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:
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.
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.
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.