Irish words in English and the OED

Dozens of Irish English words and phrases were added to the OED in March 2022, including Irish words used in Irish English. I’ve written about some of these before (hames, notions, plámás, ráiméis, ruaille buaille); others include a chara, blow-in, bockety, ceol, ciotóg, cúpla focal, delph, ghost estate, grá, guard, sean nós, segotia, and shift.

OED editor Danica Salazar writes:

The words and phrases featured in the OED’s March update provide a small yet vivid snapshot of Irish English usage in the past and present. We will continue our efforts in enriching the dictionary’s coverage of Irish English and feature even more new words and senses in future updates.

This will be welcomed by scholars who feel that Celtic words – and word-origins – in the English lexicon have traditionally been under-acknowledged by linguistic authorities. Loreto Todd, in Green English: Ireland’s Influence on the English Language, says there has been ‘a long-standing reluctance to recognise the presence of Celtic words in the English language’.*

Yet for all the richness and strength of Irish English dialects in Ireland and of Irish literature internationally, the influence of Irish and Irish English on the broader English language has been modest. You might wonder why, given Ireland and Great Britain’s geographical, social, and political (though fraught, i.e., colonialist) closeness.

In a chapter on loan words in Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin – the book is a century old this year – Otto Jespersen writes:

We now understand why so few Keltic words were taken over into French and English. There was nothing to induce the ruling classes to learn the language of the inferior natives: it could never be fashionable for them to show an acquaintance with a despised tongue by using now and then a Keltic word.

Cover of David Crystal's book The Stories of English. It is white, with text in black and red, and dominated by a colourful 18th-century illustration of men at a table, drinking wine, smoking long pipes, and talking. Long, puffy speech bubbles contain text such as: 'I say, Georgey, how do Things look now?' It is a detail from James Gillray's The Feast of Reason. At the top of the cover is a blurb from Philip Pullman: 'A marvellous book ... for anyone who loves the English language(s) it will be a treasure-house'.But this claim oversimplifies things, and the claim to understanding seems premature. In his modern account The Stories of English, David Crystal reviews historical, cultural, linguistic, genetic, and onomastic factors before concluding: ‘Why such intimate contact with Celtic tradition did not result in a greater influx of Celtic loanwords into Old English remains one of the great puzzles in the history of the language.’

Crystal wonders why the Anglo-Saxons were not influenced ‘by the majority Celtic languages around them’. Aside from place names, he writes, the influence is small; many words said to have Celtic origin might not, and even if they do, they remain few. In 2011 Oxford Dictionaries Online said it listed a mere 160–170 words of Irish origin. I don’t know if the figure has changed much since ODO merged with Dictionary.com.

While Crystal’s discussion includes the hypothesis advanced by Jespersen, it also offers its opposite:

There are various explanations, but all are speculation. Perhaps there was so little in common between the Celtic way of life as it had developed in Roman Britain, and the Anglo-Saxon way of life as it had developed on the Continent, that there was no motivation to borrow Celtic words. There might even have been a conscious avoidance of them. This could have happened if the Anglo-Saxons perceived themselves to be so socially superior to the ‘barbarians’ that Celtic words would have been seen as ‘gutter-speak’. Or there could have been avoidance for the opposite reason: because many Celts would have become highly Romanized (for the Romans were in the country for the best part of 400 years), perhaps the Anglo-Saxons perceived them as ‘nouveau riche’ and wished to distance themselves from such ‘posh’ speech. Either factor could have been relevant, in different times and places.

Then again, a completely different line of reasoning might have been involved. Perhaps the two ways of life were so similar that the Anglo-Saxons already had all the words they needed. Celtic words which the Anglo-Saxons might most usefully have adopted might already have come into their language from Latin because of the Roman presence in Europe.

In a blog post some years ago, Katherine Connor Martin wrote: ‘Irish origins lurk in some unexpected corners of the English lexicon, where the connection to Ireland itself has been obscured.’ Some of those connections are hinted at in Séamas Moylan’s 2009 work Southern Irish English, which says that most Irish words retained in Irish English come from ‘quasi-technical and affective areas of the vocabulary’.

Cover of Séamas Moylan's book Southern Irish English: Review and Exemplary Texts. It is black, with title in green, subtitle in red, and author's name in yellow. The middle third has a collage of imagery and text, including an old map of Ireland, a close-up of print type, and excerpts from linguistic and historical texts.The former group includes báinín ‘flannel’, bairín breac ‘currant cake’, bodhrán ‘winnowing drum’, bóithrín ‘by-road’, cis ‘wicker basket’, currach ‘canvas-covered boat’, gríosach ‘embers’, láí ‘spade’, poitín ‘illicit whiskey’, práiscín ‘bag apron’, préataí-s ‘potatoes’, ráth ‘ringfort’, síbín ‘speakeasy’, sleán ‘turf spade’, and súgán ‘hay-rope’. The latter includes the insults amadán ‘fool’, balbhán ‘dummy’, bodach ‘lout’, and straoill ‘slattern’.

Moylan quotes P. L. Henry’s 1958 Linguistic Survey of Ireland saying Irish English was ‘changing considerably’ and that its Irish element was ‘tending more and more to be shed or left unutilized’. Even so, the small sample above suggests fruitful routes of crossover, with many such terms still used particularly in rural parts and among older generations.

Moylan wraps up with a long passage on Irish words and phrases that have become established in ‘General English’, some more stereotypical than others, such as banshee, bard, broc, brogue (< Irish barróg), carrigeen, colcannon, crannóg, drumlin, esker, keen (< caoineadh), rapparee, shamrock, shillelagh, sláinte, slew (< slua), tory, and turlough.

Pogue ma hone, from Irish póg mo thón ‘kiss my arse’, is among the most stereotypical. Yet, as Moylan notes, it’s ‘probably a translation of the E phrase, since the Ir. form is not heard among native speakers’. I’ve never heard the phrase from an Irish person in either tongue, nor used it myself: it is a marked ‘Oirishism’, like ‘Begorrah’ and ‘Top o’ the morning to ya’, existing here only ironically and on tourist merchandise, in my experience.

The OED has a page of resources on Irish English, where you can submit words for consideration. This is part of a much broader effort to document more vocabulary from ‘World Englishes’ – an enticing project for anyone looking to delve deeper. Oxford Languages has also uploaded a series of videos from its 2022 symposium on World English.

[The Sentence first archives have lots more on Irish English and the OED.]

*

* The desire to reverse this perceived bias has sometimes been taken to misguided extremes, as described by Grant Barrett and explored at length on the cassidyslangscam blog.

10 Responses to Irish words in English and the OED

  1. tom maxwell says:

    That is fantastic – it gives me such a warm feeling to hear it! The only phrase I’m not familiar with is ‘ghost estate’!

    Tom Maxwell

  2. John Cowan says:

    From what I can make out, Pòg mo thòin! is considerably more current in Scots Gaelic (note that the /g/ is devoiced, as with all all ScG stops, though still unaspirated). It was complaints from listeners in Scotland that induced the BBC to refuse to play more of Pogue Mahone’s music until they changed their name to The Pogues.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Somehow I had forgotten that was The Pogues’ original name. I didn’t know the phrase was used much in Scotland. It’s quite a few years since I was there, but I didn’t hear it used. Maybe I just didn’t get into the right kind of situation…

  3. astraya says:

    I would question what it means for any word to be ‘an X-language word *in* English’, eg how much used and how widespread. I can put any Korean word into an otherwise English sentence.
    I was surprised to find that ‘blow-in’ is Irish. It’s in wide use in AusEng. I’m assuming the same meaning: noun, a newcomer to an area or group, often short-term.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I would say a word’s use needs to be substantial or significant enough in frequency, range of contexts, and time span. Those tend to be a dictionary’s criteria, more or less, though obviously it relies on lexicographers’ experience and judgement in each case. It’s a lot more than one person adding a non-English word into an English sentence.

      Blow-in surprised me too. The OED says it’s ‘chiefly Irish English, Australian, New Zealand and U.S. regional (Massachusetts)’; emigration may explain that distribution. I’ve only ever seen or heard it applied to place, not group, and I often see it used self-deprecatingly. The OED defines it as:

      A person who has recently arrived and settled in a place; a newcomer, esp. one regarded as an interloper

      • John Lamond says:

        This is frankly hilarious. My father grew up ~8 miles from my mother’s, and my, hometown of Lowell MA, yet when he ventured a distinctly minority opinion on a small-bore political opinion, 30+ years after he moved to Lowell, he was denounced as a “blow in.” Ah, the narcissism of small differences.

  4. Edward Barrett says:

    Is there a social / cultural / temporal constraint on use of ‘a chara’? In other words, would you need to know the person reasonably well, or for a certain amount of time, for its use to be deemed appropriate?

    • Stan Carey says:

      No, it’s also routinely used as a polite or formal form of address, similar to “Dear” in English but without requiring a direct object. Some people use it to begin letters to a newspaper, for instance.

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