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:
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.’