Up to your oxters in Gaelic expressions

Up to your oxters (or my oxters, etc.) is a phrase I often heard growing up in County Mayo in Ireland. Oxter means ‘armpit’, normally, so up to your oxters means ‘up to your armpits’ – whether literally or figuratively. You could be up to your oxters in a river or in housework.

The word is used in dialects in Ireland, Scotland, England, and the Isle of Man. As well as signifying the armpit, it can refer to the underside of the upper arm more generally, to the fold of the arm when bent against the body, and to the armhole of a coat or jacket.

Oxter also has various verb senses. The OED lists these as: ‘to support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around’. It dates the earliest example to Robert Burns in 1796: ‘The Priest he was oxter’d, the Clerk he was carried.’ The noun is centuries older.

stan carey - scariff Irish seed savers - tall grass up to your oxters

Tall grass up to your oxters, at Irish Seed Savers in Scariff, County Clare

The etymology of oxter is surprisingly complicated, but the word is of clearly Germanic cast. From the OED:

Apparently a variant (perhaps after an early Scandinavian cognate: see below) of an unattested Middle English reflex of Old English ōxta, ōhsta (earlier ōcusta ) < a suffixed form of the Germanic base of Old Saxon ōhasa, Old High German uohasa, uohhisa (Middle High German uohse, üehse; compare with different suffixation Old English ōxn, Old High German uohsana, uohsina, and also Germanic forms cited s.v. okselle n.) < an ablaut variant of the Germanic base of ax n. The -r of the final syllable is difficult to explain; perhaps compare Norwegian regional oster (feminine; now rare) the throat, the hollow above the collarbone, alongside Old Icelandic óstr, masculine (Icelandic hóstur; also hóst, óst, feminine or neuter), Faroese óstur, neuter, all in the same sense.

Naturally there are variant spellings – several dozen, over the centuries – but it’s almost always oxter I see, or oxther to reflect colloquial Irish usage. Pronunciation depends on geography, with the OED suggesting British /ˈɒkstə/, US /ˈɑkstər/, Scottish /ˈɔkstər/, and Irish /ˈɑksθər/ or /ˈɑkʃθər/.

Most major dictionaries include the word, but with little detail. Oxford Dictionaries and Random House, seemingly unaware of the existence of Ireland, label it Scottish and northern English only. Its absence from the American Heritage Dictionary suggests minimal if any use in the US; nor does it feature in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which often has Irishisms that went west over the Atlantic.

The sole example in COCA is from Diana Gabaldon’s novel Dragonfly in Amber:

He turned his head and sniffed suspiciously at the soft tuft of cinnamon under his raised arm. ‘Christ!’ he said. He tried to push me away. ‘Ye dinna want to put your head near my oxter, Sassenach. I smell like a boar that’s been dead a week.’ ‘And pickled in brandy after,’ I agreed, snuggling closer.

Collins notes the connection to Old High German Ahsala and Latin axilla. The latter – a diminutive form of ala, the wing of a bird – remains in use as an anatomical term. Oxter is also ‘akin to Old English eax axis, axle’, according to Merriam-Webster – the arm, after all, rotates around an axis. Hiberno-English also has Irish ascaill ‘armpit’ and the derived term asclán ‘armful, amount carried under the arm’.

Oxter shows up in literature, both modern and centuries old, often of a Gaelic bent. Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Vitruviana’, from Electric Light, uses the derived verb oxtercog, which means to support someone under the armpits:

In the deep pool at Portstewart, I waded in
Up to the chest, then stood there half-suspended
Like Vitruvian man, both legs wide apart,
Both arms out buoyant to the fingertips,
Oxter-cogged on water.

This grace-lit scene offsets the more typical use of oxtercog in contexts where someone is supported manually (or half-dragged or half-carried) because they’re the worse for wear through injury or drink, or because they’ve been apprehended by police:

At Dunkirk he was ordered from the ambulance by military policemen and had to be ‘oxter-cogged along’ until he got to the pier. (Richard Doherty, Irish Men and Women in the Second World War)

He tried to oxtercog the man, but Ronald’s legs dragging helplessly slowed their progress. (Patrick Taylor, An Irish Doctor in Peace and at War)

Oxter the verb operates similarly:

About the last thing I can remember is Cleary oxtering Kreuger out the bar door. (Patrick Boyle, At Night All Cats Are Grey)

At the water’s edge you took me by one elbow, Conor took me by the other, and between the two of you, you oxtered me in over the rippled sand until the water licked my ankles. (Bernie McGill, The Butterfly Cabinet)

Joyce included the noun in its literal sense in Dubliners (‘Many a good man went to the penny-a-week school with a sod of turf under his oxter’) and in Ulysses (‘And begob there he was passing the door with his books under his oxter’); it appears also in Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (‘You can take the sammin [salmon] under your oxther’) and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (‘You could have ten acres of land with strawberry jam spread on it to the height of your two oxters.’)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang includes the term oxterful ‘as much as one can carry beneath an armpit’, citing James Hogg’s The Wool-Gatherer (1818): ‘Gang after your braw gallant, wi’ your oxterfu’ ket.’ The English Dialect Dictionary adds oxter-bound ‘stiff in the arm and shoulder’, oxter-deep ‘up to the armpits’, oxter-hole ‘the arm-hole of a waistcoat’, oxter-pocket, oxter-pouch ‘breast-pocket’, and oxter-staff ‘crutch’.

It was used in an array of idioms too. To come with the crooked oxter is to bring someone a gift (or in a marital context, to bring a good dowry); to feel a thing in one’s oxter is to have it hidden under one’s arm; to have your head under your oxter is to walk with a downcast head; and to give a person an oxter is to lend them an arm in walking. I’ve heard only the last of these in the wild.

What prompted this post was an encounter with the word in Selina Guinness’s fine memoir The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family (Penguin, 2012). It uses oxter in the up to your oxters expression I’m most familiar with, but in the singular:

It all seemed so straightforward yesterday. Our neighbour Pádraig – who got out of sheep after he’d figured that, if it took 6.66 sheep to make up one livestock unit, he’d be tending twenty-six and a half hoofs for the four of a suckler cow – arrived mid-morning with gates and hurdles from his own farm. ‘There’s some work in sheep,’ he said, before urging Colin down through the gusting rain to the yard to set up a sheep race – a corridor of fences in which the ewes can be queued and inspected individually. It had been his idea to hire the scanner. ‘I know Joe didn’t hold with it but, Jesus, if you’re lambing for the first time you don’t want to be in up to your oxter counting feet.’

Browsing Twitter for contemporary colloquial examples, I see oxters in common enough use. On the literal front the phrase legs up to her oxters is repeated, as are references to sweat, smell, and shaving.

In an idiomatic vein it’s often used in the up to your oxters formula: people describe being up to their oxters in meetings, bribes, pollen, work, debt, dust, mud, scandal, hipsters, etc. – usually negative things, but the word itself has a fun, satisfying sound absent from the more familiar armpit.


14 Responses to Up to your oxters in Gaelic expressions

  1. solsdottir says:

    In reference to Newfoundland: I’ve never heard it used, and always thought it was a Scottish word. Live and learn.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s Scottish, but it’s also Irish and English, etc. I was a little surprised to learn that it doesn’t seem to have made the jump to dialectal US or Canadian usage.

  2. Dawn in NL says:

    It was certainly used in my home (west Fife) in both up to your oxters and anatomically. It was considered vulgar at school.

  3. My two year old know where her oxters are. So it continues!

  4. Liam Grant says:

    My family in the Bronx used the term, in the metaphorical sense, in the plural, but Mom and Dad arrived from Cavan and northern Donegal around 1961. Outside of a few other local families also from Ireland, I haven’t heard it over here (including outside Boston the last 20 years).

  5. […] Oxter means armpit. It can be literal or figurative, and is often used idiomatically to say you’re up […]

  6. Stan Carey says:

    An example from Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black:

    ‘I didn’t notice them haul up Capstick by his oxters and dump him in the bath that was kept out on the road in front of your mother’s premises.’

  7. John Cowan says:

    It pops up in At Swim-Two-Birds too, in the long list of Finn’s reasons why a warrior cannot join the Fianna: “No man is taken till a black hole is hollowed in the world to the depth of his two oxters and he put into it to gaze from it with his lonely head and nothing to him but his shield and a stick of hazel. Then must nine warriors fly their spears at him, one with the other and together. If he be spear-holed past his shield, or spear-killed, he is not taken for want of shield-skill.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a nice example. It’s a while since I’ve read Flann, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t use the word now and then in his Cruiskeen Lawn column in particular.

  8. DavidC says:

    Commonly used in Ulster, even among middle class City folk. Sometimes spelled uxters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: