Rare “rere” rears its head in Ireland

Here is an unusual spelling: rere for rear. The word probably derives from the Old French rere, rier, from Latin retro (back, behind). The Oxford English Dictionary describes rere as obsolete except in combinations, but this is untrue: it’s a standard variant form in Hiberno-English and is not uncommon on the island, especially in architectural, geographical, and property-related contexts:

to the rere of dwellings on the north side of Rochestown Road (Irish Statute Book)

an old jaunting car proceeding at a slow pace at the rere of the hearse (Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society)

the raised courtyard to the rere of the Irish Film Centre (Archiseek)

At the rere was a massive stone wall (Galway Advertiser, 1883)

they received an allowance of bread or a biscuit, and were dismissed by another door in the rere of the building (The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847)

There is rere service access. (MyHome.ie)

he keeps his ware house at the rere of his late dwelling-house (Kilkenny Archaeological Society)

return to the hill at the rere of the house (“The Poteen”, from the Dublin Penny Journal, 1832)

This small selection disproves the OED‘s assessment. Many more examples are to be found in both historical and contemporary texts.

Two related notes:

(1) The idiom in the post title, rear its head, is a vivid phrase meaning appear, and is often used to refer to something unpleasant, especially in the form rear its ugly head. The simple form first reared its head around the time of Milton; rear its ugly head came later.

(2) If you happen to be reading this over a midnight feast — rare meat and eggs, perhaps — you could name your meal a rere-supper, a now-archaic term for a (usually sumptuous) late supper. I should warn you, though, that this practice is inadvisable not just for mogwai but for people too: beware of rere sopers!

Edit: On Twitter, @psneeze tells me he was “taught to use it in primary school (late 70s) to distinguish it from rear as in to rear children” [italics added].

[more signs]

14 Responses to Rare “rere” rears its head in Ireland

  1. Live and learn Stan. Had I seen the sign I would have thought it was siply a mis-spelling

  2. Stan says:

    I suppose it’s obscure enough, Jams, and by “not uncommon” I might have overstated its prevalence. I found no mention of it in several other dictionaries and corpora. But it does appear in various places, usually in reference to what’s behind a building in Ireland. Interesting that it has resisted extinction here.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    And Stan, I was brought up with the pronunciation of rear, rere, as “rare” which is not restricted to Cork usage only, I believe. I’ve had a hell of a time throwing it out. It keeps crawling back into my mouth to the astonishment of Canadians, most especially in ‘rareview mirror’. Though the view can be rather rare….

  4. Tim says:

    I shall once again rear my not-so-ugly Kiwi mug and mention my own experience with homonyms, whether rare or not.

    In New Zealand, we pronounce “rear” as “ree-ah”. I would pronounce the rare word “rere” the same as “rare” (like “mere”). Also, we don’t differentiate between “beer”, “bare” and “bear” (and probably even “bier”).

    Try this one: a courier career in Korea. ;)

  5. Stan says:

    WWW: /eː/ for /iː/ is still common in Ireland, especially in rural parts, e.g. “Time fer a dhrop o’ tay”; “Go aisy on that horse.” I grew up believing this to be a uniquely Irish phenomenon, but later learned that it was the standard sound in British English a few centuries ago. That is, sea was once pronounced more or less like “say”, and this sound was retained in Ireland after the vowel shift in Br.E. The older Br.E. sound remained only in some words, such as break and steak. So there’s a rich history in the way you say “rearview mirror”!

    Tim: Thanks for the NZ perspective — that’s a lot of homonyms! So you would pronounce mere the same as mare? Some Irish people would too. I wonder what part geographical isolation has played in preserving these pronunciations.

  6. Emer O'Toole says:

    That’s my Grandad! I never noticed the archaic spelling of rere before. Grandad was a Gaelgóir and a great reader. You can be sure that if he chose ‘rere’ instead of rear he had his learned reasons! Granny and Grandad were given the house in The Cresent as a wedding present in the early 1940s, so the sign most likely dates from around then.

  7. Stan says:

    Thanks Emer — your story adds some lovely background details to the photo! If the plaque dates from around the 1940s, then it lies nicely between the very old and the contemporary examples of rere that I listed. (I’m relieved now that I wasn’t critical of the sign. I saw no reason to be, but some signs aren’t so lucky.)

  8. […] 16. is there a spelling of rear as rere? [Yes.] […]

  9. Browser says:

    Thought you might be interested in this High Court judgment from last November regarding rights of way in Mullingar. Mr Justice Peart says, at paragraph 9:

    “[T]he plaintiff was no longer making a claim for a right of way as such, but rather an equitable easement amounting to a right of way in relation to access to the gate at the rere of the Courthouse.”

    I was wondering if there was a misprint and found your site. Thanks for the clarification!

  10. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, and thank you for the recent example of rere! I’m happy to hear it’s still appearing.

  11. devinek2 says:

    Hi Stan, just came across this post after seeing this ad from 1943. Thanks for clarifying https://twitter.com/#!/kevindevine/status/185422569824993280/photo/1

  12. Stan says:

    Hi Kevin, thanks for sharing the ad! I notice it appeared on Broadsheet, too. Was it really Dublin’s first cycle park, I wonder.

  13. Always thought “rere” was a misspelling too – obviously not! And here it is in Ulysses – the Lotus-Eaters episode: http://www.columbia.edu/~fms5/ulw05.htm

    • Stan says:

      Brian: Good example, thanks! I’ll quote the line here, for convenience:

      The cold smell of sacred stone called him. He trod the worn steps, pushed the swingdoor and entered softly by the rere.

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