10 words used only in Irish English

God forgive me, I’ve written a listicle. Below are ten words and usages in Irish English (or Hiberno-English*) that you mightn’t be familiar with unless you’re a Sentence first veteran, a dialect scholar, or of course Irish, or Irishish.

Some were borrowed from Irish and became part of Irish English. Others are English words with meanings peculiar (or mostly so) to Ireland. What follows is just a summary, but each word links to a post I’ve written with more detail, notes on pronunciation, examples from literature and real life, and so on.

1. Smacht is a noun loaned from Irish meaning control, discipline, or order. You might put smacht on something or someone, like an untidy room or an unruly team.

2. Moryah has various spellings all based on the Irish phrase mar dhea. It’s an ironic or sceptical interjection used to cast doubt or mild derision on an assertion.

3. Give out in Ireland commonly means to scold or complain: You can give out to someone, or just give out. It’s often intensified in different ways, e.g. He was giving out stink to them.

4. Asthore again comes from Irish: a stór is a term of endearment literally meaning treasure in the vocative case.

5. Hames means mess, and is usually used in the phrase make a hames of something. There’s an implication that the mess arose through carelessness or ineptitude.

6. Cat is used as an adjective in Ireland to mean awful or terrible. All sorts of things – from bad weather to the state of the country – might be described as cat. I realised only recently how weird this is.

7. Yoke is a very handy yoke altogether. It’s a placeholder word, used informally to refer to an unspecified object or indescribable person. It can also be a root in more elaborate placeholders such as yokeamabob.

8. Thick in Irish English can mean angry – either stubborn and sullen or belligerent and argumentative. It’s often intensified by fierce or pure (“very”): She got pure thick with me.

9. and 10. Acushla machree, another poetic term of endearment, is anglicised from the Irish a cuisle mo chroí “pulse [or beat] of my heart”. You see it more in old texts and songs than contemporary usage.

Obviously some of these are current in Irish, not just Irish English. And words should be usages. But a listicle header is no place for nuance.

*

* Some scholars distinguish between these terms. I’ll write about that another time.

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46 Responses to 10 words used only in Irish English

  1. ksfinblog says:

    Good post! need more time to digest it though….

  2. Claire Stokes says:

    Delightful!

  3. The Beer Nut says:

    In the North we give off rather than giving out.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    @Stan… I’d surmise that some Irish folk would also use the word “thick”, as we do on this side of the briny, to describe someone who was a tad dim-witted, or metaphorically speaking, playing w/ a few cards short of a full deck?

    Your Irish-English definition of “thick” is a new one for me. Thanks for that, and all the others on your “listicle”… another ‘new one’ on me, as well… a clever portmanteau of “list” and “article”.

    • I had the same response to “thick” — I kept waiting for the mention of dim-witted… Is it ever used in that way in Irish English? (A few sandwiches short of a picnic?)

      • lynn sheehy says:

        Ya we’d use “thick” in a stupid sense too …. but not in the same way. If you said “he was thick” you’d mean stupid. If you said “he got thick with me” or “he was being thick” you’d mean the “being difficult” sense of the word.

  5. seajay23 says:

    Being, as I am, married to a Dubliner I have learnt a few of these words, and some, such as hames, have entered my vocabulary. Others that I have found useful are ‘plamas’, ‘grand’ and ‘your man’. However, I have never become comfortable with the Irish use of cute, and I cause some confusion when I call a sweet child ‘cute’.
    Conversly, after nearly 30 years in the country my ‘missus’ still struggles with some of the complexities of Australian-English.

  6. Mrs Fever says:

    This weekend I spent a great deal of time trying to understand the meaning and proper usage of summat. {I’m quite sure I still have it wrong, but learning is always fun. ;) } Not on your listicle, and (I believe) British rather than Irish, but I found myself wondering if you’d written summat about summat while I was trying to figure out just what to do with that word. :)

  7. Jace Harr says:

    This is fascinating! Thank you! My only problem with fascinating lists like this is I want to add them to my own vocabulary and I’m not sure how! :)

  8. At first glance, “mar dhea” looks a lot like “Mother of God” to me — but that may be way off. :) I read the linked post and it doesn’t mention anything like it.

  9. Reblogged this on Ilene Locke and commented:
    Get in touch with my Irish side?! Well.

    To paraphrase Josh Homme: shhh… I’m touching it right now.

  10. This is freakin’ great! I’m not god, but you’re totally doing the ‘listicle’ thing right. Nice one. :)

  11. Stan says:

    ksfinblog: Thank you.

    Claire: Glad you enjoyed it!

    The Beer Nut: I’ve heard that version now and then.

    Alex: Indeed we do. In the earlier post on thick I mentioned that we also use it as a noun to mean a stupid person (though I don’t, myself).

    Annette: Yes, thick = “dim-witted” is common in that sense too. But it’s not peculiar to Irish English, so I ignored it here. Dhea is very similar to Dhia, the lenited form of Dia “God”, but it’s just coincidence.

    seajay23: Plámás will definitely feature (eventually) in part 2 of this series; grand is a good one too, but I haven’t written about it yet. Similar to your man is the usefully gender-neutral phrase your one, sometimes “your wan”.

    Mrs Fever: I haven’t written about it, sorry. As you’ve probably deduced, it means “something” or “somewhat”, and is an old (and now dialectal) form of the latter.

    Jace: You’re welcome! You can just start using them once you’ve grasped how they work. Browse the older posts for more examples of usage, or ask about any in particular you’re interested in.

    mutternummern: Thank you! That’s all the encouragement I needed.

  12. Clodagh says:

    Thanks, Stan! I never knew that ‘hames’ was peculiarly Irish; do we know its origin? Is it the word meaning ‘yoke’ (the other kind of yoke)?

  13. David Morris says:

    In the movie ‘Million Dollar Baby’, Clint Eastwood’s character gives Hilary Swank’s character the nickname ‘Mo Chuisle’, which appears on her boxing robe (according to Wikipedia, spelled incorrectly as “mo cuishle”). Just before the end of the movie (no spoilers), he explains the meaning, which Wikipedia renders as ‘Irish for “my darling, and my blood” (literally, “my pulse”)’.

  14. ucronin says:

    We had a maths teacher in secondary school (1990s Ennis) who used to say: “If you don’t settle down, I’ll get thick with you!” This implied that violence would be done to the student in question if he didn’t modify his behavior. I’ve also heard “thick with the drink” i.e., cantankerous or rotten drunk!

  15. The cat hames I made of a yoke
    Made acushla machree thick as oak.
    When asthore gave out stink
    I put smacht in a blink…
    Moryah. For that fourth line’s a joke.

    I regret the lack of room for an “on” (or “on it”) after “smacht”. I have no idea if I can get away with that, or if there’s a solution that would be obvious if I actually knew how to use the words.

  16. John Cowan says:

    I don’t think it’s a real listicle unless you put the words on nine or ten separate pages with forward and back links (and ads on each page, of course).

    Summat is just a pronunciation spelling of somewhat, which has always meant ‘something’. However, it’s now more restricted than something in the standard language; the main current use is as an adverb meaning ‘to some degree’, usually a small degree. Something no longer occupies this semantic territory. although “The scarcely ambiguous answer was something softened the following day” (1856) doesn’t feel all that strange to me. In measurements, I can say either something or somewhat less than an hour.

    • Mrs Fever says:

      The thing that set my mind to wondering was a song lyric from a Brit band: “the type [of fear] that sticks around like summat in your teeth”.

      Something softened the following day? As metaphors go… Eeeeuw.

      Thanks for the info. :)

  17. I’ve been practicing to implement “cat malojan/melodeon” since reading it in one of your earlier posts. Not that anyone else in Minnesota uses it.

  18. Stan says:

    Table Mat: I’ve heard summat in Ireland, though not from Irish people. Absolutes invite contradiction.

    Clodagh: The origin of Hiberno-English hames is uncertain; my earlier post on the word offers some speculation.

    David: I haven’t seen that film. Wikipedia’s translation is loose but fairly accurate.

    Ultan: He was giving out! That’s a good point about thick; it often accompanies stubborn or argumentative drunkenness.

    Adrian: I wouldn’t worry about solving it: as a nonsense limerick it works just fine.

    John: That’s a nice clarification of summat. Your “something softened” line does read strangely to me, for the record.

    Christian: Maybe you’ll start a trend.

  19. David Morris says:

    Checking again, Clint Eastwood’s character is named Frankie Dunn, which name might be Irish, or might be from various other parts of the British Isles. Hilary Swank’s character is named Maggie Fitzgerald, which I guess is meant to evoke Irish ancestry.

  20. Had to mention: watching ‘Everlasting Piece’ and George summarizes their situation by saying: ‘It’s all cat’. Glad I’d just read this post earlier, all caught up now!

  21. gaiamethod says:

    We also use ‘Thick’ when we think someone is stupid as in ‘Yis are quare thick so yis are’! ‘You (plural) are uncommonly stupid so you are! ‘ Quare means queer (strange, weird) but has other meanings in a sentence too, such as in the above example!

  22. Stan says:

    David: Coincidentally, I was talking to my brother yesterday about the surname Dunne. It (and Dunn) derive from Irish/Scottish donn “brown”, presumably on account of certain people having brown hair or a dark complexion. (Or perhaps in some cases being from a place with donn or dún “fort” in its name.)

    Claire: This is good to know! I had no idea the usage had made it into the movies.

    gaiamethod: Quare is an interesting case – the way its meaning in Ireland is often disambiguated through the vowel sound. I’ll try to write about this sometime.

  23. stuartnz says:

    This post made me think of the similarities between Irish English and NZE. Both countries have similar populations and an indigenous language which is (at the very least) not in the most robust of health but has worked itself into the local English to an extent that clearly differentiates the country’s English from that of much larger and more culturally dominant neighbours. In the case of NZE, even while Māori remains on life support, its influence on English here is getting stronger and stronger and helping mark NZE as ever more distinct from AusEng

    • Stan says:

      That’s an interesting comparison, Stuart. It’s somehow heartening that Māori’s influence extends into English and helps characterise NZ dialects of the dominant language.

  24. Alessandra Ribolini says:

    Reblogged this on Alessandra Ribolini // Translator (EN/ES>IT) and commented:
    Getting ready for July :-)

  25. Fascinating. Thank you ,Stan. And to all who commented.

  26. ombhurbhuva says:

    Morya is from ‘mar ​ó dhia’ = as if from God

    A Hames = the wooden forms that give shape to the horse’s collar.

  27. Stan says:

    Claude: Merci, mon amie, pour lire.

    ombhurbhuva: What’s your source for the first assertion? The authorities I consulted make no mention of Dia. Nor is the etymology of Hiberno-English hames known for certain, though the wooden harness origin is quite possible.

  28. ombhurbhuva says:

    Morya: I didn’t know there was any doubt about that. The expression morya/mar ó dhia is used in the same context with the exact same sense. To the anglophone ear they sound alike.

    Hames: Conjectural of course but we can easily imagine one man showing a twisted piece of lumber to another:
    What’ll we do with this?
    Make a hames out of it.
    So then any misshapen botched piece of work.

    Michael

  29. Sophia says:

    That sense of ‘cat’ as pejorative appears in late 19th century/early 20th century English school stories, so it may have been slang that just survived longer in Ireland.

  30. TLS says:

    Very helpful; I am new to this site, any chance of a pronounciation guide for non-Hibernians/Caledonians?

    • Stan says:

      Thank you, TLS. The older posts that are linked to at each entry provide notes on pronunciation, where necessary. If you’re still uncertain about any in particular, feel free to ask.

  31. Joe Scallan says:

    I’ve often wondered if “cat”, in the sense of a complete mess or a totally unsatisfactory situation, is short for “catastrophic”?

  32. […] modest differences in the dialects’ grammar, phonology, and vocabulary. Many of these are due to the strong influence here of the Irish language, which has […]

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