Flipping the sky into smithereens

The Macmillan Dictionary Blog has been posting an interesting series of articles on English as it is spoken and used in various parts of the world. For their Irish-English week in January, I contributed a piece on the word smithereens. It focuses on the term’s etymology and usage, from its somewhat hazy beginnings in the early 19th century to its appearance in modern poetry and Disney musicals.

Though the origin of smithereens is slightly obscure, the term is widely thought to have come from smiodar (Irish for “fragment”) + ín (Irish diminutive suffix). This seems a likely route, but the full story is not so straightforward. Language development is anything but linear! To find out more, you can read the article here. You might also enjoy Macmillan’s growing list of resources on Irish English.

9 Responses to Flipping the sky into smithereens

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    ‘Twas there on the wall in old Skibbereen
    That you broke my heart into smithereens.

    Though I’ve always preferred the hard ‘d’ in the middle which is the way we spoke it in Cork.

    The ‘th’ sounds far too soft and makes of the word more of an endearment.


  2. Stan says:

    That’s an interesting observation, WWW — I never thought of how softening the word’s pronunciation could make it more of an endearment! It is used memorably as one in Sam McAughtry’s book Touch & Go: “You were a cheeky bastard with brains,” she said. “Christ, I loved you to smithereens, the way you stood up to the teachers.”

    There’s quite a lot of variation in how -d-, -th- and -t- are spoken in English, not just globally but from county to county in Ireland. Pronouncing -d- as -d̪- helps retain a link with the Irish tongue, I suppose, and seems particularly common before -r- for some reason, as in smidiríní, and e.g. “He headered the ball” spoken almost like “heathered”.

  3. Claudia says:

    Love the word. I would have understood it, in the context of what I was reading, but I never would have dared to use it. Now, after your informative post, I will probably overdo it….Cheers!

  4. Stan says:

    Delighted to be of service, Claudia. Go forth and make smithereens!

  5. I like the word Smithereens. It has a mellifluous tone in total contrast to the shards and splinters it describes

  6. Stan says:

    That’s true, Jams. It’s a strangely attractive word for describing (usually) broken bits or violent events.

  7. Sean Jeating says:

    Thanks for giving me a light bulb moment, Stan.
    All the years I did not feel the necessity to look up smithereens as for me was obvious that ‘ethymologically’ – :) smithereens are the result of what in a smithy happens between hammer and anvil.

  8. Stan says:

    It’s the least I could do, Sean — the switch was here beside me in the form of a pile of books! Isn’t it funny how the idea of what happens between hammer and anvil could fire up a circuit in your mind and spark off this conversation, conducted electronically? Smithy, by the way, has a very different origin to smithereens, though I like your Volksetymologie too.

  9. […] hallowed halls of Standard English. One Gaelic word to have gone mainstream is smithereens, which I wrote about recently; today I’ll look at galore. After all, it’s St. Patrick’s Day and Lá na Gaeilge — […]

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