‘Making strange’ in Ireland

Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Foster, expanded from a short story published in the New Yorker in 2010, has an idiom I remember hearing in childhood and only seldom since. The book’s narrator is a young girl in an unfamiliar place, accompanied here by a woman, Mrs Kinsella, with whom she is staying temporarily:

Out in the street, the sun feels strong again, blinding. Some part of me wishes it would go away, that it would cloud over so I could see properly. We meet people the woman knows. Some of these people stare at me and ask who I am. One of them has a new baby in a pushchair. Mrs Kinsella bends down and coos and he slobbers a little and starts to cry.

‘He’s making strange,’ the mother says. ‘Pay no heed.’

The verb phrase make strange means to act up or be nervous or shy, etc., when encountering a stranger or strange situation. It’s normally said of babies or small children, but not always.

Mary Morrissy’s story ‘Two China Dogs’, from her collection A Lazy Eye, uses the expression a couple of times:

A sullen nature might have compensated, but I was a sullen child. I would sit in the playpen, the toys ranged carefully outside, staring solemnly through the bars. I remember the strange distortions of my caged world. Huge legs and feet, my mother’s mottled calves, the glint of her copper hair as she bent to pick me up, her eyes the startled green of an angry cat’s bearing down on me. She complained that I made strange with people. But it was they who made strange with me. Neighbours would not bend over cooing into this pram, or if they did, they would suddenly withdraw, uncertain and embarrassed.

Claire Keegan - Foster - faber and faber book coverLike many expressions characteristic of Hiberno-English it seems to have been loaned from Irish, where coimhthíos a dhéanamh le duine literally means ‘to make strangeness with someone’, or to be shy or aloof in their presence; coimhthíos means strangeness, shyness, aloofness or alienation.

Another phrase, bheith deoranta le duine, means essentially the same thing with a different verb (be rather than make) and, said of adults, can also mean to be distant with someone.

John Banville, in The Untouchable, points to a sinister origin in folklore:

The Irish say, when a child turns from its parents, that it is making strange; it comes from the belief that fairy folk, a jealous tribe, would steal a too-fair human babe and leave a changeling in its place.

T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says make strange means ‘to become uncomfortable or nervous or uneasy or distraught’, finding it ‘restricted to HE and based on the Irish idiom’. He includes a non-baby-related example from A New Look at the Language Question by Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin: ‘Many words which now appear simply gnarled, or which “make strange” or seem opaque to most readers, would be released into the shaped flow of a new public language’.

But the expression is usually applied to children’s behaviour; an online search shows it recurring especially in Irish parenting forums and articles (e.g., the Irish Times). It appears to a lesser degree elsewhere, such as Canada and the US, and it seems plausible that Irish emigrants exported it in these cases. Since the behaviour is not uncommon in babies, I wonder if there are other terms for it.

irish times headline - baby making strange


Keegan’s Foster has one more passage I want to quote here. Well, it has many – but this one concerns language, specifically the want of vocabulary for new feelings and experiences when one is growing up. The girl we’ve already met is about to take a supervised bath in Mrs Kinsella’s house:

She tests the water and I step in, trusting her, but the water is too hot.

‘Get in,’ she says.

‘It’s too hot.’

‘You’ll get used to it.’

I put one foot through the steam and feel, again, the same rough scald. I keep my foot in the water, and then, when I think I can’t stand it any longer, my thinking changes, and I can. This water is deeper than any I have ever bathed in. Our mother bathes us in what little she can, and makes us share. After a while, I lie back and through the steam watch the woman as she scrubs my feet. The dirt under my nails she prises out with tweezers. She squeezes shampoo from a plastic bottle, lathers my hair and rinses the lather off. Then she makes me stand and soaps me all over with a cloth. Her hands are like my mother’s hands but there is something else in them too, something I have never felt before and have no name for. I feel at such a loss for words but this is a new place, and new words are needed.

‘Now your clothes,’ she says.

For more posts on the use of English in Ireland, see my archive of posts on Hiberno-English.


19 Responses to ‘Making strange’ in Ireland

  1. Barrie says:

    When I saw the title, I thought the post was going to be about ‘ostraneniye’ (making strange or defamiliarisation). It was the term used by the early Formalists to focus on the ways in which poetic devices in literature produce an effect in which our routine ways of seeing and thinking are disrupted.

  2. C L Thornett says:

    This made me think of the hymn ‘My song is love unknown’ by Samuel Crossman. As far as a quick check can tell, Crossman had no connection with Ireland, but the phrase could still have been imported into England, I suppose.

    V2. He came from His blest throne
    Salvation to bestow;
    But men made strange, and none
    The longed-for Christ would know:

  3. astraya says:

    Beaten to it! Crossman was born in Suffolk, studied in Cambridge and served in parish in various parts of England.

    Truncated version of the comment I prepared, leaving out the bit introducing the hymn and Crossman:
    I had vaguely assumed that it meant something like ‘Men made the long-for Christ into a stranger, and none would know him’, but the comma made that reading unlikely.

    The first online dictionary that came up was ‘The Free Dictionary’ and it has:
    ‘To profess ignorance or astonishment
    – Chaucer.
    To assume the character of a stranger
    – Gen. xlii. 7.’

    I can’t check the Chaucer reference, but the KJV of the Genesis reference reads:
    ‘And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them’ (nb ‘made *himself* strange’, not ‘made strange’).
    As well as translations such as ‘disguised himself’, some versions have ‘treated them [his brothers] as strangers’, which reverses the idea.

  4. Tom Maxwell says:

    Even after 50 years in London I still use the phrase, which is now current in my ‘English’ family. I usually use it in relation to newish grandchildren…

    • Elizabeth d'Anjou says:

      My Irish-American family (now living in Canada) has always used this expression of babies and small children, but I never knew it had Irish roots. Thanks for this! (Also for the novella recommendation.)

      Rest assured, we’ve been keeping it alive with the latest generation of rugrats—though it is getting a bit of a breather in our clan, as the youngest of my nephews and nieces is a whirlwind of sociability who has never made strange in her short life. I’ll be sure to use it on neighbourhood tots while we wait for the next generation.

      • Stan Carey says:

        This is good to hear, Elizabeth. I’ve had a few reports now of its current use in different parts of Canada. For another small sample of Keegan’s writing, here’s a passage I liked from her short story collection Walk the Blue Fields.

  5. “Strano”, la prima cosa che mi è venuta in mente è un film di Carlo Verdone che si intitola “lo famo strano” il sesso naturalmente! Questo termine ha tanti sinonimi: eccentrico, stravagante, diverso… penso che questa parola appartenga un po’ a tutti , ognuno di noi è “strano” nella sua individualità.

  6. Sister_Ray says:

    German has a verb for this: fremdeln – from the adjective fremd strange with Fremder the corresponding noun. It’s very rarely used outside the context of children making strange.

  7. Ben Hemmens says:

    I was going to say the same thing as Sister Ray; curiously enough, I only heard an Irish person use ‘making strange’ after I had moved to Austria and knew the the expression ‘fremdeln’. Whatever the peculiarities of my background, I either never heard it or never noticed it while growing up in Ireland.

  8. Stan Carey says:

    Barrie: Making strange could work as a colloquial name for the technique, if it wasn’t already taken.

    C L, astraya: Thank you – I didn’t know Crossman’s hymn. It turns out (and I should’ve checked before posting) that the OED lists the phrase make (it) strange, glossing it as: ‘to make difficulties, refuse to assent or comply, be reluctant or unwilling; to hold back, keep a stand-off attitude; to be distant or unfriendly; to affect coyness; to pretend not to understand; to affect or feel surprise, dislike, indignation, etc.’

    It also includes make strange, especially followed by of or at, such as Daniel Defoe’s ‘she made still strange of it’; and mentions a Newfoundland expression (cited in American Speech 1966) where Don’t make strange was ‘said to make a guest feel at home’. Worth comparing with ‘Don’t be a stranger’, said upon visitors’ departure.

    Tom: I like to think of it in use still. Maybe you’ll help pass it on to later generations abroad.

    Anna Maria: Ah, I don’t know this film. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Sister Ray, Ben: Interesting! I don’t remember coming across it in my German studies or visits, but it seems fitting somehow, given the origin of ‘Das Unheimliche’.

  9. Dawn in NL says:

    In Scotland, mothers will say “don’t mind him he’s just strange” when the child is hiding behind his mum’s legs. Meaning “he’s shy” and will come out of it in a bit.

  10. “make strange” in this usage is also found in Canada.

  11. Chris Doane says:

    I’m in Toronto and I’ve heard the expression also here many times. My Dad used to use the expression also, as well as this one which is off-topic (sorry) but I am intrigued to find out what its origins are and where else it is used: “It comes mild”. It is a reference to the weather, meaning that bad weather is finally breaking for the better. It might just be a southern Ontario agrarian colloquialism, but I’d love to find out if it is used elsewhere. My Mom used to make fun of my Dad when he said it. :)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for letting me know, Chris. Making strange seems to have a reasonable amount of use in Canada. It comes mild is new to me. It may have use in Ireland, but I don’t recall ever hearing it. I ran a few searches for it in the major language corpora but got no results, so it doesn’t seem to be used very much, at least not in the available databanks.

  12. […] ‘Now, Girleen,’ she says. ‘I think it’s past time you had a bath.’ (Claire Keegan, Foster) […]

  13. Bathrobe says:

    I’ve never heard this expression. I think that in Australia you would just say “He’s/she’s shy”.

    In Japanese you say hitomishiri suru. In Chinese pà-shēng. In Mongolian bishüürkhekh. All are verbs. I’m sure every language has a word for this kind of behaviour on the part of infant children.

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