibles, and nagging bad habits. Oy Veh!

  10. The phrase is alive & well in East Galway. But we’re always making a mess out of things I suppose.

  11. Stan says:

    Nurn: You’re very welcome. I was curious too about its origin, and had no idea of the harness connection until I looked into it.

    Alex: You’re probably right: most people in the US and Canada would not be familiar with the expression. I asked on Twitter about its currency in AmE, and public radio’s A Way with Words (who specialise in dialects and obscure phrases) said it didn’t seem to be in use there.

    Kevin: Ha. Thanks for the report from across the county. It’s in use in north Galway, too. Hasn’t really caught on internationally, though. Not yet.

  12. Val says:

    When I was a young man we were of the impression that a “hames” referred to – making a mess of a situation through carelessness. It was likened the situation to allowing the reins to become tangled in the hames or collar.

  13. Stan says:

    Val: Yes, carelessness (or incompetence) often seems to be involved. The harness connection seems most likely.

  14. mollymooly says:

    Googling site:debates.oireachtas.ie throws up many nice examples; e.g.:

    - That would have been, perhaps, a venial sin if they had got it right; but in their anxiety to get something published, they have made more than a little “hames” of it

    - making the biggest hames of an IT project in the history of the State

    - I reject any notion that a hames has been made of the property market or stamp duty.

    - “There seemed to be a hames being made of many things in the middle of the night a few years ago when there was nobody around to discuss them.”

    - ” I thank in particular our Swedish visitors and I apologise for making such a hames of announcing their names.”

    And a 1951 example of the original meaning:
    - ” In their present uniforms Gardaí are tightened up to the neck, as if they were wearing a collar and hames.”

  15. Stan says:

    That’s a fine set of examples, mollymooly. Thank you. I especially like the one referring to the names of Swedish visitors.

    On Twitter, @excitedstoat drew my attention to Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Glaucus’, which he has posted on The Glass-Bottom Blog and which seems to play on the two meanings of hames.

  16. [...] Carey served up the origin of the word treacle, and on his own blog did not make a hames of the word hames. He also had some fun with the Fargo [...]

  17. OR Melling says:

    I dunno. I think the harness idea is a long and unlikely shot. I suspect it’s one of those Hiberno-English concoctions like hooligan and shenanigan, arising from the name Seamus (used for detective I believe in America) playing on ‘shame’ and the ‘mus/mess’ and perhaps even the vocative of ‘a Sheamus’ (sp?) which turns that s into a ‘h’ i.e. sounds like ‘a hame-ish.’ Will check out my Hiberno-English dictionary when I get home. Back shortly …

  18. OR Melling says:

    ps love the idea of your blog. I’ll follow.

  19. Stan says:

    Thanks for your visit, OR, and for the interesting etymological suggestion. I find it more unlikely than the difficult-harness proposal, but without conclusive evidence, who’s to say for sure.

  20. OR Melling says:

    Right, both Bernard Share’s Slanguage and Terence Patrick Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-Engish back up your suggestion, but I am not convinced; chiefly because ‘hame’ is an English word (from old Dutch and German) and the English themselves have never used it this way. Logically, anything that is used solely by the Irish – e.g. twig, meaning ‘to understand’- is far more likely to have come from the Irish language. And, of course, the same word or word sound can coincidentally exist in different languages without having any relation to each other.

    • John Cowan says:

      Logically, anything that is used solely by the Irish – e.g. twig, meaning ‘to understand’- is far more likely to have come from the Irish language.

      Hardly. Consider Stephen Dedalus’s tundish from A Portrait of the Artist:

      —To return to the lamp, he said, the feeding of it is also a nice problem. You must choose the pure oil and you must be careful when you pour it in not to overflow it, not to pour in more than the funnel can hold.

      —What funnel? asked Stephen.

      —The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.

      —That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?

      —What is a tundish?

      —That. The… funnel.

      —Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.

      —It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen, laughing, where they speak the best English.

      —A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.

      But it is Stephen who looks it up, and here’s what he finds:

      APRIL 13. That tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us. Damn him one way or the other!

      There are many other such survivals in Ireland, though not as many as in the United States, where fall ‘autumn’, platter ‘dish’, mad ‘angry’, I guess ‘I suppose, I reckon’ (which latter is archaic or dialectal in the U.S.), gotten ‘got’ in the sense of ‘obtained’, trash ‘household waste’, dumb ‘stupid’ (reinforced by German dumm), and many other words are still current, though lost (or seen as American inventions!) in the U.K.

      • Stan says:

        Tundish is a good counterexample to OR’s assertion, and of course there are many others. But I’m still inclined to think that a term used only by Irish people is more likely to be of Irish origin. If I can I’ll look into this more sometime.

  21. Stan says:

    OR: That’s all true, and you make a good case. I like the idea of the word coming from Séamus, but I’m not qualified to make the call. The definite etymology, for now, remains elusive.

  22. OR Melling says:

    Cinnte. But I think Slanguage, HIberno-English dictionaries, language blogs et al should put “origin unknown” – as Collins do for the American word ‘patsy’ though I would suggest it also relates to an Irish name – instead of randomly proposing this pluralised English harness word which has no relation whatsoever to the meaning or use of ‘hames.’

  23. […] For further information on the etymology of ‘to make a hames’ of, please read Stan Carey’s blog: http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/making-a-hames-of-it/ […]

  24. blacklimbed says:

    Thanks Stan. I have updated my post to include your link and the Twitter thread,

  25. Interesting. Following Dulach’s oral/aural approach… might be a possible older Irish derivation…

    éimdid (variants: féimdid, (f)eimdid, éimdhidh) is generally used in the sence of ‘refuses, rejects’, but a secondary usage is that of ‘fails’. Usuage is attested in Imtheachta Aeniasa, a translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, pre 1400 AD.

    A subsequent corruption of the éim/ (f)eim aural element, especially if a h was involved along the way (h-éim,or fheim?) could possibly have produced a similar sound to modern day ‘hame’.

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