Ijit, idjit, eejit, idiot

After about 15 years of not reading Stephen King, I came across Dolores Claiborne in a second-hand bookshop and immediately bumped it to the upper reaches of my book mountain. I’ve long admired the film adaptation, so I was more than a little curious to visit the source.

Set on an island off the coast of Maine, New England, it’s a memorable story told very well as a continuous narrative in Dolores’s dialectal speech. It has one lexical feature that I want to mention here. No spoilers follow:

…the biggest ijit in the world coulda told he didn’t think I’d do any such thing once I finally understood what’d happened

I don’t remember seeing the word ijit in print before. Obviously it’s a regional form of idiot – like idjit, another variant – and means more or less the same thing (see eejit, below), but it’s interesting how its pronunciation /’ɪdʒət/ ‘idget’ differs from the standard /’ɪdiət/ ‘iddy-uht’. I suppose this is related to the tendency for /dj/ to shift to /dʒ/ in words like due and during.

Ijit has only one hit in COCA; idjit has three, including the amusing line ‘an optimist […] is just a crossword puzzle way of saying idjit’. Browsing Google Books, though, I see that they’re not so rare, ijit occurring for instance in a story by Jacques Futrelle, who lived not far from Maine in Scituate, Massachusetts.

I expect they occur here and there around the English-speaking world. Wordnik aggregates several colloquial examples of both forms. Rooting around some more, I see that ijit is also an old African American word, mentioned in Hubert Anthony Shands’s Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi (1893):

Eejit is the Irish English equivalent, and is common in fictional and vernacular dialogue. It doesn’t connote mental retardation – idiot can – instead signalling foolish behaviour, be it chronic or occasional. Eejit is softer than idiot, and is not generally used hurtfully but to gently criticise someone the speaker knows and may well hold in affection. I imagine this is also true of ijit and idjit, but I’m open to correction.

Eejit can, of course, be used in self-criticism, as in this example from Jennifer Johnston’s novel Shadows on Our Skin:

And he hadn’t done his homework, let alone his extra homework. Eejit. Eejit.

T. P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English offers a few literary examples of eejit and a note on pronunciation: that it approximates the Irish rendering of d and i. Take for example the Irish words Dia (God) /’dʲi:æ/ and idir (between) /’ɪdʲər/. [Edit: See the comments for more on this.]

‘You’re the biggest eejit this side of Cork,’ his old father used to say snappishly. (William Trevor, Fools of Fortune)

Common modifiers of eejit include big, awful, feckin’, fuckin’, and oul’ (also ould, aul’, auld). Its jocular flavour made it a frequent favourite in the TV comedy Father Ted, and might help explain why the word was found to be not unparliamentary when it was used in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Irish English as Represented in Film by Shane Walshe presents some uses of the word in films, but you’ll have to turn your head sideways to read them. Like an eejit.


21 Responses to Ijit, idjit, eejit, idiot

  1. Qaoileann says:

    Just a note that those Irish pronunciations can vary quite a lot by dialect. For example, I would never say ‘Dia’ with that pronunciation – I’m much more likely to say it with the unvoiced initial consonant cluster, or a dental ‘d’. Whether this makes a difference to variations on ‘eejit’, however, I couldn’t say…

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Qaoileann. That’s very true. (Phonetics is not my forte, as you can probably tell!) I imagine there’s some variation in the pronunciation of eejit, such as in the degree to which the /d/ is sounded, but I haven’t looked into it in any detail. Or listened, rather.

  3. Licia says:

    A quote from Roddy Doyle’s The Deportees:

    …and an Italian bike courier rode over his hand – an Italian who had been in Dublin for a while.
    — You theeek fockeeng eeee-jit, he roared as he dashed across to Marlborough Street.

    [bold mine]

  4. Annie says:

    We grew up saying “eejit” in Wales because that’s what my Irish mammy said. It wasn’t until I was a grown up that I put two and two together and realised it was a form of “idiot”. It sounds so different – not the actual sound, but the tone and the implications. I’d never call anyone an idiot.

  5. johnwcowan says:

    It’s quite possible, based on the equivocal evidence in the OED, that the palatalized pronunciation has been more or less in use throughout the history of the word idiot in English. It first appears in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible in 1384, in the Latin/Greek sense of ‘plain, unlearnèd person’. The spelling, however, is always going to pull the word back to the learnèd three-syllable pronunciation.

    Nidiot/nidget ‘idiot’, however, goes back to 1533 and is not so much influenced by classicizing concerns, so we find the spelling nigeot in 1593 and nigit in 1603; the first may be, and the second certainly is, palatalized. The n- comes from the metanalysis of an idiot, like nuncle, Nan, Ned, for the nonce from mine uncle, mine Ann, mine Ed, for the-n once (where the n is a survivor of the old dative case ending), as well as the Irish and sometimes American pronunciation a-tall for at all.

    As for the spelling eejit, it doesn’t show up in the OED until 1955, though eegit is from 1919 and eediot from Robert Louis Stevenson’s last novel St. Ives (1894), in a Scottish rather than an Irish context.

  6. Stan says:

    Licia: Thank you for a very colourful example – it’s very easy to picture that scene!

    Annie: It took me a while to connect eejit and idiot too. Maybe partly, like you say, because of how differently they tend to be used.

    John: That’s all very interesting, thank you. Given the productive metanalysis that you describe, I wonder if nit in the slang sense “fool” is related. (Probably not, I suppose; more likely it’s just an abbreviation of nitwit, which has a different origin.) I am surprised that the OED has no older examples of eejit, but I haven’t turned one up yet.

  7. johnwcowan says:

    There’s a predate in Chapter 2 of P. Hay Hunter’s novel James Inwick (1896, online at scotstext.org):

    “Speak oot, ye donnert eejit!” says Tam Arnott, that wis sittin by him on the tither side frae me; “what are ye fleyed for? Get on wi yer show, an dinna staun there whaizlin like a blastit stink!” At this the folk that wis sittin near haun aa burst oot lauchin; an An’ra at it again, pechin an hawkin, an hoastin like an auld wife, but nae mair able to get oot a wird o sense nor if he haed been tongue-tackit.

    But of course Scots is not English.

    As for nitwit, the OED has it only from 1914; nit ‘insignificant person’ > ‘foolish person’ first shows up in Shakespeare, and is from nit ‘louse egg, louse’. The etymology of nitwit is most likely from German or Yiddish nicht, but the two words nit and nitwit have surely influenced one another.

  8. Stan says:

    And nitwit probably had an effect on twit, too.

    Prompted by Qaoileann’s comment, I thought again about the Irish pronunciations I mentioned and feel I might have understated the /d/. That is, the d sound would be more prominent in words like Dia and idir than my post indicated; the /dʒ/ in each was an oversimplification. Discussions with a couple of fluent Irish speakers (both west of Ireland) confirm this, and remind me of the detriment of disuse. I’ve emended the post accordingly.

  9. Jonathon says:

    A similar phonetic development is Injun from Indian (which, of course, is considered pretty offensive now). But I wonder how common the /dj/ to /dʒ/ shift was in older American English.

  10. Stan says:

    Good example, Jonathon. Thanks. It seems to be a fairly common shift, but I don’t know how common. There’s probably been a study or two into it; I didn’t dig too deep in my search.

  11. Sile Convery says:

    Thanks for the reminder that “eejit” is used in that rather gentle way. One of my favorite words but alas have given up using it since most people in the SF Bay Area don’t have a clue what I mean!

  12. Stan says:

    You’re very welcome, Sile. If eejit is among your favourite words, it would be a pity to abandon it altogether. Maybe people around you will get to know it gradually, and even to begin using it themselves!

  13. Coming late to the conversation, like an aul’ eejit… is there the same drift in the word ‘soldier’ becoming ‘sodger’ in some less formal contexts ? And as to the Scots, get yourself onto the almost synonomous ‘numpty’…

  14. Stan says:

    Seán: Possibly. Sodger is slightly easier and quicker to say, so a general drift towards it in informal contexts would make sense. The OED says numpty came from numps, origin unknown but maybe a familiar form of Humphry. Wordnik suggests it could have come from mump, an old dialectal word for grimace or sulk. It’s a curious one.

  15. […] a bad situation), and the intensifier feckin’ or fecking, which often collocates with hell, eejit, gobshite or some such […]

  16. It’s Bobby’s catchphrase in the show ‘Supernatural’.

  17. craig jones says:

    Got bored and did what I always do: randomly chose a word, put it in a search engine, et violins, here I am.
    I’m a Northern Canadian and the term ijit was actually quite commonly used in my youth. Depending upon the force with which it was voiced it was either a mild reproach or an accusation of mental deficiency. A well skilled verbal linguist could wield the word as a scalpel and walk away with the victims gratitude.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Craig. Your report of the tonal range of ijit corresponds with my impression of Irish eejit: it can vary a lot, from quite harsh to entirely friendly, a mild reproach as you put it.

  18. […] Schoolboy Error: Planning meticulously for your race and then getting carried away by it all and running around like an eejit. […]

  19. […] is a popular term of abuse for a foolish or daft person (like eejit but sharper), or for a contemptible person, especially a self-satisfied, pretentious, and voluble […]

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