A fierce popular usage in Ireland

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-irish-hoodieFierce 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:

Jaysus lads…i felt fierce bad all day, i’m not a kebab eater, the very odd time. Had a fierce time getting to sleep, chills and sweat pouring out me.

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:

coca-collocations-for-fierce

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.

21 Responses to A fierce popular usage in Ireland

  1. John Cowan says:

    James Thurber once wrote that a certain building was pretty ugly and a little big for its lot, just to outrage Harold Ross.

  2. sarahlivne says:

    Funny, I had to read that comment 3 times to understand why it would annoy anyone or have anything to do with this post, but the “fierce soft penalty” example made me chuckle instantly… :)

  3. Fred says:

    Stan, you keep making the days better, one word -or post- at a time. Go raibh maith agat.

  4. astraya says:

    I’ve heard ‘… something fierce’ in Australia, but not often and not recently.

    Would the adverbial uses change meaning or feel if ‘fiercely’ was used instead? For example, a fierce dark night v a fiercely dark night. Some adjectives seem not to work: ?a fiercely soft penalty.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for the AusE note. I didn’t get a chance to look much into the distribution of something fierce.

      Using fiercely would tend to change the meaning or the tone or something else. A fierce dark night is a normal kind of phrase in Irish English and means simply a very dark night. A fiercely dark night has a poetic or literary flavour, and its meaning is less obvious: one must work out or decide how darkness can be fierce. In typical fierce X phrases in Ireland, the word has an emphatic effect without any suggestion of fierceness.

      • astraya says:

        ‘… something chronic’ is also used. Likewise, I haven’t heard it recently.

      • rcalmy says:

        “Something fierce” is also used in the U.S.A (at least where I’ve lived). I have also heard “something awful” used as a non-judgmental intensifier, which can lead to similar amusement/confusion in the uninitiated as the Irish “fierce.” There’s a family story about a friend of my grandmother who once said without any irony “Don’t children liven up a place something awful?”

        • Stan Carey says:

          “Something fierce” is also used in the U.S.A.

          Yes, I mention this in the post. Something awful is the “adverbial use of something attested from the early 1500s” that Chapman describes; the OED includes examples of something fierce, awful, terrible, shocking, and chronic. Rotten is another I’ve heard.

  5. Theophylact says:

    “Wicked” has a similar use in New England: “That was a wicked good chowder!”

  6. Tony knox says:

    I’ve read every one of your examples and they all except one look like fluent familiar usage to this native (ulster) speaker. But “fierce craic” is an abomination.
    It should be “fierce crack”.

  7. EarthGround says:

    Egregious example of a good word gone bad over time due to overuse.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Fierce has also meant ‘valiant’, ‘haughty’, and ‘eager’. Do you object to these too, or only to the Irish usage? Words often diversify in a healthy language. It’s best to accept this.

  8. roger says:

    My Larousse Etymologique emerged yesterday from a rubble of books, so while it was in its found phase, as opposed to intermittently lost, I looked up Fr. /fier/, which like Eng. /fierce/, has its starting point in Lat. /ferus/; and, down to C18th, meant about the same as Eng. /proud/, eventually displaced in Fr. by /orgueilleux/.
    However, /fier/ may still be current in Canada, just as Fr. /fierte/ as Eng. /pride/ still is. In 1976 a francophone official in Montreal said (somehow) in English that he was “fiercely proud” of having spent (X) billions on the Montreal Olympics. (In 2016 no Olympian would say any such thing.) So what Fr. /fier/ and Eng. /fierce/ may have in common, it seems to me is, as you were saying, intensity.
    And in regard to Lat. /ferus/ and Eng. /wild/, my grandmother told of an Irish postman who, in the English 1940s, reacted to her “It’s a wild morning” with “Oh, I haven’t heard that since I left Ireland.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s true, we use wild a lot here in reference to windy weather! Out of curiosity I looked up “fierce[ly] proud” on a few news websites, since it is a moderately common collocation. NYTimes.com and TheGuardian.com, for example, have several hundred instances of “fiercely proud” but none, understandably, of “fierce proud”; each has a handful of “fierce, proud” and the NYT has one “fierce proud” that should have a comma. IrishTimes.com, by contrast, has a hundred and something “fiercely proud” but also a handful of dialectal “fierce proud” with no comma, generally in reported speech in sporting contexts.

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