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.
Like 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.
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.