Being bold in Irish English

In standard English the primary meaning of the adjective bold is ‘brave, courageous, unafraid, daring’. This can shade into a related, negative sense of impudence, brazenness, or presumption. Another common sense is ‘visibly prominent, distinct, strong, or clear’, often associated with lines or colour. For nuance, compare the definitions by M-W, AHD, Oxford, Macmillan, Cambridge, and Collins.

When I first learned the word, though, it was in none of these senses: it meant ‘naughty, mischievous’. If I heard someone (including myself) described as bold, it meant they were misbehaving – or maybe being playful in a cheeky way. This is a very common usage in Irish English but absent from standard English; there’s no mention of it in the OED.

The sense is so intrinsic to the word in Ireland that when I read this line in Swing Time by Zadie Smith last week, I had to read it twice to be sure of the intent:

I’d been bold and walked into the church at the end of one of her rehearsals.

Smith means the word in the main standard sense. But I was primed to read the word Irishly because the narrator is a child, and bold in Irish English usually refers to misbehaving children (or puppies); the girl may even have been going to confession. Bernard Share, in Slanguage, quotes Lar Redmond in Emerald Square:

My poor mother had to spread her ration of love out too thinly and sometimes when I was bold – and that was often – there was none left over for me at all.

Bold may also be used by adults referring to themselves if they want to downplay the seriousness of their actions:

Headline in thejournal.ie: 'Sean Quinn: "I was a bold boy, I accept that"', referring to the bankrupt billionaire involved in financial shenanigans

Or if they feel they’re being treated like children:

Irish Examiner headline: "Opposition TDs feel 'like bold school childre outside principals' office' queueing for Dáil speaking rights"

Also in the Irish Examiner, a few years ago, Ciara Flaherty described being bold as ‘a uniquely Irish way of misbehaving – otherwise known as “acting the maggot”, “kaffling” or “being a scut”.’ She shares this clip of Irish children talking about being bold:

The origins of the usage are not certain, but a couple of sources (Share’s Slanguage and Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English) suggest the influence of Irish dána, which straddles the senses: it can mean ‘daring, brazen,’ or ‘naughty‘ in reference to children.

[more posts on Irish English]
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24 Responses to Being bold in Irish English

  1. The Irish meaning of “bold” is also very common in Northeast Pennsylvania. After I moved here, the first time I heard it I was confused, in exactly the opposite way as I understood it in the common English way.

  2. Virginia says:

    Chuckling as I picture Captain Kirk stomping off into space in a snit (to boldly go where no one has gone before).

  3. Colin McCarthy says:

    I wonder if this indicates that the Irish have a slightly different attitude to naughtiness? The English often seem to have a black and white view to such things – naughty is bad. Whereas in Ireland I sense that it is more nuanced, ‘bold’ might indicate that the person is merely taking a bit of a chance?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hmm, I don’t know. I’m wary of drawing broad strokes about possible differences in parental attitudes in the two countries, and I don’t think many Irish parents would disagree that naughty is bad. But ‘bold’ does allow room for kids to be considered mischievous without (necessarily) seriously transgressing.

  4. astraya says:

    There’s a strong Irish influence on AusEng, but I can’t remember hearing/reading it here.

  5. I remember and still enjoy the otherness of being an Irish Englishwoman.When I used to say “I have a headache on me” and got odd looks from my English chums, or when I said “blimey” and got funny looks from my Irish chums. As for being a bold girl……! The opportunities for wordmesses in a duality that is so intense as angloirishness is endless and brilliant.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowde says:

    When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was in prison in the USA, we saw signs at the entrance to Rijkers Island proclaiming that it was the home of New York’s Boldest, referring to the prison guards, not the prisoners. I was surprised that boldness was considered a desirable quality for a prison officer.

  7. David L says:

    I have a feeling that in 19th century English novels a bold young man might be someone with an eye for the ladies and apt to say saucy things to them–so there would be at least a connotation of naughtiness involved.

    And in somewhat the same vein, I seem to recall that Kenneth Williams, in the “Julian and Sandy” bits on the radio, would exclaim ‘oooh, very bold!’, meaning something that was both daring and contrary to social norms–so again there’s a hint of naughtiness.

    But I the full Irish sense of ‘bold’ that you describe doesn’t exist in any variety of English that I know.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes. The ‘daring’ sense of bold would have led to uses with strongly amorous connotations. There’s even an expression in Irish English, ‘the bold thing’, which is a euphemism for sex.

  8. It took me a long while to learn that the Irish sense of the word wasn’t the norm. I was aware of bold meaning “brave” (I was brought up JW, and the word is used in that sense in a lot of their religious literature), but I was under the impression that it was an archaic definition.

    TRiG.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I think I was in my teens when I realised that bold ‘naughty’ was geographically limited and not part of standard English. I used to encounter the word in other contexts (books, typically) and have to adjust my understanding.

  9. petey says:

    thank you for this post, that’s how the clare side of my family used the word. both “brazen” and “wrong/bad” at the same time.

  10. We turn to Little Richard and his 1955 song “Slippin’ and Slidin'” for an interesting usage instance, probably straight out of the Mississippi Delta and its environs:

    Slippin’ and a slidin’, peepin’ and a hidin’, been told long time ago,
    Slippin’ and a slidin’, peepin’ and a hidin’, been told long time ago,
    I been told, baby, you been bold, I won’t be your fool no more.

    The seminal rocker shares a song writing credit for this piece (as Richard Penneman.) However, in the best Blues tradition, this is one version in a long line of interrelated songs receding into the mists of time. (See the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slippin%27_and_Slidin%27)

    The Blues and its favored child, Rock and Roll, are all about risque ambiguity. So, while we can’t say what the lyricist meant with precision, it appears pretty clear that the person addressed in the song has been “bold” and therefore the singer is determined to end the relationship. Connected to the first line (repeated twice, as the song form dictates,) the boldness likely involved a sexual adventure with someone besides the singer – witnessed by the singer without being detected. So bold = naughty here, most certainly, with no redeeming qualities of courage or enterprise. Just plain naughty.

    In addition to Little Richard’s version, the American/Canadian group known as The Band covered this tune with gusto in the Festival Express film. YouTube can provide either one to you, and likely other versions, as well, if you are curious.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an interesting example, all right. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, the ‘naughty’/’daring’ use of bold can extend into amorous contexts – although in Slippin’ and Slidin’, given its themes of rejection and infidelity, ‘amorous’ would become the less romantic ‘sexual’. (In Irish English, ‘the bold thing’ is a euphemism for sex.) Here’s Little Richard:

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