In Irish English, the word grand has the familiar meanings: impressive, magnificent, high-ranking, very large, etc. – size being etymologically salient – but its most common use is in the dialectal sense ‘OK, fine, satisfactory’. As such it often appears in brief, affirmative replies:
How’s it going?
Was the sea cold?
It was grand.
How did the interview go?
I got on grand.
I’ll pick you up in an hour.
I’m sorry about that.
Ah no, you’re grand. [Don’t worry about it.]
This use of grand is so routine and prevalent in Ireland that it’s virtually a state of mind (and hence popular in T-shirt designs and the like). This comes in handy for understatement in injurious situations:
News site TheJournal.ie makes frequent use of grand in its story tags, such as ‘grand job’ (OK, fine), ‘grand so’ (OK, fine), ‘sure it’s grand’ (it’s fine, it’ll do), and ‘be grand’ (It’ll be grand, i.e., It’ll do fine). It also puts it in headlines:
Grand has more strongly positive connotations in some contexts, such as the popular phrase grand stretch, referring to the longer evenings in spring and summer. Here’s an Irish Examiner piece:
The closeness of these senses is apparent in the OED, which categorizes them together (A11a) as a colloquial usage ‘historically commoner in North American, Scottish, Irish English, and English regional usage than in standard British English’. It defines it thus:
Used as a general term to express strong admiration, approval, or gratification: magnificent, splendid; excellent; highly enjoyable. Also: (in weakened use, chiefly Irish English) satisfactory, fine, all right. Also in ironic use.
The OED separates off sense A11b, limiting it to people’s state of being: ‘well, in good health. Frequently in negative contexts.’
Use of grand can stray into ambiguity. If you offer someone dessert and they say ‘Grand’, it means they accept – though without particular enthusiasm. If they say ‘You’re grand’ or ‘I’m grand’, they don’t. (Often, though, declining a first offer is just politeness; offer again, with more encouragement, and they may well accept. ‘Ah, go on, so.’)
Ambiguity between the main standard sense (‘impressive, magnificent’) and the main Irish sense (‘OK, acceptable’) can also arise, as it did momentarily for me when I read these lines in The Enemy by Lee Child:
We found the O Club without any trouble. It occupied half of one of the ground-floor wings of the main building. It was a grand space, with high ceilings and intricate plaster mouldings.
Irish English dictionaries’ treatments of grand are worth noting. Here are three reputable sources:
Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable, by Sean McMahon and Jo O’Donoghue, sums up the Irish usage as indicating ‘modest satisfaction’, adding that it’s also used (as in standard dialects) ‘as a synonym of “posh”, with an implication of snobbery: “She’s very grand.”’
The late Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says the adjective is ‘used very widely in HE to indicate a general sense of wellbeing’, and cites Shay Healy (Irish Daily Mail, 23 December 2009) describing it as ‘a powerful word that can confirm the truth or varnish a lie in a way that keeps the social wheels permanently oiled’.
Bernard Share, in Slanguage, defines grand as ‘fine, first-class, all right’ and quotes two instructive examples: ‘Generally, in their marriage, they got on. “Fine, not great, but grand”, she repeatedly summed up the four years of their relationship’ (Nell McCafferty, Sunday Tribune, 1996); ‘Happiness is not a condition that a normal Irish person ever recognises. Being “grand” is the most we aspire to’ (Frank McNally, Irish Times, 2007).
If you’re Irish, or an Irish English speaker, this use of grand is probably an intrinsic feature of your dialect. If you’re not, and you hear it used but are uncertain how it’s intended, my advice is to not worry. It’ll be grand.
It seems to me that it is used in the same sense as “great” in American English (or the other way around). Great is a… grand word, very flexible, generaly approving, can mean anything from “yes, please” to “lovely” to “don’t worry about it” (“everythings great”, though I suppose it is more probable that a halfway modern American would say “don’t worry, man, everything’s cool”, but he or she might just as well say, “don’t worry, it’s great!”). In the sense of posh the word “grandee” occurs to me, though, for my part, that somehow has a connotation of being rather old. I suppose in my mind one can hardly be a young grandee; that would be very unusual indeed. Of course, there is the ironical usage of “great”, as in “oh, great, the cat pissed on the carpet again.” I don’t know if grand is used in this sense in Ireland.
There’s definitely some overlap in how the two words are used in their respective domains. Grand can be used with irony, but not in quite the same way. It wouldn’t be used in your line about the cat, for example. But I might react to some unwelcome news with ‘Well, that’s just grand.’
The Irish speakers I have heard the most in conversation, use “gorgeous” sometimes when they mean “lovely,” and “brilliant” for more than modest satisfaction. I noticed this twenty years ago when I first met them, and found it … gorgeous.
It’s funny the different things we do with adjectives. They so often fall short of capturing our feelings, but we keep trying.
I think there is a very kiwi usage similar to your ‘I’m grand’: they say ‘I’m good’ to decline offers, especially of food and drink. But it’s not ambiguous, as they don’t just say ‘good’ to accept the same offer. When they want to be ambiguous they use the famous yeah-nah, ha ha…
Yes, there’s definitely a parallel with that usage. I think it’s current in many varieties of English, too.
“Grand” certainly does seem ubiquitous in Ireland now but I wonder how recently this happened? My father was born in Cork in 1920 and emigrated in 1943, he died in 1992. I do not recall him ever saying “grand”, he said “great altogether” instead. I would be interested to know if there is perhaps regional variation in this case?
That’s a good question, Colin. The second citation in the OED, from 1785, is in Irish dramatist John O’Keeffe’s Peeping Tom of Coventry, in the stronger sense:
I don’t know when it became widespread in Irish English. There may be some regional variation, or pockets where it hasn’t gained as strong a foothold as elsewhere, but my impression is that it’s fairly well established throughout.
Many thanks Stan, your posts are always so informative and entertaining.
Despite the Irish influence on Australian English, I can’t recall it being used in these ways here, but then I’ve never particularly had reason to notice it.
Good to know. Maybe it hasn’t had much impact on AusE. But you can listen out for it next time you hear an Irish person!
When I read this yesterday morning, I thought that because I spend most of my days with second language learners and speakers, it’s some time since I talked to an actual Irish person. Then yesterday afternoon I went into a pub and the barmaid was Irish. I was hoping she’d say ‘grand’, but she didn’t. Maybe I should have after she told me the happy hour special was a pint for $5.
Try it out next time, see if she notices!
It’s not my regular pub. I doubt if I’ll go there in the forseeable future. But if it’s for linguistic research, then I just might!
huh, i always thought “grand” meant “really quite good”.
and “lovely” meant “very high quality altogether”.
They can mean those, along with many other senses.
After reading this post, I have a better understanding of what one of my grandmothers was saying.
“I’m good” is widely used in the US. “More coffee?” “I’m good.” I tire of saying it (it’s so automatic) and am trying to say “No, thanks” instead.
I’m glad to hear that about your grandmother, Michael.
“I’m good” to mean “No, thanks” is now common, though not ubiquitous, among under-45s in my part of middle-class west London, and more so among under-30s. I have noticed an increasing tendency among under-30s to say “”You’re good” to mean the same thing.
An interesting switch of pronouns! I’ll have to listen out for these variations. I’ve used ‘I’m good’ this way on a few occasions, but it hasn’t become a regular thing.
I (born on the Wirral 1976) tend to use the word half-jokingly, in a self-consciously Northern way. It feels more like a Yorkshire word to me.I might plan a grand day out to the seaside, and write “Having a grand time in Scarborough” on a postcard from the Grand Hotel (with its grand piano).
Then there’s the Grand Opera House in York (which I presume is the home of grand opera rather than a fancy opera house?), and the Grand Old Duke himself.
That would be the English regional usage noted in the OED. I’d forgotten about the Grand Old Duke of York! It was an early-childhood favourite.
I hear a lot of Grand so as a whole utterance, which seems to me to mean ‘Glad to hear it’, ironically intended.
Grand so is common in Ireland; it can be ironic but usually isn’t, in my experience.
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