Sleeveen language in Ireland

In an article in the Irish Independent this week on privatisation fears and political shenanigans, Gene Kerrigan used a great word borrowed (and anglicised) from the Gaelic:

Is it really okay for the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] to do what he did, then he makes a non-apology and everyone moves on?

Did Enda Kenny lie to us?

You won’t find a straightforward statement in which he said he had nothing to do with the stroke. Instead, he said, “ministers are free to make nominations to particular boards”. Sleeveen language. Deliberately deceptive, while taking pains not to formally lie.

A sleeveen is a sly, smooth-tongued person, a rogue or a trickster. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as ‘an untrustworthy or cunning person’, Collins says it refers to ‘a sly obsequious smooth-tongued person’, while Yeats glossed it as a ‘mean fellow’. You get the idea.

Despite appearances it can be used affectionately, like most Irish insults, but this is obviously not the case above, nor is it normally.

Sleeveen comes from Irish slíbhín ‘sly person’, to which Dinneen adds slighbhín. The Irish words’ s can be closer to /ʃ/ ‘sh’, so the spelling shleeveen is also used – as are sleveen, sleiveen, and slieveen. It’s often used in political contexts, and, like smacht, occasionally makes the headlines:

Irish Examiner headline - sleeveens in Dail - Burton headline 'sleveen move'

Slíbhín may derive from sliabh, Irish for ‘mountain’, plus the diminutive suffix -ín, however unfair this seems to small mountain-dwellers. Sliabh is the etymon proposed by most of the reference works I checked.

The roots of sliabh lie in physical geography. MacBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language ties it to sleamhuinn ‘slippery, smooth’, and compares it with English slope and slip (cf. the Proto-Indo-European root *sleubh– ‘to slide, slip’, source of the sleeve into which we slip our arm).

P. W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), offers the etymology slígh ‘a way’ + bin ‘sweet, melodious’: a sweet-mannered fellow. To this description he adds smooth-tongued, sly, and guileful, and says sleeveen is ‘universal all over the South and Middle’.

Whatever the precise origins of sleeveen, a century later it remains a popular, if niche, insult. Here are some examples from various sources:

He is a parish pump shleeveen of the worst sort. A man who will do and say anything to keep his seat.

Nidge ya little slieveen, always able to snake ur way out of trouble #LoveHate [Nidge is a character in Love/Hate, an Irish TV drama.]

Every townland in the country can spit venom about a poor referee who didn’t see some sleeveen bounce the ball as he went around the full-back…

This is the first time I’ve received any sort of invitation to a political fundraiser, and it turns out to be in aid of the aspirations of a catholic, sleeveen, poisonous asp.

Beamish manages to get up to some devilment while here, ambushing shleeveen rent collector Michael Feeney and relieving him of his takings…

Fianna Fail shleeveen deputies would be there in a shot if there was an allowance for it. [Fianna Fáil = an Irish political party.]

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams rounded on the Fianna Fáil leader and the ‘sleeveen‘ language and ‘weasel words’ he used. [Sinn Féin = an Irish political party.]

Lets see how well the arrogant Irish sleeveen publicans who have taken their customers for granted for so long deal with this one.

Sneaky self promoting shleeveen he definitely is.

That FG T.D. on #sixone is only a sleveen as well. Refused to answer a perfectly simple question from Bryan Dobson re voting for McNulty. [FG = Fine Gael, an Irish political party; T.D. = Teachta Dála, a member of the Dáil or lower house of Irish parliament; Six One = evening news on Irish TV.]

He struck me as being the Dáil 2.0 style of parish pump, sleeveen politician.

ah yeh collies, i wouldnt mind i grew up on a farm and we had severel of em and one bite me ,they are just a sleiveen of a dog an tds are the biggest sleiveens of time thats for damn sure

And she wouldn’t stand for to be chuffed up by any oul shleeveen. “Go way with yer plamas and yer grah-mo-crees,” she tell them all.’

Brian O’Nolan, better known as Flann O’Brien, used it under his Myles na gCopaleen moniker:

…denounce me to your even weightier wife as a thief, a fly-by-night, a sleeveen and a baucaugh-shool. [travelling beggar, from Irish bacach siúil]

And playwright Hugh Leonard explained it briefly in Out After Dark:

‘That fellow’s a sleeveen,’ he said. It was a pejorative word meaning a little mountainy fellow, as treacherous as he was unpredictable.

Sleeveen also has dialectal currency in Canada. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English has several entries under various spellings, including sleeveen as a verb meaning ‘steal’. Its main entry has assorted definitions and examples.

Even so, it doesn’t appear to be well known: it stumped most of these Newfoundland hockey players:


18 Responses to Sleeveen language in Ireland

  1. prepwise says:

    Perfect word for a few too many vendors I’ve hired recently. You’ve inspired a post!

  2. Claire Stokes says:

    Wonderful, I love that term.

  3. Patrick Wynne says:

    Interesting. I wonder if knowledge of this Irish word influenced the creation of the Doctor Who aliens the Slitheen, who disguised themselves in their initial appearance as politicians and for whom sly, cunning, untrustworthy and guileful would be appropriate descriptions.

  4. My Little Nanny Redmond used to refer to people she didn’t trust as ‘that little sleeveen’.

  5. Stan says:

    prepwise: Bad news, good news. At least you have a new word for them!

    Claire: Fire at will.

    Patrick: An interesting idea, but I’d be surprised if there were a direct connection. Sleeveen isn’t well known outside Irish and Canadian dialects. Slitheen uses the same sound symbolism underlying e.g. slither – and Slytherin from Harry Potter, which seems a more likely influence.

    Michelle: Ah, excellent. It’s a very expressive put-down.

  6. Great stuff. I think McBain is to be trusted on this one. Medieval Irish contains a likely suspect: ‘slim’ (m=v sound)…

    with attested usages of “smooth, sleek, flat, unleavened bread, slippery, deceitful, sly, quarrelsome”.

    Used in several obscure Irish poems/texts with mixed middle and modern Irish c.100-1800AD, but two in particular are 17thC, so probably no earlier than 16th C.

  7. Nick Davis says:

    Newfoundland hockey players are pretty easy to stump.

    • Andrew says:

      To be fair, the hockey players aren’t actually from Newfoundland – they just play there (hence the fun exercise of having them try to guess at the meanings of local words). It is a common word among people native to Newfoundland.

  8. Oisín says:

    And there was me thinking it was where Napoleon kept his armíní.

  9. Stan says:

    Nick: I wouldn’t know!

    Oisín: He always kept reserve forces up his sleevíní.

  10. Clodagh says:

    What a fascinating/frustrating (frustinating?) etymological quest! We’re really lacking a proper etymological dictionary of Modern Irish, although McBain can be a good start. Maybe the Foclóir na Nua-Ghaeilge project in the Royal Irish Academy will be including etymological information in their dictionary, but I’m not sure about that. I’d have my doubts about slim, though. I don’t think it has the lenited /v/ sound; we can tell this from words it rhymes with and also from the Modern Irish spelling (slim), and some medieval spellings have it as slimm which points to the same thing. The derivation from sliabh + -ín seems to work best linguistically, although we mightn’t like the insinuation. Although the diminutive suffix usually indicates affection or smallness in a physical sense, it could also suggest meanness, pettiness, lowness or contempt, as in ‘Shoneen’ or ‘Jackeen’, I suppose. There are a few places called Sleveen (an Sléibhín; presumably also from sliabh + -ín), mostly around the south; I wonder could it have come from some unhappy association with one of these places? Maybe something like the way ‘culchie’ is said to come from Coillte Mach?

    • Stan says:

      Hi Clodagh, thanks for your very constructive thoughts on this. The lack of a good etymological dictionary of modern Irish is sadly true. I like MacBain’s but it’s obviously not ideal for contemporary searches, etc. As for the true origins of slíbhín, I would only be guessing, and guessing amateurishly at that. But the possibility that it derives from a particular place or place name is interesting, and seems plausible. I’ll try to do a post on culchie at some point.

  11. […] Sleeveen is more strongly political, a scathing phonosemantic word for a sly, smooth-tongued operator who […]

  12. […] as an insult.) The pejorative connotations of –een are explicit in the political epithet sleeveen, which I wrote about a few years back. Priesteen ‘little priest’ can go either way, being used […]

  13. Ciaran says:

    Thanks! I was looking for a word and then I found a word – brilliant that you’ve taken the time to break it down.

  14. […] so eager to establish their fiefdom that even their own ‘laws’ couldn’t stop them.Sleeveens then, and […]

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