Getting pure thick

I don’t care how thick he gets, I’m not inviting him!

I overheard this in Galway recently, and it prompted me to write a few notes on the word thick as it is used in Ireland. As well as the familiar adjectival and adverbial senses (dense, stupid, hazy, viscous, not thin, numerous, closely acquainted; thickly, densely…), which need no elaboration, thick has common colloquial senses in Irish English that do not seem to be well known or widely used in other dialects.

In the line quoted above, thick means angry, argumentative, sullen, or belligerent. It’s a versatile usage that often collocates with get and is typically associated with moody or petulant grumpiness, and sometimes with drunken antagonism. I heard the phrase regularly when I was growing up in the rural west of the country, and now in the urban west I still do, occasionally, in expressions such as:

She’s fierce thick over it. [fierce = very]
Don’t you be getting thick with me.
He got pure thick about it.
Thick out!

Short digression: ‘X out’ is a common construction in Irish English speech, where X describes someone’s general state or predominant characteristic at a given moment, e.g., happy out, busy out, tired out, sound out, hardy out, clever out, handy out, cute out, proud out, killed out. ‘Is he any trouble? Ah no, he’s easy out.’ The out serves as a mild intensifier and colloquial marker. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s a culchie (rural) thing.

Thick is also used to mean stubborn, obstinate, or obstructive. This can overlap with the foolish or angry/sullen senses. When I asked about the word on Twitter, some ten people mentioned variations on this sense. Here’s a sample:

obdurate with a good dash of dumb (@ciarasidine)
obstinately sullen (@tomlowe)
angry/difficult/stubborn/pain in the face (@eolai)
connote[s] stubbornness, belligerence (@frankmcgahon)
stubborn in an obstructive way (@fintan)
difficult/obstructive (@paraic).

It’s not always bullish contrariness, though: @whyowhyvonne points out that ‘thick/stubborn is sometimes right leading to thick/told you so.’

Note: A few of the Twitter links in this post block general access, where the user has made their tweets private.

* * *

Thick has been used as a noun in a few ways: to mean thick fog (military slang, mid-20C), thicket (Old English), most intense part (‘in the thick of battle/traffic’), and thickest part (of a limb or liquid). In Irish English, there’s an additional nominal sense: thick = thick person, i.e., fool.

This is not a usage I’ve adopted, or care for, but it’s another phrase I’ve been hearing since childhood (not directed at me, mind). It’s like thicko, thicky, and thick-a. The Shorter OED records it as ‘originally school slang’, and quotes two Irish authors:

The thick made out the Will wrong. (Seán Ó Casey, Juno and the Paycock)
These awful country thicks wanted to take your stool. (Maeve Binchy, Circle of Friends)

Bernard Share’s marvellous Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang has a fairly thick (bountiful) entry with a few more examples of the word’s fool sense:

The dog was no thick. He could nearly talk… (Roddy Doyle, The Van)
‘That fella is only a thick-a!’ which implied that whatever little brains he had were in his backside (Críostóir Ó Flynn, There is an Isle)
What kind of thicko will make a nuisance call any more… (Maeve Binchy again, in the Irish Times)

Irish internet forum offers many recent examples, such as:

He is making an awful thick out of you.
Probably some thick with nothing better to do with his/her time.
put a thick in a ford modeo [sic], he is still a thick

* * *

Within a couple of hours of asking about these usages on Twitter, I had received responses from 50 or 60 people.* The way I phrased the question was slightly ambiguous, and some people read it as an either–or question. Some reasonably assumed an interest on my part in other senses of the word, e.g., its synonymy with stupid or friendly/intimate.

map of Irish counties, via Wikipedia

Focusing on the distribution of the usages detailed above: @sciamannata (Italian, in Dublin for 20 years) has heard neither; @cubikmusik (Dublin) ‘never heard it to mean angry’; @Qaoileann (Dublin) has ‘heard both’. @L_Q_S hears getting thick with ‘usually [from] Wicklow/Dublin people’. @cardimarie reports that ‘Thick as in angry is something I hear a lot from letterkenny [Donegal] folks’.

@KBreathnach ‘only ever hear[s] it used in that adjectival sense by friends who are from outside Dublin […] Sligonians, generally’; @fearraigh75 confirms both usages’ ‘common currency in Sligo’. @Cat_OConnor thinks ‘it’s a Southern thing […] Cork, Kerry, Lim[erick].’ @DAngland says ‘I’m thick with you’ is very common in Munster [S, SW]. @midnightcourt (Limerick) says he didn’t hear thick (adj.) ‘in [the] sense of umbrage’ until he was about 20, and may have heard it first in Tipperary or Galway.

@doogarry, a ‘Dub in Cavan’, said that in Dublin thick = stupid, and ‘in Cavan thick = angry/grumpy as in “a thick fecker””. She also told me that ‘a regular Cavan phrase is “thick jinnet” […] Means a grumpy fecker’. Probably jennet is what’s meant; I’ve heard of the word (which refers to a female donkey or small Spanish horse) being used to derogate people, albeit sometimes affectionately. Ditto donkey. The phrase doesn’t feature on this page of Cavanese.

Selected examples of thick (adj.) meaning angry, argumentative, belligerent, or sullen:

he’s got a thick head on him. (@sharonf, Down)
he was pure thick (@cardimarie, Dublin)
“Don’t get thick with me,” as in don’t get argumentative (@Darcification)
don’t be thick with me (@curlydena on behalf of a friend)
he got really thick with me (@CarlowWeather, Carlow)
My boyfriend stood me up, I was so thick=angry (@MisiJenkins, Edenderry [Offaly])
she’s gone totally thick over it. (@wordhoarding, Cork)
pure thick with the drink (@Donal_OKeeffe, quoting D’Unbelievables)
Ah jesus Mary, he was getting pure thick with me (@Cat_OConnor)
Would you look at the thick head up on him! (also from @Cat_OConnor)
fine thick head up on him (@Carmeltw, south-west; she describes it as “very west cork in particular!!”)
yer man got fierce thick when I spilt me pint down his neck (@CiaranCrotty, Limerick)
‘he’s getting a bit thick’ meaning ‘getting aggressive/argumentative’ (@tillytoogood)
that thick fella was getting thick with me (@misterebby, Galway)
yer man started getting thick with me so I hit him (@paraic, Cork)

Examples of thick (n.) meaning thick person, idiot:

He’s an awful thick. (@psneeze, Kildare)
… I’d exclaim ‘ya big thick’ at myself (@eolai, Dublin)
That feckin thick (noun) was thick (adj) with me (@jksbeard)
yer man, Cowan/Ahern/etc, the state of him, the big thick (@pkel, Dublin)
Of course it’s potatoes for dinner, don’t be such a thick. (@liamdunne, Dublin)
ah, yer man’s A Thick (@kath_graham)

Thick is an old word, but I don’t know how old these usages are. The OED dates the noun form to the mid-19C, but I’d like an Irish source for it. There’s no mention of either usage in P. W. Joyce’s English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), Loreto Todd’s Green English (2000), or T. P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2006).

Nor can I say where the expressions might have originated. They occur all over the country, though their frequency presumably varies considerably. Some people in Dublin have never heard one or either, and I would guess that the usages didn’t arise there. The south-west seems a good bet.

It would take a systematic survey (or a reference book I haven’t checked) to tease out more detail; for now, it’s enough to record these idioms and demonstrate their continuing popularity. A gracious comment by @Ariadnaquape echoes my thoughts on the matter: “it’s the nuances of meaning that amazes and intrigues me”.

Any additional thoughts, reports and examples would be very welcome.

Update: I’m glad to see that Language Hat enjoyed the quotes; his post ‘Getting thick’ continues the lively discussion about these lesser-known usages of thick.

Note: An edited version of this article appears on the Visual Thesaurus.


* Given that it was an impulsive request on a bank holiday Sunday morning, this shows Twitter’s impressive utility and the generosity of its users. My question was helpfully retweeted around Ireland and in the UK, US, India, and Lebanon, and more responses continued to trickle in over the next couple of days.

[more Hiberno-English]

36 Responses to Getting pure thick

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    Although I think the similarity is likely to be coincidental, it puts me in mind of the AmE meaning (BrE meaning is different) of of the expression “tick off” – to annoy or be annoyed. “Don’t tick him off.” “That really ticks me off.”

    I’ve yet to find a satisfactory account of the origin of this use of “tick” and can’t help wondering whether it could derive from this Irish use of “thick,” given the tendency to use dental stops for “th” sounds in many Irish accents/dialects.

    Can you shed any light on this?

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    I come from where the ‘h’ was dropped and grew up with:”(s)he’s a right tick-o” meaning stupid. “right tick” or “tick out” on the other hand meant intimate or something to be feared (as in they’d fight for each other if one was affronted, so watch out).

    Very interesting post, Stan and there’s nothing as tick as Twitter.


  3. Stan says:

    Amy: I don’t know how AmE tick off arose either, and after looking it up in assorted references I’m none the wiser. Etymonline says the expression is recorded from 1975, but a commenter in the Wordwizard forums says it was “rampant on campus” in 1959, which might mean that it was quite new then. This would make it a little more recent than pissed off, so maybe it emerged as a polite replacement. Why tick was chosen is a mystery to me, though. It’s possible that there’s a connection with IE thick (adj.), but like you I suspect the similarity is coincidental.

    WWW: Thanks for your insights. Interesting that those uses of thick combine the senses of friendly (with one another) and potentially aggressive (to interlopers). With all these meanings of thick, I have no idea what you said about Twitter!

  4. joy says:

    This is interesting. I’m in Newfoundland, where there’s lots of Irish influences on local English, but I’ve never heard thick used in those way. Never heard the “XXX out” construction, either.

    On the other hand, having grown up in NYC, “thick” was used (in slang) to mean stupid, as in “he’s kind of thick” to describe someone who doesn’t understand things readily. And “ticked off” definitely means annoyed or angry – as does “pissed off.”

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Here in Central New Jersey, I’ve only heard a few usages which correlate with those you and other commenters have described. The most common, in my experience, would be “They’re as thick as thieves,” describing like-mindedness or, in the case of a man and a woman, consanguinity. I also have heard “He’s really thick” in the sense of stupid, and of course, the descriptive “That’s a thick pile of” whatever.

  6. John Cowan says:

    The OED derives both the AmE sense ‘annoy, irritate’ (3d) and the BrE sense ‘scold, reprimand’ (3c) of tick off (which first show up in the 20th century) from the 19th-century shared sense ‘mark off an item on a list, as with a tick or spot of ink’ (3a). The image, I think, is one of repeatedly puncturing someone’s self-esteem, with the focus on the motive in BrE, on the probable effect in AmE.

    Americans now usually use check off rather than tick off in the original sense; cf. AmE checklist and BrE tick-list.

  7. Stan says:

    Joy: Thanks for reporting from across the Atlantic! Thick meaning dull/stupid is probably common to all major varieties of English, but the senses of thick detailed above seem restricted to colloquial Irish English.

    Marc: Welcome, and thank you for the comment. The usages you describe are, I imagine, familiar to most native English speakers regardless of location, and they show how versatile the word is. Little wonder it has picked up a few more meanings along the way.

    John: I came across that suggestion in a couple of places, but it seemed a tenuous connection at best. Your explanation helps, but I still wonder how the leap was made and how the new usage caught on.

  8. joy says:

    Thanks, Stan, it’s fun. As a language geek by avocation rather than vocation, one doesn’t always know which usages are common to everyone, and which are local.

    Just a little while ago, a man on my street got to talking to me (as he admired my ability to parallel park my rather large van on a very steep hill), and then asked “where do you belong to?”

    Is that the Irish in Newfoundland English? Of course he might have been a bit thick, seeing as how I was sitting in my van, which has New York plates!

    Though “where do you belong to” might not really mean the same thing as “where are you from?” It could imply a tie to place that is stronger than simply being from there.

    (not to change the topic, or anything! ;-)

    Then there’s the question of hats. In American English, a hat is a hat. There are some specialized hats – baseball cap, riding hat, bonnet, swim cap, etc. – but hat is generic and applies to almost anything you put on your head. When I learned French, we learned “chapeau” for hat – but actually that’s only one kind of hat (I forgot which kind), and there is no generic term for things on the head – there’s chapeau and toque and bonnet (which is not what is called a bonnet in English) and so on. Just as when we learned that “noix” meant “nut,” they were wrong – it’s a walnut, and there’s no generic word for nut in French either. Nor for melon – “un melon” being what I grew up calling a cantelope.

    Is that a peculiarity of English, having generics that are modified to get the specific kinds of nuts, hats, melons, etc.?

    Oops, what did I just say about changing the topic? Oh well… ;-)

  9. I’ve never come across thick in the sense of angry before. Live and learn!

  10. Stan says:

    Joy: I don’t know if “where do you belong to?” is particular to any dialect. It doesn’t seem especially Irish to me, but who knows. It’s a nice way of asking – as you say, it implies strong ties to a place.

    Some generic terms become more specific: meat once meant any kind of solid food, and deer referred to animals in general (though especially quadrupeds). I don’t mind topic drift, by the way.

    Jams: I wondered whether you’d be familiar with it. Feel free to spread it as you see fit!

  11. richardsmyth says:

    Great stuff, Stan. The only time I’ve come across ‘thick’ used as a noun was in a Q Magazine interview with Boyzone a few years back: the singer one was repeatedly rebuking the bearded dancing one with the phrase ‘Shut up, ya t’ick, ya’. Where are those fellers from? Sligo, is it?

    Incidentally, I hope you like the way I’ve pretended to not know the names of the members of Boyzone.

  12. Rummuser says:

    “Friends as thick as thieves” and “They are thick friends” are very commonly used in Indian English.

  13. Stan says:

    Richard: You remembered it well. But what’s “Boyzone”? (They’re all from Dublin, I think.)

    Rummuser: Thank you for the datapoint! As thick as thieves is probably the expression most commonly associated with the closely acquainted sense of thick.

  14. Aidan says:

    I think that the Sligo boys are from Westlife.

  15. Stan says:

    Ah, so they are, Aidan. Thanks. From a distance of more than a few yards, one boy band looks like the next.

  16. […] them supercafoni, or superboors, as well as the challenges of translating humor.  Sentence First considered the origins of a “thick” Irish expression while Dialect Blog mused on the “foreign” Welsh accent; estuary English; Pittsburghese; […]

  17. Katie P says:

    Incidentally, in Donegal I have heard the word ‘ignorant’ used to describe a person being rude or offensive, as opposed to uninformed or stupid. As in “he’s pure ignorant” or “don’t be ignorant about it”. Is this use of the word widespread in Ireland or used elsewhere?

  18. Stan says:

    Hi Katie. I think it’s widespread in Ireland and further afield, though it’s not a standard sense of the word. The Shorter OED includes “ill-mannered, uncouth” as a dialectal or colloquial usage, which Etymonline dates to 1886.

  19. Being a Dub, I only use thick to mean stupid but I’ve heard the ‘getting thick with’ usage from country friends. I wonder does it come from the idea of getting stupid with rage. Like ‘he got thick with me’ implying he couldn’t see sense. Just a thought.

  20. Stan says:

    I like that idea, Jennifer, even though I’ve no idea how likely it is. Mad functions a bit similarly – as both angry and not seeing sense (in a different sense).

  21. I’ve always understood (ever since I was young enough to hear it regularly in the playground) that the idea behind thick=stupid is to evoke the image of a very thick skull with little room for a brain.

    I’m not familiar with the Irish thick=angry, but I can speculate on the metaphors that may have given rise to it. Perhaps that anger is a substance that fills a person and may be either concentrated or dilute? Or perhaps that an angry person fills up more space in the sense of being overbearing?

  22. Stan says:

    Dragon: The idea of a thick skull might have played a part. As well as the implication that there would be less room for a brain, it also suggests a stronger barrier to getting information through. Or thick could connote viscosity and sluggishness to contrast with a fast, fluid mind capable of commanding a rapid flow of thoughts.

  23. johnwcowan says:

    Ignorant ‘rude, impolite’ is common in the Southern U.S. and among AAVE speakers. The implication is that what such people are ignorant of is common courtesy, and by further implication, that they are so because their mothers never taught them any manners. So to call someone ignorant is an insult in itself.

    Of course, the American South was largely settled by Ulster Scots. Is this meaning to be found in the Six Counties as well as Donegal, I wonder?

  24. Stan says:

    I don’t know how common it is in Northern Ireland, John. In the Belfast Telegraph I found a few instances, all of them in the comments section, e.g., “the staff are ignorant, the djs and music arent great either”; “the bus driver was ignorant ignorant man. He was nasty to everyone that got on his bus”.

    In a much milder sense of ill-mannered ignorance, I’ve always been amused by the expression “Were you born in a barn?” (or “raised”, etc.) when someone leaves a door open that ought to be closed. I don’t know where the phrase originated, though.

  25. richardsmyth says:

    Stan, I always thought ‘Were you born in a barn?’ suggested that the offending party had an unusual liking for unconfined, open-plan spaces – a proclivity that might have been developed during upbringing in a drafty barn. You think it’s meant to imply bumpkinish ignorance?

    • Edward Barrett says:

      I’ve heard ‘Were you born in a barn’ used mostly (though not exclusively) when someone has left a door open that someone else then closes (or insists the offender closes). In that sense, I simply thought it likened the offender to an animal – ie unable to close the barn door, so someone else has to.

  26. Stan says:

    Richard, I think it can mean either, or both. I’ve heard born in a barn used rhetorically in contexts where there were no doors or references to doors, and the phrase was more about manners in some other respect, e.g., eating “properly” as opposed to eating like a farm animal.

  27. johnwcowan says:

    In addition, there are old-fashioned rural U.S. accents in which START=NORTH (but FORCE is separate), which causes the phrase to sound like “born in a born” (or sometimes “barn in a barn”).

  28. John Cowan says:

    I noticed the other day while watching No Time for Sergeants (1958) that Andy Griffith, or at least his Will Stockdale character, had the START=NORTH merger; he really does say “No, sir, she [his mother] died when I was barn”, but he doesn’t say “Air Farce” for “Air Force”. Stockdale was born in Georgia so far up a mountain the head of the local draft board has to go after him personally, because the mail doesn’t get delivered reliably up there.

  29. Stan says:

    Thanks for sharing the observation, John. I think mergers are even more interesting when they’re not part of my own speech: I like imagining what it would be like to merge those sounds.

  30. I find it very note resting that there was only one person who used the pronoun “I” with the verb “to be thick”. Perhaps it’s usually used with you or he or other non-I pronouns?

    • Stan says:

      That is interesting, Ian. I don’t have data, but I would guess there’s some truth to it. Maybe because this sense of thick has connotations we prefer to avoid, but don’t mind attaching to others.

      • Fecking auto-correct there: I meant to type ‘interesting’ and not ‘note resting’! Anyway, yes, i think you’re right. The only context I could imagine myself using ‘I’ with the verb is if I were talking about a situation in which I deliberately decided to piss someone off because they were annoying me.

  31. […] Thick in Irish English can mean angry – either stubborn and sullen or belligerent and argumentative. […]

  32. John Cowan says:

    “Were you born in a barn?”

    We’ve been discussing this on LH recently. The old understand it as being mannerless, the young with specific reference to windows and doors. The Hebrew equivalent of the latter is “Were you born on a bus?”

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