Gaustering about the meaning of ‘gosther’

June 7, 2014

In Seán Ó Faoláin’s novel Bird Alone (1936) the narrator, a young boy, is waiting alone in town for his grandfather:

After shivering under the thatch of a cabin-end for an hour I began to search for him – as by instinct among the pubs. Sure enough, I found him gosthering with some old toady in the Royal Hotel…

Gosthering gave me pause. It was obviously Hiberno-English and meant something like “chatting”, but it was not a word in my idiolect, and I didn’t remember coming across it before. I must have, though, because a quick search showed it was used in Seán O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman:

I’ve no time to be standin’ here gostherin’ with you.

And in Dubliners by James Joyce, albeit used as a noun and spelt slightly differently:

Read the rest of this entry »


Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

Read the rest of this entry »


Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

February 28, 2014

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

Read the rest of this entry »


Clishmaclaver, mar dhea

December 20, 2013

The usual meaning of the Scottish word clishmaclaver (also clish-ma-claverclishmaclaiver, clashmaclaver) is “idle talk, gossip, or empty chatter”. The OED says it was formed “apparently with allusion to clish-clash and claver, with echoic associations”, and finds it also used as a verb (“keep me clishmaclavering”).

Hiberno-English has the related short form clash “gossip” as both noun and verb. Terence Dolan notes clash in Sligo (“He’s an awful old clash”), while a century ago P. W. Joyce reported clashbag* “tale-bearer” or “busybody” in Armagh, Northern Ireland. There’s also the verb phrase clash on, meaning “tell tales on”.

In historian Brian Bonner’s short book A Society in Transition: Cameos of Irish Life I came across another, related sense of clishmaclaver, for a person who trades in such talk:

Every village has its vendor of local gossip, and Lagaguee was no exception. Thereabouts, the role was filled by a lady known as Cassie the Larker. The older people, when annoyed with her, called her a “clishmaclaver”, thereby expressing their contempt for her while indicating the Scottish influence on the speech of the area.

Clishmaclaver was the name of the Chambers Editors’ blog, but my encounters with the word have dwindled since that blog wound down.

The Irish phrase mar dhea, which I’ve described before as a sceptical interjection, also appears in Bonner’s book:

At eleven she made her way back to the Macklin Tavern, to join those who had gathered there to imbibe coffee or beer and exchange the gossip of the day. She took up her position among her own special cronies and in confidence, mar dhea, related the gist of the events of the early morning.

Here the phrase implies that her gossip was professedly just for her friends’ gratification, but that all parties understood it would soon be spread beyond those confines. Such is the clishmaclavering imperative.

*

* This -bag suffix remains popular in Ireland, as in the more recent ledgebag, etc.


This blog post is cat melodeon

December 3, 2013

A distinctive feature of the English spoken in Ireland is the colloquial use of cat as an adjective to mean: awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very disappointing. I heard it a lot as a child, and I still do occasionally in the city – someone wants to criticise a situation, such as a bad sporting performance or a job done ineptly, and they say “It’s cat” and that sums it up.

Adjectival cat shows up in writing as well; I came across it recently in Angela Bourke’s short story ‘Charm’, in her collection By Salt Water. The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is staying at her aunt’s and hanging out with Brian Molloy, a neighbour around her own age, and Bernie, his older cousin:

Bernie was at Molloys as well. She was their cousin and she had a job in the hospital for the summer. She was from another place up in the mountains, called Derrylynch, that Brian said was the arse-end of nowhere. He was always teasing her, saying things like that. Any time Bernie didn’t like something she said it was cat, and Brian used to go around after her asking her if the dog was cat. He said cat himself though, and if he was talking about something really bad, like his school, he said it was cat melodeon.

Bernie is later reported as saying, “it’s cat when they’re dying all over the place” (i.e., rats); and “it was cat, the things some of them expected” (i.e., men). Often it appears as cat altogether or cat melodeon (or melodium), these longer phrases emphasising the cat-ness of the situation. (Cf. the expression melodeonised  “left in an awful state”, suggesting the image of being crumpled like an accordion.)

Browsing the popular Irish web forum Boards.ie for examples, I found the following things described as “cat”: a head cold; processed food; Rocky V; poems; dark ales; bad weather; golfing ability; heavy traffic; rugby jersey design; video gameplay; an athletics result; a music performance; band members not coming to a gig; and the state of Main Street in Lanesboro. You get the idea.

The origin of this peculiar usage is uncertain: is it an abbreviation of catastrophe/catastrophic, or a derivation from Irish cat mara or cat marbh – literally “sea cat” and “dead cat”, respectively, but meaning “mischief” or “calamity”?

Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes Victoria White in the Irish Times calling cat melodeon “the greatest expression in Hiberno-English”; her review of a book on Irish traditional music by Ciaran Carson reports his hypothesis that it comes from the aforementioned Irish phrases, and relates:

the tendency of the piano-accordion players (who often refer to their instruments as melodeons) to play two notes at once.

Two discordant notes, presumably, maybe evoking the yowling of a tom-cat on a hormonal night. But I don’t know if there’s anything to this origin story beyond speculation.


Horripilatory etymology

November 17, 2013

It’s a dark wet evening in the west of Ireland and I’m cosying up with The Poolbeg Book of Irish Ghost Stories (1990), edited by the late author and literary editor David Marcus. His brief introduction contains a word too rare even to appear in the OED. But you’ll probably know or can guess what it means:

[Ghosts’] preferred outer abode was a dark wood; indoors they inhabited rambling old castles or, more latterly, unsaleable houses, stalking creaky corridors and draughty bedchambers to the accompaniment of howls, shrieks, moans, plods and clankings. It goes without saying that they were largely nocturnal creatures, preferring the small hours and often the most inclement of weather in which to conduct their business. Daylight, electric light, gaslight were eschewed. Candlelight, because they had the capacity to extinguish a candle and so create the maximum horripilatory effect, was welcomed.

Horripilatory is a technical word meaning hair-raising. The associated noun horripilation is much more common, though hardly an everyday term; it too refers to the physiological phenomenon often called gooseflesh or goosebumps, typically caused by cold or fear. It comes from Latin horripilāre “bristle with hairs”, formed from horrēre “bristle, tremble” + pilus “hair” (cf. the cosmetic terms epilation and depilation).

Horrēre lurks behind horror, horrendous, horrify, abhor and horrid (which originally meant bristling or shaggy); and it’s also seen in the obscure horrious “causing horror”, horrent “bristling or rough”, horrisonant and horrisonous “of horrible sound”, and abhorrible “detestable”. A pretty hair-raising bunch of words, wouldn’t you say?


The man who spoke with perfect sentences

November 5, 2013

Anyone who has ever transcribed an interview, conversation, or unrehearsed speech of any sort will be very aware of how disfluent this form of language is. We start and stop and stall, repeat ourselves, insert filler phrases and sounds, search for forgotten words, abandon trains of thought, deal with interruptions and distractions, follow tangents, and double back.

It’s a far cry from writing, which gives us the luxury of time to prepare and arrange the translation of our thoughts. Grammar is therefore normally much tighter in writing than in speech. And because we learn about language through writing, significantly later than we develop speech, we cannot help but find speech wanting when we (unfairly) compare the two.

Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,261 other followers