Gaustering about the meaning of ‘gosther’

In Seán Ó Faoláin’s novel Bird Alone (1936) the narrator, a young boy, is waiting alone in town for his grandfather:

After shivering under the thatch of a cabin-end for an hour I began to search for him – as by instinct among the pubs. Sure enough, I found him gosthering with some old toady in the Royal Hotel…

Gosthering gave me pause. It was obviously Hiberno-English and meant something like “chatting”, but it was not a word in my idiolect, and I didn’t remember coming across it before. I must have, though, because a quick search showed it was used in Seán O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman:

I’ve no time to be standin’ here gostherin’ with you.

And in Dubliners by James Joyce, albeit used as a noun and spelt slightly differently:

he was leaning on the counter in his shirt-sleeves having a deep goster with Alterman Cowley.

So far so straightforward. But when I looked it up in the reference books, I found that the word has a constellation of meanings, some closely related and overlapping, some less so, as well as an uncertain etymology. The semantic variation is apparent from a browse of gosther and gosthering in Google Books.

Ein süßes Geheimnis (A sweet secret) by Adolf Hering, 1892Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green says goster functions as a noun and verb meaning conversation or chat. He notes the affinity to UK dialectal gauster, goster “to gossip, to talk, to waste time chatting”, but does not assert this as the origin.

T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says it means “empty talk, empty chat; a gossipy person”, adding gasther to the set of variants, and suggests it comes from Middle English galstre “to make a noise, brag, boast”. He too mentions the British dialect word gauster, noting its inclusion in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary.

The ME word galstre is of obscure origins (OED: “perhaps some kind of derivative of Old English galan, gale v.1 to sing, cry out”), but the semantic thread spooled from it runs through several British dialect dictionaries that gloss its descendant, gaustering, as “imperious, boasting”, and sometimes also “dictatorial”. The OED incorporates this sense in its definition of gauster:

To behave in a noisy, boisterous, or swaggering fashion; to brag or boast; in some localities, to laugh noisily.

The laughing aspect is foregrounded in Collins’ definition of goster, which it calls a Northern England dialect word meaning (1) to laugh uncontrollably, or (2) to gossip. Merriam-Webster Unabridged is still broader: “to behave boldly or boisterously : swagger, bully”; and “to waste time conspicuously especially by talking and gossiping”.

Gauster is a plausible etymon of gosther, but Irish origins (or both) are also possible. Bernard Share’s Slanguage, defining goster simply as “chat, conversation”, compares it to Irish gasrán cainte “conversation”, while P.W. Joyce’s English As We Speak It In Ireland has goster “gossipy talk”, from Irish gastaire “a prater,* a chatterer”.

According to Niall Ó Dónaill’s authoritative Irish-English dictionary, a gastaire is a “smart, impudent fellow” – and gasróg is a “smart expression; quick retort” – which brings us close again to the idea of boasting, but not quite. The more I find out, the less I know.

On an unrelated note, Ó Faoláin’s Bird Alone, which started all this, also has the unusual form wo’not, as in “I wo’not”, an emphatic form of I won’t or I will not. This term I have heard, in west of Ireland speech, but not in some time.

Image: Ein Süßes Geheimnis [A Sweet Secret] by Adolf Hering, 1892, via Wikimedia Commons

* OED: “A person who talks foolishly, pompously, or at great length, esp. to little purpose.”

8 Responses to Gaustering about the meaning of ‘gosther’

  1. gossiping? gobs—ing?

    • Stan says:

      Joan: Gossip has a curious origin, deriving from Old English godsibb meaning godparent or sponsor. (That sibb “relative, relationship” is the same as in sibling.) The modern sense appeared centuries later.

  2. missjane says:

    Ooh, I wonder if this is part of the etymology of snollygoster, a word the Inky Fool is fond of?

  3. Stan says:

    Nice suggestion, missjane! The origin of snollygoster is unknown, so I don’t know. It seems to be a whimsical US coinage, first written as Snolly Goster in 1846, which the OED says may be connected with snallygaster (from German schnelle geister, literally “quick spirits”), though the latter is more recent. There may be a connection, or it could be just orthographic coincidence.

  4. Tom Maxwell says:

    I can’t add anything etymological to this, but just to say that growing up in Dublin in the ’40s I remember it was in regular use in our family, especially among the older people.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for letting me know, Tom. It could be one of those Irish terms that hasn’t caught on much among the last generation or two. I don’t think I ever heard it spoken, and rarely see it in print.

  5. Jean Grundy Fanelli says:

    Gauster was used in our family and was common in Lincolshire where it was only used to mean a hearty uncontollable laugh.

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