Giving out, Irish style

The phrasal verb give out has several common senses:

distribute – ‘she gave out free passes to the gig’

emit – ‘the machine gave out a distinctive hum’

break down, stop working – ‘at the end of the marathon her legs gave out’

become used up – ‘their reserves of patience finally gave out’

declare, make known – ‘management gave out that it would change the procedure’

In Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale I read an example of this last sense: ‘At the moment the Communist Party is giving out that he was off his head.’ Had Fleming been Irish, this line would be ambiguous – give out in Irish English commonly means complain, grumble, moan; or criticise, scold, reprimand, tell off.

I think this give out comes from Irish tabhair amach, same meaning. It’s intransitive and often followed by to [a person]. People might give out to someone for some mistake, oversight, or character flaw, or about politics, the weather, or the state of the roads. Or they might just give out in an unspecific or habitual way.

Here are some examples from literature:

He always seemed to be in bad humour and was always giving out. (Joe McVeigh, Taking a Stand: Memoir of an Irish Priest)

Pot Belly gives out and tells Slapper he’s not to be going home in this weather. (Claire Keegan, ‘The Ginger Rogers Sermon’, in Antarctica)

She had a good figure, although she was always giving out about her too-tight size twelve jeans, but she said buying a pair of size fourteens would be giving in. (Fiona O’Brien, Without Him)

‘If I eat any more turnips I’ll turn bleedin’ yellow.’
‘Ah, don’t be always giving out,’ said Mother. (Christy Brown, Down All the Days)

Giving out to him the whole time: ‘I’ve hated you for years, you old fecker, so take this.’ (Anne Emery, Obit: A Mystery)

Both brothers would do Mr McGurk’s voice but Tee-J did it brilliant. He did Mr McGurk as a cranky old farmer who was always giving out. (Kevin Barry, ‘White Hitachi’, in Dark Lies the Island)

Greenfinch standing on a rock, looking at or towards the camera, its beak open. To the right are some bare twigs, and the background is grey and out of focus.

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) giving out to me about something

Irish give out is sometimes intensified by adding stink, yardsto high heaven, or the pay:

Afterwards in the car my mother would give out yards to my father for being so generous to his sponging relations. (Sinead Moriarty, Keeping It In the Family)

Of course you prefer your little pet of a daughter who gave out stink to me this morning and wanted me to shift myself and my bed and I in the throes of mortal suffering. (John B. Keane, Letters of a Love-Hungry Farmer and other stories)

I heard the mother giving out stink to the father about it the other night; she was doing the old shout-whisper… (Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart)

‘I had her mother on the phone to me last night, giving out yards.’ (Clare Dowling, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)

‘We’re gone fierce boring now. Real suburbanites, I guess. Mowing the lawn and giving out yards about the neighbours.’ (Joseph O’Connor, Two Little Clouds)

For all we know, they give out to high heaven behind closed doors but we’ve no indication of that so we have to presume they are ok with things. (JoeyFantastic on forum)

…even if I did have to listen to him giving out the pay about the dangers of the Teddy Boys now inhabiting the place. (Brendan Behan, Confessions of an Irish Rebel)

Bernard Share, in Slanguage, says give out is an abbreviation of give out the hour, and is also seen in the form give off. I haven’t encountered these versions much.

Dermot, she said again, say something. Give off to me but don’t stay quiet. (Dermot Healy, The Bend for Home)

You’ll find give out = complain, criticise, etc. in many dictionaries of Irish slang, but it’s not slang: it’s an idiom in most or all of the dialects on this island, a regular feature of vernacular Hiberno-English. And it doesn’t end there.

On Twitter, Oliver Farry said ‘people in Kansas and Missouri use give out in much the same way as Irish people do’. This was news to me, and I’d be interested to hear more about it – or about its use anywhere else in this Irish sense. Including Ireland: I use it myself. But don’t give out to me if I’ve overlooked something important.


LanguageHat follows up, wondering about the Kansas/Missouri use of the phrase. A few commenters from these States have never heard it, so its distribution is evidently limited.

[Hiberno-English archives]

11 Responses to Giving out, Irish style

  1. Fascinating, always fun to read – love the examples. Hey, on the Kansas – Missouri question, I know one film that would be good to watch (if you can stand it): Winter’s Bone. Set in Missouri.. and one other phrase that stands out from that – ‘bred and buttered’, which the protagonist (awesome Jennifer Lawrence) gives as way of explanation of why she is loyal etc.. to her family. Seems that’s an Irish idiom as well.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for the film recommendation, Claire. It’s been on my to-watch list for a while, but I wanted to read the book first because it’s by Daniel Woodrell and I love his writing. So I did that last week – read the book, I mean – and I’ll let it settle a while before watching the film. Which I hear is excellent.

      As for “giving out” in Kansas and Missouri, I’ve seen one yea, in the discussion following Oliver’s tweet, and one nay, in the comments at Languagehat. I wonder if it’s in DARE.

  2. Oh, the book! That must be excellent! I didn’t realize.. will have to get with that. I’m just reading JK Rowling’s recent right now.

  3. […] Give out in Ireland commonly means to scold or complain: You can give out to someone, or just give out. […]

  4. […] may derive from break/bust your hole (laughing), while in the second phrase shite intensifies the Irish idiom give out ‘scold; complain’: I gave out shite to him is synonymous with gave out stink or […]

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

  6. […] mild disapproval: a parent or teacher might give out to a child for foostering. But the word is often […]

  7. […] The familiar modern meaning is ‘reprimand’, or in Irish English, give out. […]

  8. michael says:

    i have just been writing my mothers eulogy and one of the fondest memories i have of her is her use of these magical words or phrases, apart from, giving out she often used the words, plaumaus, kooky nacky (weird), mocky ar (prentend or make believe), and genie mike (which was a phrase uttered in despair or shock) i loved these words they held an almost magical meaning to me as a child. please excuse the spelling as i have never seen them spelt. I dont know if these words are common in ireland or unique to her, all i know is that i loved them as much as i loved her. god bless her!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Michael. I’ve written about a couple of these expressions. Plámás means empty flattery, more or less, and ‘mocky ar’ (or mockaya) seems to be related to the sceptical interjection moryah, Irish mar dhea. ‘Genie mike’ is probably a variant of Janey Mac, a euphemism for Jesus. All are in regular enough use in Ireland, though perhaps less so among younger generations.

  9. […] Stephen Fry, normally a tolerant sort, linguistically, gave out about uptalk on UK comedy show Room 101, complaining invidiously that it had ‘invaded Britain […]

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