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.


Acushla machree, pulse of my heart

October 23, 2013

Browsing Daniel O’Keeffe’s First Book of Irish Ballads yesterday (Mercier Press, 1955), I came upon this verse in ‘Song from the Backwoods’ by T. D. Sullivan:

And well we know in the cool grey eyes,
When the hard day’s work is o’er,
How soft and sweet are the words that greet
The friends who meet once more;
With ‘Mary machree!’ and ‘My Pat! ’tis he!’
And ‘My own heart night and day!’
Ah, fond old Ireland! dear old Ireland!
Ireland, boys, hurra!

One word might give general/non-Irish readers pause. Machree /mə’kriː/, /mə’xriː/ is an anglicisation of mo chroí, Irish for “my heart”, also spelt mochree and other ways (Scottish Gaelic has mo chridhe). Sometimes vocative a replaces mo: achree or a-chree, from Irish a chroí.

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Giving out, Irish style

September 7, 2013

The phrasal verb give out has several common senses:

distribute – “she gave out free passes to the gig”

emit – “the machine gave out a distinctive hum”

break down, stop working – “at the end of the marathon her legs gave out”

become used up – “their reserves of patience finally gave out”

declare, make known – “management gave out that it was unsatisfied with productivity levels”

In Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale I read an example of this last sense: “At the moment the Communist Party is giving out that he was off his head.” Had Fleming been Irish, this line would be ambiguous – Ireland has another give out, a common informal usage meaning complain, grumble, moan; or criticise, scold, reprimand, tell off.

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Bulling “ar buile” in Irish English

July 16, 2013

In Ireland, to be bulling means to be angry – typically in a visible and maybe voluble way, and sometimes with comical connotations.1 I used to hear it now and then in my childhood and teens, but haven’t come across it much in recent years. Maybe raging has eaten into its niche.

So I enjoyed this reminder in Declan Hughes’s crime novel All the Dead Voices (see my old bookmash):

‘And he was like, we need a new way to operate, we can’t keep taking our rivals out, we can’t keep doing things the old way. The Lamp Comerford way. Charlie said Lamp was bulling when he heard this, he felt he was being sidelined.’

You might assume the word comes from the noun bull and the animal’s reputation for bad-tempered stampedes. This may have reinforced the usage, but I think its origin is the Irish word buile “madness, frenzy”. To be ar buile /ər ’bwɪlʲə/ (roughly “er bwill-ih”) is to be in a rage or fury, a deargbuile /’dʒærəg,bwɪlʲə/ is literally a red rage (cf. red mist), and a fear buile /’fʲær ’bwɪlʲə/ is a madman.2

In Hiberno-English the expression bulling to do something is similar to the English mad to do something, i.e., very eager. If someone is bulling to go to the match, it implies an overwhelming desire to go to the match, without necessarily any anger or desperation.

My Irish-English dictionary has ar buile chun rud a dhéanamh, translated as “crazy to do something”, but I didn’t know this idiom and found the gloss ambiguous: does it mean extremely eager (= “mad keen”) or something more unhinged? Enquiries on Twitter were inconclusive, though @ExposieRosie said it suggests frantic rather than keen.

Another open question is how old bullingangry is. Jonathon Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary dates the sense to the 2000s, but I know it was used in the 1980s and 1990s, and my father says he remembers it from his (1950s) childhood. It may well be much older than that.

Edit:

John Cowan, in a comment, has reminded me of the traditional Irish song An Poc ar Buile (“The Mad Puck Goat”). Some background here, and a performance from the Chieftains and friends below:

[archive of Hiberno-English posts]

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1 I know bulling has other meanings, but I’m ignoring most of them here.

2 Phonetic renderings are approximate, and suggestions are welcome.


Story Bud? Funding the feature film

May 8, 2013

Remember Story Bud?, the video of Irish slang and colloquialisms I shared here in February? Director Jenny Keogh has filmed a second clip, How’s About Ye?, in the same style, and it’s great fun altogether.

There are on-screen glosses for the phrases, but because the delivery and editing are rapid-fire – and some of the accents are strong – I’ve added Jenny’s transcript below, with a few tweaks.

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In related news, Jenny is working on a feature-length film comprising more of these videos along with expert interviews and other footage. She’s holding “Phrase Donor Clinics” around Ireland to collect phrases from the public to use in the film.

Jenny is crowdfunding this on Fund it, an Irish Kickstarter-type website, so if you’d like to support this very worthy project, you can. There’s two weeks left to contribute; pledges from €15 up earn a reward, and if funding falls short, you won’t be charged. You can find out more at JennyKeogh.com and on the Story Bud? Facebook page.

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Foclóir: A new English–Irish dictionary

January 23, 2013

A quick follow-up on a tweet – or should I say tvuít – from yesterday: Foclóir, a new English–Irish dictionary, has just gone online. It looks great; alongside its translations it offers detailed grammatical data, example sentences, and sound files from native Irish speakers.

The sound files are a particular treat, offered in the three major dialects of Connacht, Munster and Ulster Irish. Vocabulary-wise, although the dictionary is far from complete, there’s already more than enough to reward repeat visits:

Focloir English Irish dictionary - headword blogThe dictionary is being published on a phased basis, and the full content won’t be online until end-2014. The entries published in January 2013 consist of approximately 30% of the eventual content, however this range covers approximately 80% of general English usage.

Foclóir was created by Foras na Gaeilge and is based on the Dante lexical database. Preparation of a print edition will begin in 2015, once all the dictionary material has been published online. I’m making it my primary internet reference for English–Irish translation.

[via RTÉ News]


Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in -raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in -ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

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