On a walk last week I overheard a woman speak a word (Irish English, chiefly Munster I think) that I hadn’t heard in a long time: cnáimhseáiling, or knawvshawling. The opening c or k* is pronounced distinctly: /’knɔːv’ʃɔːlɪŋ/. Aside from a quick note on Twitter, I was too busy to elaborate until now, but you won’t hear me knawvshawling.

The word means muttering complaints, whingeing, sullen grumbling, finding fault, or — another very Irish idiom — giving out:

Finish your plate now and don’t mind your cnáimhseáiling.

The Anglicised spelling knawvshawling is a loose phonetic approximation, as are knauvshauling and cnawvshawling. There are short entries in online dictionaries of Cork and Irish slang, but the word deserves a longer write-up.

Cnáimhseáiling comes from the Irish root cnáimhseáil, where -(e)áil is a verbal noun ending (one of several in Irish) and cnámh means bone; here, jawbone (cf. the colloquial jaw (v.t.) meaning scold, berate). Cnáimhseáiling could be thought of as jawbone-ing-ing; such deliberate and playful redundancy is common in Hiberno-English. A cnáimhseálaí /’knɔːv’ʃɔːliː/ or knawvshawley, cnawvshawler, etc. is a chronic complainer or tireless whinger.

Although it’s not a very widespread term, knawvshawl appears in all sorts of places, usually Irish and inevitably with an Irish connection. We see it in Irish literature and in Irish (or Irish English) poetry. Cork-born poet Greg Delanty has used the word in several works, including The Leper and Civil Disobedience, Home From Home, and The Lost Way:

Suzanne Vega stereotyped ‘Calypso’
as we knawvshawled about our families
(our begetters and begotten, no worse than the next,
whose umbilical cords we’re still spancelled to)
before we went on to our respective wandering.

The Irish form cnáimhseáil appears on quite a few websites, including several chat rooms. The English spelling shows up too, as in this memorable report of a baby-feeding routine from a ‘Mums & Babies’ discussion forum:

7 [a.m.] – feed – fusses terribly over this one! Yanking at boob and giving out, knauvshauling as my mother would say!

The expression can be found in the posts and among the comments of various blogs, such as the UK/US-usage blog Separated by a Common Language and the blogs of my online friends Sean (in Germany) and Jams (in the UK). It pops up in film reviews — well, one anyway: here’s a line from a critical assessment of Puckoon in the Time Out Film Guide:

The mad world of Spike Milligan’s 1963 novel is inhabited by the eejits, gobshites and cnawvshawling bollixes of the titular small town, northeast of Sligo.

Conn Ó Muíneacháin told me they use cnáimhseáil in his house, where they speak Irish, and remarked on its “wonderful onomatopoeia”. He added that there’s also a lot of geonaíl (whining) and pusaíl (sulking)! The Hiberno-English form of the latter, pussing, is still common — very common in Kerry — and indeed I grew up hearing it in the mid-west of the island. Sometimes it’s combined with another verb, e.g. pussing crying, or shortened to noun form:

Take that puss off you before you get out of the car. [puss = sulky expression]

It appears in Eamonn Sweeney’s novel Waiting for the Healer:

—Do I see a frown? Turn it upside down.

I turned around quickly but it was young Simon who had the puss on him. Kaya smiled away with those worrying teeth.

Cnáimhseáil can even be heard in the Oireachtas (Irish parliament). Last year Jerry Buttimer, a Cork senator, said [PDF]: ‘If the Government really wants co-operation and bipartisanship, let us see it and stop the rhetoric and cnáimhseáil.’ More recently, there has been talk of a mysterious Knauv Shauling contributing to the inimitable satirical journal Speculative Grammarian. It seems that no context is too high or low for a spot of knawvshawling.

Updates: In a post called Knawvshawling, the always interesting Language Hat adds his own linguistic observations. And here is the aforementioned Knauv Shauling, Assistant Chief Hibernolinguistic Paleocurmudgeon of Speculative Grammarian.

* I’ve just noticed how accidentally apt is this arrangement of letters.

25 Responses to Cnáimhseáil

  1. John Cowan says:

    Puss ‘face, facial expression’ is found Across the Water too, although it seems a little old-fashioned to me (and I was born in 1958).

  2. Conn says:

    I suspect the roots of “pus/puss” are in Irish and spread to English. The meaning is the same as John’s. “Pus” is a noun meaning face, specifically cheeks. “Buille sa phus” – a blow to the face. But “pus” is specifically used to refer to that exaggerated facial expression associated with a sulk. “Bhí pus air” – he had a puss on him! “Pusaíl/pussing” as a verb derives from this.

    Also in Irish look out for “pus & breall”. “Breall” is a protruding lower lip! :)

  3. Anne says:

    Just wanted to comment on the word ‘geonaíl’ (whining) which is very similar to the a dialect word in Norwegian ‘gnaule’, which holds the same meaning. Interesting :)

  4. Liam says:

    Is this related to the word, listed in English as keownrawning? I learned it from memorizing the poem, “The Trimmings on the Rosary” (excerpt below, one version at ( or is that a different word?

    The meaning would appear to fit, but I was taught it by someone from the Midlands (Cavan, west of Ballyconnel) and it was definitely key-own-raw-ning, with the accent on the first syllable.

    BTW, puss was a word I heard almost daily growing up, from both my emigrant parents and the other first and second generation parents and teachers in my part of the Bronx.

    Then “himself” would start keownrawning — for the public good, we thought —
    “Sure you’ll have us here till mornin’, [garra], cut them trimmin’s short!”
    But she’d take him very gently, till he softened by degrees —
    “Well, then, let us get it over. Come now, all [hands] on their knees,”

  5. Stan says:

    John: Ah, so it is. Thank you. It doesn’t sound old-fashioned to me; maybe it has maintained its youth in the relative isolation of Ireland. I think of it as something said either in jest or by a parent to a child.

    Conn: The OED agrees with you! It describes the usage as dialectal and slang, chiefly Irish and North American, and gives the origin as the Irish word pus. I don’t think I ever heard pus agus breall — I’ll keep an ear out for it.

    Anne: That is interesting, thanks! It’s probably sheer coincidence, but you never know.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for the reminder to me too Stan, I had forgotten it.
    My grandmother used this word a lot in relation to her neighbours who were always at it.
    As to myself, I’ve always had a “complaints department” – usually in a close to inaccessible spot at the bottom of the garden or over a nearby cliff. Here it is up a long winding path to the top of a hill behind my house. Anyone who sounds off is pointed in that direction!
    I am going to immediately take down the “Complaints Department” sign and replace it with a “Cnáimhseáil” with an arrow sign.
    Splendid work, a chara!

  7. Ah it’s an expression my dad will use from time to time but it not an expression I would use – it just dies not sound right in my non-descript, middle class, southern English accent. But spoken in a Cork accent (cut my dad open like a stick of rock and you would see “Rebel City” all the way through!) and it sounds just right. THe same goes for Flah!

    Thanks for reminding me about that post. I had forgotten all about it

  8. Stan says:

    WWW: Situating your complaints department at the top of a hill is a good idea. Sometimes all someone needs is to walk off a minor frustration. By the time they reach the end of a long winding path — and a pleasant view helps — the need for cnáimhseáil might have disappeared!

    Jams: I’d need to hear you say it before I could decide, but you might be right: an Irish accent is required, or at least preferable! I love that line about a stick of rock.

  9. Tim says:

    So that’s why they say someone is a sourpuss. I always thought it had to do with cats, but that doesn’t make much sense.

    I don’t do a very good Irish accent, unfortunately. It’s ok. Just not great.

    First time I’ve come across the expression “giving out”, too. Rather than thinking of it as complaining, in my mind, to give out is the same as to give in; to submit.

    Here’s a little Kiwi slang for ya. See if you can work out what it means: Wrap your laughing gear around that.

    And with that, I bid you adieu. ;)

  10. Stan says:

    Tim: Yes, exactly: no cats were soured in the making of the word sourpuss. Irish accents are difficult to imitate unless one has received training or spent a lot of time here. I admire talented mimics partly because my own imitative abilities are so poor.

    Give out meaning criticise or complain is, as far as I know, peculiar to Hiberno-English. It’s very common here. “Laughing gear” suggests a person’s mouth, so I’ll guess that “Wrap your laughing gear around that” is something you might say when offering someone a bottle to drink from — beer, for example. Am I close?

  11. Joe says:

    Reading the example above “Take that puss off you before you get out of the car” reminded me of a similar expression I heard in my childhood in Louth, ‘Take that carr off your face’. I was never sure how to spell the word ‘carr’ or whether ‘a’ might have been ‘á’ but the meaning was a sulky or sullen expression.

  12. Stan says:

    Liam: First, sorry about the late reply. The spam filter quarantined your comment, so I didn’t see it until this afternoon.

    Regarding keownrawning: I’d never seen or heard the word before today. It seems superficially close to knawvshawling — they have the same meaning and stress, more or less — but I don’t know its (presumably) Irish origin. Keown- suggests keen (cry, wail, lament, from caoineadh), but beyond that I would be guessing. If I find out more, I’ll write an update here.

    Joe: The word you heard might be cár, which I’ve seen defined as a jaw, a grimace, and an open mouth showing a set of teeth. It’s not an exact fit with a sulky expression, but maybe it carries this figurative colloquial sense.

  13. John Cowan says:

    I suspect that puss became displaced from AmE as pussy (in the AmE sense, also not involving cats) became somewhat more acceptable in speech if not in print. (The C-word, as I will call it to avoid filters, is still deeply insulting when applied to women, utterly taboo when applied to their pussies, and absolutely inapplicable to men, at least non-femme men.) Writers of fiction, of course, can get away with anything nowadays.

    Sourpuss definitely survives, as it can’t be confused with the other group.

  14. Stan says:

    Even in unambiguous contexts, calling a cat a pussy is often deliberately misinterpreted for the sake of a cheap laugh.

    I remember the controversy in the U.S. over the use of cunt in the film Kick-Ass (the actor’s age had a lot to do with it). The word doesn’t provoke the same kind of outrage east of the Atlantic, unless used as a hate word — though many people dislike and avoid it, or would be cautious about how they use it. I hear it spoken by friends, male and female, to slag each other off or abuse one another affectionately. And it’s hard to be shocked rather than amused by its occurrence in Withnail & I. (Of 15-cert films, the BBFC classification guidelines say: “The strongest terms (for example, ‘cunt’) may be acceptable if justified by the context.”)

  15. Tim says:

    Stan: Late to the response party, and for that I apologise. I don’t always follow up your follow ups…

    You hit the nail on the head there. Wrapping your laughing gear around something refers not just to a bottle of drink, but to anything that you can eat or drink. It also praises your offering, by suggesting that it will be well worth your time spent masticating (though this is not always the case).

    Sure beats, “Hey, eat this. It’s nice.” ;)

  16. Stan says:

    So I was close but too specific! Thanks, Tim. Good to know the nuances.

  17. Paul Gately says:

    Laughing Gear! I love that!

  18. […] its mark.Stan had some fascinating posts about Irish loan words in English such as plámás and cnáimhseáil . That got me thinking about some of the words my mother would use when I was a child and I assumed […]

  19. […] words in their English either knowingly or unknowingly (for example I recently read about the word knawvshawling which is used around Cork). Wouldn’t it have been great to let us know what we already know? […]

  20. […] is justified. The puss in (C) implies a sulking expression, often a child’s; see my post on cnáimhseáil for a note on usage and […]

  21. […] mention that after I wrote about the Irish word cnáimhseáil and its Hiberno-English variations, SpecGram published a brief note on the “cult of Macintosh” […]

  22. Caroline says:

    Hi I came on your blog while looking for a word with a similar meaning that my parents used when i was a kid. I don’t know how it’s spelled but it’s pronounced keentecawning. As in “Stop your keentecawning” (whinging). Have you heard of this word?

    • Stan says:

      Hi Caroline. I think that’s probably the Irish word caoineacháin, which means crying or lamenting, or it could be an anglicised derivative of it. The English verb keen comes from Irish caoin (= lament, weep), and caointe also means weeping.

  23. […] Cnáimhseáil, anglicised as cnawvshawl, knauvshaul, etc., means complaining or grumbling. It alludes to the […]

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