12 words peculiar to Irish English

Irish people are known for having a way with words. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it isn’t, but either way we first need the words to have a chance of having our way with them. And some words, like amn’t and fooster, are distinctive and beloved features of the dialect.

The post title exaggerates a little: by words I mean words or usages, and some of the items below appear in other dialects too. But all are characteristic of Irish English (aka Hiberno-English), whether integral to its grammar or produced on occasions of unalloyed Irishness.

Each entry links to a blog post all about the word or usage in question, so click through if you want more detail on pronunciation, etymology, examples, variations, and so on. Off we go:

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1. Plámás is an Irish word borrowed into Irish English meaning ‘empty flattery or wheedling’. It’s sometimes used witheringly in reference to political speech, for some reason.

2. Sleeveen is more strongly political, a scathing phonosemantic word for a sly, smooth-tongued operator who will say anything to advance their private agenda. Again it’s from Irish, anglicised from slíbhín.

3. Amn’t, short for am not, is a national grammatical treasure. Though criticised by prescriptivists, it’s common throughout Ireland, and, in interrogative syntax, is more logical than the standard but irregular aren’t I.

4. Notions in Ireland means either amorous behaviour, sexual inclinations; or pretentious affectation, ideas above one’s station. Pray that you interpret it right if you hear it.

5. Fooster (often foosther to evoke vernacular pronunciation) is a verb denoting fiddling or fidgeting, a kind of busy activity that is aimless or inefficient. You can stop foostering around now in search of an unsatisfying synonym.

stan-carey-county-clare-hills-and-cows

Hills and cows in County Clare

6. Bulling – to be bulling is to be visibly mad or raging, while to be bulling to do something is to be very eager, i.e., mad keen. It probably came from Irish buile and was then reinforced by imagery of bulls.

7. Oxter means armpit. It can be literal or figurative, and is often used idiomatically to say you’re up to your oxters in something unpleasant, like paperwork. An old Germanic word, it survives in a few dialects in this part of the world.

8. Fierce has an additional life in Ireland as an intensifying adverb – like very – or as an intensifying adjective. Irish people are fierce fond of it, and the results can be striking to outsiders: fierce gentle, fierce drying out.

9. Till is used in Irish English to mean ‘in order that’ or ‘so that [someone] can’. ‘Where is he till I murder him?,’ James Joyce wrote in Ulysses. An Irish person with a story to tell may begin, ‘Come here till I tell you’, which means attention (and probably not physical movement) is required.

10. Feck has various meanings – including, as a verb, ‘to steal’ and ‘to throw’. But it’s best known as a versatile minced oath, popularised by Father Ted among others. It has a surprising etymology.

11. Cnáimhseáil, anglicised as cnawvshawl, knauvshaul, etc., means complaining or grumbling. It alludes to the activity of the jawbone (cnámh is Irish for bone), while also functioning onomatopoeically.

12. The after perfect is a grammatical construction common in Irish English but virtually unheard of elsewhere. It’s used for recent events: They’re after leaving = ‘They’ve just left’, which is why it’s also called the hot news perfect. It emerged from Irish grammar.

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This is part 2 in an occasional series. The first instalment, ‘10 words used only in Irish English’, features smacht, moryah, give out, asthore, hames, cat, yoke, thick, and acushla machree (which counts as two). Got a suggestion? I’ll listen to requests delivered with plámás.

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49 Responses to 12 words peculiar to Irish English

  1. galtz says:

    I think “Slimy Sleeveen” is particularly timely and appropriately descriptive for he who shall not be named.

  2. eomot says:

    “virtually unheard of elsewhere” in number 12 is rubbish, it’s pretty standard Scottish English (from Scottish Gaelic grammar, which is of course much the same as Irish grammar) and can be seen in books by Scottish authors such as Walter Scott, Robert L B Stevenson, Compton Mckenzie and many more, as well as being heard every day in the highlands.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You seem to have misread what I wrote. The word virtually means ‘almost’, not ‘completely’: this implies exceptions. Scottish English is one; Newfoundland English is another – but given how many varieties of English there are that don’t have the construction, it remains a niche usage.

      • Sawney says:

        In answer to Eomot’s, er, contribution, I wouldn’t say that ‘the after perfect’ is “pretty standard” in Scottish English at all, although it’s true you’re more likely to find it in the Gàidhealtachd.
        Mind you, ‘amn’t’ and ‘oxter (3 and 7) are certainly common enough throughout Scotland, as is using forms of ’till’ (9) for ‘so that’ (“c’mere tae ah kill ye, ya wee bastart”).
        Since I’m on a wee bit of a Scottish-Irish roll here, I’m also wondering to what extent, if any, the Scottish (and Ulster) noun and verb ‘footer’ is related to the Irish ‘fooster’ (the Scots word is derived from French ‘foutre’, as far as I know).

        • Stan Carey says:

          Thanks for the local detail, Sawney. My earlier posts on amn’t and oxter note the words’ use in Scotland (and, where applicable, elsewhere). As for footer, I wrote the following in my post about fooster:

          A related word, common in northern counties, is footer or foother /’fuːt̪ər/, from Irish fútar. The Ulster-Scots Academy says to footer aboot is to ‘put the time in doing trivial tasks; fiddle and waste time, etc.’ and ties it to Old French foutre.
          Share’s Slanguage and Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English gloss this word as implying clumsy or bungling activity, but there is clearly some overlap with foosther.

          Those older posts on these words have lots more information and are just a click away…

  3. Margaret says:

    Nice blog! “On foot of” is apparently only used in Ireland…would you write it up? Till is not until?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Ooh, that’s a good one – I didn’t know the phrase was Irish. Filed for later.
      Until is like a longer form of till, which is the older word. (‘Til is therefore unnecessary.) I sometimes hear until in Come here until I tell you–type expressions, but it’s more usually till.

  4. Conor says:

    ‘Bulling’ is the farming term for a cow when she is in heat. They can be distracted, agitated, contrary, and intensely dislike being on their own. ‘Mad bulling’ is the peak point.

  5. Rosemary Raughter says:

    A variant of ‘fierce’ is ‘wild’ (much used in Donegal), as in ‘youse are wild quiet’ (and I suppose ‘youse’ also).
    And a favourite of my mother’s: ‘malavogue’. I assume French influence, but how did it filter through to the Irish midlands??

    • Stan Carey says:

      My post on fierce looks briefly at that use of wild, and I’ve written about youse (and ye, yiz & co.).

      Malavogue is a funny one. Few dictionaries include it, M-W being an exception, but there’s no definitive word on its origin that I know of. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says it’s from English dialect and compares it with Irish malabhóg, but it’s not in the English Dialect Dictionary and I don’t know malabhóg; the only similar words in Ó Dónaill are malabhog ‘lukewarm’ and mealbhóg ‘small bag, pouch’. The mal- part probably comes from Latin; it was incorporated into a lot of Irish words.

  6. […] In a follow-up post, ‘12 words peculiar to Irish English‘, I look at plámás, sleeveen, amn’t, notions, fooster, bulling, oxter, fierce, till, […]

  7. donogh says:

    ‘Mooch’ is the closest equivalent English word to ‘fooster’ I think

  8. Lan'dorien says:

    “Amn’t” features a bit here in central Canada as well. Our teachers always did their best to stamp it out though. We were frequently told “amn’t amn’t a word because amn’t amn’t in the dictionary”. It might have worked because it seems to me now that I haven’t heard it in quite a while.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a pity. At least in recent times I think there’s been a shift in pedagogy towards telling students about dialect and register instead of just denigrating nonstandard usages.

  9. eoink35 says:

    Cowped — Overturned, crashed, wreck or otherwise come to a bad end!!

  10. Sean Jeating says:

    Having become taciturn more than ever in recent years does not mean I am not reading each of your posts.
    This one is one of the many I did and do enjoy galore.
    The day I was stumbling upon your blog eight years ago, was certainly not the worst in my life, Stan.
    My good thoughts are with you.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Sean! That’s good to hear. The blog is updated less often now than before, but maybe that’s no harm. I stop by Omnium now and then and always enjoy the sights and sounds and sense. I wish you a good year.

  11. […] 12 words peculiar to Irish English […]

  12. astraya says:

    The first dictionary I checked records ‘peculiar to’ as both ‘belonging characteristically’ and ‘belonging exclusively’. Partly because of this, and partly because of the strength (for me, at least) of the ‘odd, strange’ meaning, I probably wouldn’t use ‘peculiar’ in this way.

    The last verse of the hymn ‘Jesus shall reign where’er the sun’ starts ‘Let every creature rise and bring peculiar offerings to our King’. I always get the wrong image for that one.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, I’m not entirely happy with the post title, for that reason. But more accurate alternatives (like “used mostly”) didn’t make the material sound remotely enticing, so I compromised.

  13. pillstopurgemelancholy says:

    Love this Stan. I often come across these words in songs and recently explained oxter to my younger students. I’ve been thinking lately about the word ‘bauld’, as in naughty, mischievous, or brave. It’s a favourite of mine!

  14. Rick says:

    I’m a little late to the party, but another usage I’ve noticed in the past as an American is the way Irish people use the word “sure.” I’ve never heard anyone else use it the way they do sometimes. They’ll often say it quickly at the beginning of a declarative sentence and pronounce it “sher” (as many Americans, like me, do). The only example I can come up with right now is, “Sher, there’s loads of trees over there.” But, in my experience, this is not always said in response to a question. What does “sure” mean in that context? Is it just a filler word? I haven’t been able to find much information about this online (not even on this blog, surprisingly).

    • Stan Carey says:

      This Irish use of sure to begin a sentence is distinctive, all right. It’s not a filler word but rather a discourse marker, often marking assent or emphasising what follows it. There’s some analysis, with examples, in Jeffrey Kallen’s paper ‘Arrah, like, you know: The dynamics of discourse marking in ICE-Ireland’ (PDF); see in particular pp. 10 and 18. Kallen says sure as a sentence-initial discourse marker in IrE ‘introduces a full proposition, trading on the presentation of new information in the context of shared information’. It ‘usually precedes assertion’, presents ‘new information … as old’, or is used in ‘indirectly requesting agreement’.

    • Rick says:

      Another interesting thing I’ve noticed about Irish English is that the word well can be used as a greeting. I couldn’t find much about that online either, but this site shows it.

  15. petey says:

    though from NYC i was raised by parents from the west of ireland and heard the after-prefect normally all my life.

    but i have never been exactly clear on the direction words “above” and “below.” my clare father used these, not my mayo mother. i would be very, very appreciative if they could be elucidated.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wonder sometimes if the after perfect has made modest inroads into other dialects, given the extent of Irish emigration. Probably not, since children tend to take cues from their peers rather than their parents.

      Above and below are used in Ireland to refer to places on more or less the same geographical plane, as well as in the conventional ‘over, higher than’ senses. It seems above is often used in reference to a more urbanised or socially significant place. For example, in the countryside I might say, ‘I was above in Galway last weekend’, and in Galway I might say, ‘I was above in Dublin.’ But I wouldn’t say, ‘I was above in Paris’: there’s a degree of (relative) immediacy to the usage too, and Paris is too remote to qualify. Below may be used in converse fashion, but also in a neutral sense like across or over: ‘I was below in [X] when I met them.’

      I don’t know if this is exclusive to Irish English, and I’ve never examined the parameters that motivate one or the other. It’s a good question, and one I’ll have to think about (and listen to) some more.

      • bluepiano says:

        Yes indeed, and in the same way one might go down to Inishowen from Cork. I think that more populated/significant as ‘above’ has an equivalent in talk about roads, too–the ‘top of the road’ is the end that branches off a larger/busier road even if it’s in a valley and the other end atop a mountain.

      • petey says:

        thank you mr carey, and bluepiano, for your responses. in Angela’s Ashes there is a sentence referring to “your man above in dublin,” so i see that explanation. i had always wondered if it was north/south, or on the higher land/on the lower land. “above” could be a complete answer, e.g., father: “where’s was he again?” uncle: “above.” as they knew the geography intimately i figured no more answer was needed between them, but i, a visitor, did not know the places they were chatting about.

        i’d look forward to your further investigations.

  16. S G McNally says:

    Hi.. Can you help out? My brother and I are going back and forth with mmories from childhood holidays in Co.Tyrone. I remember the verb ‘to touch’ being used to mean ‘have a word with somebody about sth on somebody’s behalf’. e.g. ‘Can you touch Johnny for me about that bike?’ I have found this elsewhere which seems to be related

    Toucher (n): someone who is always looking for a handout (from http://www.irishslang.co.za)

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t think I can help you with this, I’m afraid. I have a feeling I heard it long ago, but not often enough to be familiar with it. None of the usual sources (Dolan, Share, OED, EDD, PW Joyce, GDoS) include the usage. You can see how it might arise, though, by extending an existing use of touch, such as touching someone on the shoulder to have a word. And it’s not a million miles semantically from the business idiom touch base with.

  17. S G McNally says:

    Thanks! It could be a localised idiom… I’ll ask my relatives for clarification.

  18. […] a comment on my post about 12 characteristically Irish English usages, Margaret suggested that I write about the Irish expression on foot of. It was a good idea: the […]

  19. Manas ranjan mansingh says:

    Thanks for the useful information and uses of Irish words.

  20. franc 91 says:

    I’ve been told on good authority that ‘plamas’ (sorry I can’t put in the fadas) comes from the French blancmange as it was a dessert only the elite would have available to them and it was definitely something to boast about. I’ve seen it written as – you’re only plumhorsing me.

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