The adjective fierce has a range of overlapping meanings that convey aggression, savagery, intensity, and so on (fierce dog/battle/debate/storm), reflecting its origin in Latin ferus ‘wild, untamed’. In modern use its connotations are often negative or neutral, but it can also modify positive qualities (fierce loyalty/passion/strength).
Fierce leads a different sort of life in colloquial Irish English, where we put it to adverbial use as an intensifier, like very. I could say it’s fierce mild out, or that someone is fierce generous or fierce polite. The seeming paradox of these phrases is apparent to me only upon reflection; they come naturally to speakers of Hiberno-English.
Here are some examples from Twitter and boards.ie:
Fierce dark this morning
I was having a fierce stressful day at work
That sounds like a fierce good idea
We find the bales fierce handy
Fierce soft penalty
I’m fierce biased for phonetics
Is boards fierce slow today or is it just me
Not that fierce far from me actually
This is some fierce fancy porridge!
They can smell fierce mouldy if there isn’t good circulation
We’re fierce patriotic on the northside!
It lends the phrase fierce Irish a nice ambiguity (image source).
Fierce in Irish English can also work as an intensifying adjective, modifying a noun. It can have a positive meaning, like great, tremendous, abundant; a more negative one, like severe, terrible, awful; or somewhere between them and pointing either way, like intense:
That was a fierce commute
Dublin is still fierce craic at 5am
There’s a fierce amount of Liverpool fans in Ireland
We used have fierce problems with all FM radio reception
Normal paintball is a fierce load of hassle
There was fierce drying to be done today in the heat
Fierce men for the horn these Rathkeale lads [i.e., they blow the car horn a lot]
Anyone I’ve spoken to is delighted you guys are in town so there should be a fierce crowd
To clarify: a fierce crowd in Ireland is not an angry mob but simply a large crowd. And here are both uses of fierce, one after the other:
Fierce bad = very bad; a fierce time = an awful time, a difficult time. The adjectival use also occurs predicatively:
The condensation is fierce and it’s creating mold
In France, it was hot and sunny. It was fierce.
The shade is fierce over here [shade here is slang for criticism]
Search boards.ie and you’ll get a sense of just how common and broad these usages are. The versatility in the semantics and polarity of fierce in Irish English contrasts strongly with standard English, where connotations of combat and ferocity predominate – as we see in the top 20 fierce X collocations in COCA:
Other corpora offer similar sets, adding terms like rivalry, attack, struggle, and anger.
Some time ago I asked about Irish English fierce on Twitter and got some fierce interesting replies.
For example: Journalist Kathy Foley wrote a piece quoting an Irish B&B owner who called some guests ‘fierce dirty people’ (i.e., very dirty). Her British sub-editor, taking fierce to be another adjective instead of an intensifying adverb, added a comma between them (fierce, dirty people) and inadvertently changed the meaning.
Gerard Cunningham noted the parallel with wild (also wil’ or wile), another intensifier in Irish English (particularly in northern counties), and offered the example ‘those lions are wild tame’. Loreto Todd (in Words Apart: A Dictionary of Northern Ireland English, cited in Bernard Share’s Slanguage) reports the same improbable collocation: ‘That bull’s wild tame.’ Fierce tame is likewise perfectly plausible.
The set adverbial phrase something fierce is also worth noting, as it has the same emphatic effect:
Jaysus you’d miss EP something fierce
These days are dragging something fierce
The wind has been blowing something fierce over the last few days
Hozier just reminds me of Chris O Dowd something fierce
This construction features in other dialects, including US English and Canadian English. Robert Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang says something fierce and something awful are ‘slang or dialect relics of the adverbial use of something attested from the early 1500s.’
Finally, there’s a slang use of fierce (adj.) ‘great’, ‘very attractive’, etc. often applied to someone’s appearance or fashion. Though depicted as gay slang in Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s not used solely in that domain. It may coincide with sense 3 in GDoS: ‘a general adj. of approval: excellent, wonderful, first-rate [on bad = good model]’.
Browsing Twitter for examples, I saw this usage – or what looked like it – a few times:
Freckles are fierce!
My fashion students are fierce!!!
Looking fierce on Cutting Edge tonight
It’s fierce right? They’re a want-it-all kind of thing [referring to sunglasses]
Though they may be small, they are fierce! [referring to jewellery]
Recording our Joan Crawford episode tomorrow […] It’s gonna be fierce
The characteristically Irish uses of fierce seem restricted to the dialect – and within it, to its vernacular registers. They receive no coverage in the OED or other major dictionaries, unless I’ve missed it. Wiktionary has a brief entry on a couple of the Irish uses, but that’s about it.
Intensifiers vary considerably between different varieties of English; witness bare, dead, hella, horrid, proper, plumb, pure, right, super, wicked. Informal ones rise and sometimes fall – and dialectal ones thrive in their native groups – without ever entering the standard tongue. To do so would, in a way, spoil their niche appeal: and so it is with fierce. It’s a strong marker of the Irish idiom, and I’m fierce partial to it.