Spey the planets

April 22, 2021

In a recent post I noted an Irish sense of the word gentle meaning ‘enchanted or visited by fairies’, used in Charles McGlinchey’s book The Last of the Name. That book also features the unusual word spey:

I think it would be a descendant of these Dohertys of Keenagh who was a great harp player, the best in Ireland. One Christmas market he was going to the fair of Carn, but his stepmother, who could spey [foresee] and read the planets, advised him not to go for there was blood over his head. When he insisted on going, she killed a rooster and sprinkled the blood over him.

On his way to Carn, a fight broke out between Catholics and Protestants; Doherty stabbed a man and had to leave the country. His stepmother’s spey proved accurate. Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

Also spelled spae (which is how most dictionaries list it, if they do), or spay, the word entered English from Old Norse spá around the 14th century and throughout its history has been in mainly Scottish use. I’m not sure of the connection, if there is one, to spy, which comes from the Indo-European root spek- ‘observe’.

The Dictionary of the Scots Language shows how spae may be used intransitively (‘spae nae mair about uncannie things’) and transitively (‘spaeing folk’s fortunes’). Robert Burns used it thus in ‘Halloween’:

Ye little skelpie limmer’s face!
How daur you try sic sportin’,
As seek the foul Thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune!

The verb gave rise to a noun, spae ‘prediction, prophecy, omen’, which is in much rarer use. The OED cites Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its scenes and sagas (1863): ‘The Finns’ spae is come true, so here we shall settle.’


Gently enchanted

April 10, 2021

The Last of the Name by Charles McGlinchey (1861–1954) is an account of life in rural Ireland generations ago: customs, beliefs, practicalities, peculiarities. Published in 1986 with Brian Friel as editor, it is acclaimed as a ‘minor classic’ by Seamus Heaney. It’s also linguistically rich; in this and the next post I’ll note two words that caught my eye.

Cover of 'The Last of the Name' published by Blackstaff Press, 1986. The cover is cream-coloured and dominated by a black and white illustration, almost like a woodcut, of an old woman wearing a shawl and standing in a dark hilly landscape. The book title is in all caps and red typeface above the picture. Below the picture is the author's name in black, followed by the text: 'with an introduction by Brian Friel'First up is gentle, in a supernatural sense not widely known or used. Here’s McGlinchey:

I always heard you should never strike a cow with a holly stick. Holly and hazel are two trees that are gentle [enchanted]. The people used to have a rhyme ‘Holly and hazel went to the wood, holly took hazel home by the lug.’ That meant that holly was the master of the hazel.

[Lug means ‘ear’. The parenthetical gloss for gentle is Friel’s.]

Holly and hazel recur in folk belief and have been credited with protective powers since ancient times. Niall Mac Coitir, in his book Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, writes that in Ireland holly is a crann uasal, a ‘gentle’ or ‘noble’ tree, and that ‘you annoy the fairies when you misuse it, for example by sweeping the chimney with it’.

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Seven videos about language

February 5, 2021

A few years ago I shared six videos about language, so posting seven this time may set a perilous precedent. (I’ve also blogged a bunch of others, before and since, if you want still more audiovisual diversion.)

Below, there are two short, three medium, and two long videos, in that order. See what grabs your fancy.

A wild one to begin: Why Werner Herzog refuses to speak French:

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Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?

December 15, 2020

Last month I mentioned my new essay on Irish English dialect, ‘Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?’, commissioned for the winter 2020 edition of the literary magazine The Stinging Fly.

Cover of the magazine. Title across the top in red sans serif all caps: 'The Stinging Fly'. Below in, in black: 'New writers · New writing'. Below that, dominating the cover, is a circular watercolour painting by Maeve Curtis, with black, grey, and red swirls on a pale pink rough oval, yellow in its centre. The colours are pastel and flow into each other. Below that are the publication details and the text 'The Galway 2020 edition'.If you didn’t get a copy of the Stinging Fly and want to read more of this material, you can now do so at the Irish Times website, which has published an abridged version of the essay. (I did the abridging myself, but some of the italics got lost in transit.)

Because the new Stinging Fly is a Galway special, the essay looks in particular at the Galway dialect, though this does not differ hugely from Irish English more broadly. The excerpt below elaborates on that point, using geography as an analogy:

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Irish English dialect in The Stinging Fly

November 23, 2020

I have an essay on Irish English dialect in the latest Stinging Fly (winter 2020–21). The issue, just out, centres on Galway – the city, the county, the state of mind – to tie in with its status as European Capital of Culture this year.

The Stinging Fly is an Irish literary magazine on the go since 1997 and a book publisher since 2005. You can order its publications from the website or, depending on where you are, from your local bookshop.

My essay looks at Galway dialect, though its features are not that different (or different mainly in degree) from southern Irish English in general. The grammar, vocabulary, idiom, and phonology of Irish English are all considered from my vantage point on the Atlantic coast.

I also discuss dialect more broadly, because people new to language studies are often unsure just what it means – linguistically, politically, performatively.

Cover of the magazine. Title across the top in red sans serif all caps: "The Stinging Fly". Below in, in black: "New writers · New writing". Below that, dominating the cover, is a circular watercolour painting by Maeve Curtis, with black, grey, and red swirls on a pale pink rough oval, yellow in its centre. The colours are pastel and flow into each other. Below that are the publication details and the text "The Galway 2020 edition".

cover art by Maeve Curtis; design by Catherine Gaffney

An excerpt:

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Peeking, peeving, and grubbing around

October 6, 2020

I have three new posts up at my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Grubbing around for etymology digs into the origins and development of grub:

The noun grub has two common senses, but the connection between them is not widely known. It’s used informally to mean ‘food’, and it can also refer to ‘a young insect without wings or legs, like a small worm’ – in other words, a larva. The two grubs are related, etymologically, but not in the way you may be imagining – depending on your diet.

Piqued by peek and peak sorts out these often-confused homophones, offering mnemonics for each:

To peak (v.) means to reach the highest amount, level, or standard. Phrases that use peak include off-peak, peak oil, and peak time. This meaning explains why people sometimes write the eggcorn peak one’s interest instead of pique one’s interest – they may picture that interest peaking. To remember when to use the spelling peak, think of how the capital letter A is like a mountain. Picture the spelling as peAk, if that helps.

Policing grammar on the radio looks at an example of usage-peeving, wherein a journalist who spoke on Irish radio was criticised by one listener for her grammar:

According to Muphry’s Law (yes, that’s how it’s spelt), any complaint about grammar or usage will itself contain an error. Sure enough, the pedant misspells Moore’s name, and his punctuation is a mess. More importantly, he fails to understand that the rules of formal written English are not universal. Different norms apply when you’re having a conversation, for example, and speaking in your own dialect. So those ‘rules’ don’t even apply in most situations.

Landscape photo, with a mountain range in the background and one prominent peak near the centre. Blue sky and wispy clouds. Below the mountains, a swathe of trees, and in the foreground some light-brown sand and tufts of grass - the photo was taken from near ground level.

Grubbing around in the sand in County Mayo,
the Croagh Patrick peak in the background

The Trouble with Harry’s grammar

August 21, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy-thriller The Trouble with Harry (1955), amidst all its talk of murder and romance, has a fun little exchange of sociolinguistic interest between John Forsythe (‘Sam Marlowe’) and Edmund Gwenn (‘Capt. Albert Wiles’):

John Forsythe sits on the ground, amidst dirt and leaves, wearing a light grey shirt with sleeves rolled up, black waistcoat, and dark grey trousers. He rests his left elbow on his raised left knee, looks up to his right, and says, "I think, Captain Wiles, we're tangled up in a murder."

Edmund Gwenn stands beneath a large tree branch, with leaves covering the space behind it. He wears a black sailing cap, a dark tie, a white shirt and suspenders, and says, "Murder? If it's murder, who done it?"

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