‘The Talking Trees’ by Seán Ó Faoláin is the opening story in the anthology Body and Soul: Irish Short Stories of Sexual Love, edited by David Marcus and published by Poolbeg Press in 1979. It’s a humorous coming-of-age tale of a group of teenage boys in Cork city, containing several explicit references to language.
The boys read comics from England,* we’re told, ‘which was where they got all those swanky words like Wham, Ouch, Yaroosh, Ooof and Jolly Well.’ Educated by priests and nuns, they are at a loss to understand some of the words they hear used in relation to adult and sexual behaviour.
One day the youngest, Tommy, nicknamed Gong Gong for his ‘wild bursts of talk like a fire alarm’,
sprayed them with the news that his sister Jenny had been thrown out of class that morning in Saint Monica’s for turning up with a red ribbon in her hair, a mother-of-pearl brooch at her neck and smelling of scent.
‘Ould Sister Eustasia,’ he fizzled, ‘made her go out in the yard and wash herself under the tap, she said they didn’t want any girls in their school who had notions.’
The three gazed at one another, and began at once to discuss all the possible sexy meanings of notions. Georgie had a pocket dictionary. ‘An ingenious contrivance’? ‘An imperfect conception (U.S.)’? ‘Small wares’? It did not make sense.
The boys turn for help to Mrs Coffey, in whose sweetshop they hang about. She suggests asking ‘two giggling girls’ who are eating toffee nearby, and Georgie does so with consummate politeness:
‘Pardon me ladies, but do you by any chance happen to have notions?’
The two girls stared at one another with cow’s eyes, blushed scarlet and fled from the shop shrieking with laughter. Clearly a notion was very sexy.
A plan is hatched: the boys will pay a local woman of notorious reputation to explain to them or show them her notion or notions, whatever that might entail. The oldest boy, Dick, organises the money and says to Gong Gong:
‘If we subscribe seventeen and sixpence, do you think you can contribute half-a-crown?’
‘I could feck it, I suppose.’
Gong Gong looked shamedly at the tiles.
‘I mean steal,’ he whispered.
‘Don’t they give you any pocket money?’
‘They give me threepence a week.’
‘Well, we have only a week to go. If you can, what was your word, feck half-a-crown, you may come.’
‘To steal’ is one of several meanings of the word feck in Ireland. I’m not sure what Ó Faoláin’s intent was in making Dick unaware of it: maybe the usage was not common in Cork at that time, maybe it’s for readers’ benefit, or maybe Dick’s time in England means he’s not fully up to speed with some of the Irish vernacular.
Anyway, about those notions. Most of the major dictionaries are of little use in explaining the notions Sister Eustasia warned Jenny about. For the most part they echo Georgie’s pocket dictionary: opinion, idea, belief, conception, whim, etc.; or in plural, sewing items. The OED, however, includes one sense that comes close:
Brit. regional (chiefly Sc.) and U.S. regional. A liking or affection for someone, esp. one of a romantic or sexual nature.
All its examples are in the singular, e.g. Had a strang notion o’ the lass mysel’ (1789); a Yankee may have a kinder sneakin’ notion arter her (1864); This soldier took a notion to my granny (1985). While the idea of affection or attraction here is evident, the sexual or amorous element doesn’t appear to be necessarily central, or even necessary.
In Ireland, notion(s) can have very particular connotations of sexual or flirtatious behaviour. The Chambers Dictionary of Slang has an entry for the Irish usage, defining it as ‘amorous inclinations, usu. in phr. have a notion of, to be sexually attracted to’.
Bernard Share’s invaluable Slanguage defines notions as ‘sexual inclinations’ and adds the same phrase have a notion of, ‘be amorously attracted to’. Share cites Ó Faoláin’s story as an example, along with this one from Michael ‘Gossie’ Browne in Mary Ryan et al. (eds.), No Shoes in Summer (1995):
‘It’s a hard bind when a dacent woman has a notion of you and does you a good turn . . . unless of course you get a notion of her as well!’
Notions has another sense in Irish English, that of pretension or affectation. Of the two Irish senses, this is the only one I use. Someone who has notions or is getting notions has an inflated sense of their own importance, status, or charm. Marian Keyes’s Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married has a fine example:
‘She has notions, that one. She thinks she’s it. She’d think she was too good-looking for Dennis, even though he’s a lovely fellow.’
Ita Daly’s novel All Fall Down has another:
‘Flanagan you said – it’s Flanagans that own the hardware shop in the town – great notions that crowd had when I was growing up, thought themselves the local gentry.’
Julia O’Faolain, in Melancholy Baby:
She cursed herself for ever getting Gwennie the job in that house, cursed it for making the girl independent and for giving her notions.
Context normally makes clear whether someone’s notions are amorous, affected, or otherwise.
* Ó Faoláin lists The Gem, The Magnet, The Boys’ Own Paper, Chums, and The Captain.
When the president of the University of Chicago (at the time, a Great Books university) left to take a job as president of F.W. Woolworth’s, the five and dime store, it was said that he had gone from ideas to notions.
In my part of Ulster, we use both the meanings of ‘notion(s)’ that you describe, so you can “have a wee notion on someone” i.e. fancy them, “have notions about yourself” i.e. be big-headed or stuck up. We also have the phrase “haven’t a (baldy or feckin) notion” to mean ‘haven’t a clue’. I’d probably use the third phrase more often than the other two. It’s a useful wee word, so it is :)
John: Very good! I hope it worked out for him among his new notions.
mneh: Oh yes, I forgot to mention the phrase haven’t a notion. (I haven’t a notion how I managed that.) Like you, I use it more than I do the other two. Yes, a very handy word. :-)
Excellent stuff as always Stan. Not at all an Irish context for ‘notion’ but I cannot hear the word without thinking of another word with which it rhymes – ‘ocean’. As in “if I should take a notion to jump into the ocean” a persistent earworm from Billie Holiday’s version of a song containing some rather ‘uncomfortable’ lyrics(http://www.metrolyrics.com/aint-nobodys-business-if-i-do-lyrics-billie-holiday.html).
Like yourself, Stan, I only use notions to mean airs and graces (and an idea, as in ‘haven’t a notion’). In fact that’s what I presumed the teacher above had in mind rather than anything sexual.
Thanks, Colin. I love Billie Holiday’s voice but that is one disturbing song – hard to enjoy unless you ignore the lyrics, and even then you can’t forget them.
maceochi: I think the ‘airs and graces’ sense is more common, and it’s a lot more familiar to me than the amorous one. I’d need more data to be sure of that, though!
“That one? She has notions too far above her station.”
I heard that many, many times in my childhood in Cork. I never did hear it in the amorous sense.
And something I forgot – it was used also to portray someone who was deemed slightly off their rocker, a bit of madness.
For me, notions are either the ideas or the sewing supplies.
In American English the word ‘Ideas’ seems to come sort of close to ‘notions’ in Irish usage.
WWW: The ‘off their rocker’ use is one I haven’t heard, but I can see how that notions would be useful as a euphemism.
John: I didn’t know the sewing-supplies sense till I looked the word up, though I may have heard it as a child and forgotten it.
Charles: You’re right, it does. We use that sense of ideas here too.
[…] Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re […]
[…] * Stan Carey, “Not a Notion about Irish Notions,” Sentence First. […]
[…] Notions in Ireland means either amorous behaviour, sexual inclinations; or pretentious affectation, ideas above one’s station […]
[…] including Irish words used in Irish English. I’ve written about some of these before (hames, notions, plámás, ráiméis, ruaille buaille); others include a chara, blow-in, bockety, ceol, ciotóg, […]