Putting smacht on an Irish word

Smacht is an Irish noun I sometimes hear (and use) in Irish English speech. Pronounced /smɑxt̪/ (SMOKT or SMOKTH, where the K is a soft throaty sound like the –ch in loch), it means discipline, control, order, rule, authority, command, or constraint – typically over a person, group, animal, room, or anything that’s prone to disarray.

You’re most likely to hear smacht with the general sense ‘discipline’ or ‘control’ in an educational, parental, sporting, or political context. A new coach would try to put smacht on a disorganised team, or a parent might put smacht on a misbehaving child – or instruct them to put smacht on their messy playroom.

The word faoi /fwi:/ (FWEE), meaning under, often precedes it. When I asked about smacht on Twitter, several people reported that they usually or always heard it or used it alongside faoi. So, for instance, if an unruly classroom is ó smacht (out of control), a teacher will try to put it faoi smacht. A commanding teacher or a well-behaved team or family could be said to have ‘great smacht‘.

Here are some examples I found online:

Older people told us we were lucky to have the opportunity of going there [St Muredach’s College]. We found it hard to believe them. They also told us, with ill-concealed glee, that the college priests would put ‘smacht’ on us. (Mayo News)

It hadn’t been the most pleasant of mornings in the corridors of power. With Brian Cowen busily talking climate change in New York, poor Mary was left behind to put a bit of smacht on the unruly deputies. (Evening Herald)

a little shout here and there does help to put smacht on younger kids (comment on Boards.ie)

So, Michael ‘Brostaigí’ Bond is back as Offaly manager. Looks like the Loughrea college Principal is the only man able to keep a bit of ‘smacht’ on Johnny, Joe, Brian and the lads. (An Fear Rua)

Two new staff this weekend, be gentle, don’t bite at least not there first night!!!!!!, welcome aboard Amy and Mick i hope you have thick skin and a quick thongue to keep smacht on us lot (Facebook: The Anchor Nightclub)

during a futile attempt to put some smacht on the mess on Sunday (which mostly involved moving things from one bag to another and kicking some stuff under the couch), I chanced upon a trio of juicy lip delights… (Beaut.ie)

do the FF backbenchers get this ? how will they react? Does Biffo have any credibility left? Will the whips be able to keep smacht on them ? (comment on Irish Economy)

It’s time to put a bit of smacht on these players. (Knowledgeable Noel)

The word’s regulatory sense is to the fore here, where it refers to a historical penalty for trespassing, while this Irish–English dictionary has examples of its idiomatic use in Irish. Smacht also appears in poetry, both Irish and English, and features in a traditional proverb:

Ní bhíonn an rath ach mar a mbíonn an smacht. (There’s no prosperity except where there’s discipline.)

McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language traces the origin of smacht (Scottish Gaelic smachd) to the hypothetical *smaktu– “from s-mag, root mag, Indo-European magh, be strong”. So its similarity to smack (and to Dutch smachten: yearn, pine) is probably coincidental.

Smacht is a useful term that conveys a lot in one syllable (albeit a long one). It doesn’t seem to have been adopted much beyond the Irish community, partly I suppose because there are plenty of other words overlapping its semantic space. But I’ve always liked its sound, and I bet Hobbes would too.

Updates: Here it is in a headline in the Galway Advertiser, 16 January 2013:

Galway Advertiser 16.01.2013 - Putting smacht on your business - headline

The similar Irish word slacht (‘tidiness, good appearance, finish’) is also sometimes used in Irish English, as in Eilís Dillon’s 1958 novel The Bitter Glass, set mostly in west county Galway:

‘Mary will put a bit of slacht on the place anyway.’

[more Irish English]

14 Responses to Putting smacht on an Irish word

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh my Stan:
    Thanks for the refresher on this lovely word, I haven’t used it in years, time to kickstart it again!

  2. Yvonne says:

    When I read your tweet about this it put me in mind of the German word for taste “schmeckt”. Probably as coincidental as “smacht’s” similarity in sound to the Dutch “smachten”.

    Thus concludes the thoughts of hopeless, and random, monoglot.

  3. Stan says:

    WWW: My pleasure. I’m sure you’ll find occasion to use it now and then!

    Yvonne: I think so. Smack and schmeckt (and Geschmack, etc.) go back a long way together, but on a different branch to smacht.

  4. I really is a great word. I don’t think I have ever heard it used in conversation though

  5. On second thoughts it is what my mum with her strong West Cork/Kerryish accent would have said when she gave me a few flakes with the wooden spoon when I was naughty as a kid!

  6. Interesting! I’d never heard smacht used in English, but it’s clearly going strong out there. One I have noted a lot lately in English is gúna – women will speak of choosing a gúna for a night out or, often, getting married in their gúna. It seems to have connotations of a special dress, one denoting a bit of an effort. Now where would that fit in along the dress – frock – gown continuum, I wonder?

  7. Stan says:

    Jams: Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to use it soon. (The word, not the wooden spoon.) I must say I’m very fond of it.

    PFW: Smacht does seem to be holding its own, at least among a modest section of Irish English speakers. I imagine it gets much more use in Irish. Thanks for the comment on gúna: I’ve heard it used as you describe, but I’m utterly unqualified to determine its place on the continuum!

  8. Jams: Sounds like your mum was laying the smacht down.

  9. […] Smacht is a noun loaned from Irish meaning control, discipline, or order. You might put smacht on […]

  10. […] used – as are sleveen, sleiveen, and slieveen. It’s often used in political contexts, and, like smacht, occasionally makes the […]

  11. […] hopes that the correction issued may once and for all put manners and a bit of good old fashioned smacht on the wayward pupils. It promises to be a lesson to be remembered. Detention will be the first […]

  12. […] that –ín has other functions as a suffix, and the semantic connection can be oblique. From smacht ‘discipline, order, control, rule’ we get smachtín ‘cudgel, club’. Paidir ‘prayer’ […]

  13. JB says:

    Great expression: “I’ll put a bit a smacht on you lad!”

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