How slang catches on, survives, and fades:
The schwa is never stressed? Ridiculous, says Geoff Lindsey:
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.
Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*
This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:
“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”
On a recent rewatch of the 1979 film The Warriors, I noticed an unusual pronoun spoken by Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright:*
Ourself, once in regular use, is now scarce outside of certain dialects, and many (maybe most) people would question its validity. I’ve seen it followed by a cautious editorial [sic] even in linguistic contexts. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), describing it as the reflexive form of singular we – ‘an honorific pronoun used by monarchs, popes, and the like’ – says it is ‘hardly current’ in present-day English.
But that’s not the whole story, and it belies the word’s surprising versatility and stubborn survival outside of mainstream Englishes, which this post will outline. There are graphs and data further down, but let’s start with usage.
Lately I watched The Wire for the first time since it screened in 2002–08. It holds up really well, thanks to its wealth of characters, superb writing, and enduring political relevance. Afterwards, I read Jonathan Abrams’s acclaimed All the Pieces Matter (No Exit Press, 2018), an oral history composed of carefully interwoven interviews with the show’s cast, crew, and creators.
The Wire is set in Baltimore and is suffused with Baltimore culture, including its language. Two principal characters, Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty, are played by British actors, Idris Elba and Dominic West, who had to adjust their accents to be authentic in their roles. This led to some difficulty, as Abrams’s book reveals.
Co-creator Ed Burns said that West spent a lot of time going over the accent with David Simon: ‘“Now, say it like po-lice.” “Police.” “No, po-lice.”’ Others helped out as well. Peter Gerety, a veteran of stage and screen who played Judge Daniel Phelan, said West asked him for guidance:
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.’
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.
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’.