Foostering around with an Irish word

September 30, 2015

Fooster is one of those words much loved in Hiberno-English but largely restricted to it, not having crossed to wider dialects as galore and smithereens did.* Derived from Irish fústar /’fuːst̪ər/, and alternatively spelt foosther to approximate Irish phonology, it has a meaning more easily described in general terms than precisely pinned down.

To fooster is to fiddle around or fuss with something. It’s a kind of agitated activity: busy but commonly aimless or inefficient. You can fooster with or over something, fooster around or about, or just fooster.

Curiously, there seems to be no associated Irish verb. Niall Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary translates fústar as ‘fuss, fidgetiness’ and fústaire as a ‘fussy, fidgety person’; fústráil is the act of fussing or fidgeting, while fústrach is the adjectival form.

Sometimes fooster has slightly pejorative connotations, implying mild disapproval: a parent or teacher might give out to a child for foostering. But the word is often emotionally neutral. It has broad appeal and is used in a wide range of ways (see below); Irish culture writer John Byrne called his blog Fústar in its honour.

Since being imported into Irish English – by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1847, says the OED – fooster has been inflected per English norms, giving rise for example to the adjective foostery. Fooster itself doubles as a noun form, but the gerund foostering is more usual in my experience. There’s a strong hint of phonaesthesia about all of these.

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A morsel of logic

September 21, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.

Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:

[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

* * *

Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:

Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).

Comments are welcome, and older articles can be seen in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive

When without = unless

July 17, 2015

In A. L. Barker’s darkly comic novel John Brown’s Body (1965) there is a use of the word without that’s fairly unusual nowadays:

She moaned, curling deeper into the dark. Nothing was finished or forgettable. Jack said that everyone went off balance sometime – at spiders or red rags or, in his case, temperance hotels. But this thing of hers was so almighty that she would have prayed to it if it would have done any good, asked to be let off a little, excused just enough to make it endurable. Painlessness she did not expect, not without she died and was born another person, but a little less cruelty, a grain of consciousness – the final humiliation was in not knowing herself – this she would have begged and prayed for if she thought anyone or anything was listening. [my underlines]

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Colour words and archaisms in rural Donegal

May 12, 2015

Red hair is strongly associated with Irish people on account of how common it is here. Less well known, at least outside the island, is that the Irish language has one word, rua, for the red of red hair and another word, dearg, for more prototypically red hues.*

Robert Bernen - Tales from the Blue Stacks - Poolbeg Press book coverEvery language carves up the colour spectrum differently, and it can take children a while to figure it all out in the culture they happen to be raised in. Even as an adult I still discover nuances, one of which appears in Robert Bernen’s story ‘The Yellow Dog’ in his collection Tales from the Blue Stacks (1978).

The narrator is visiting a local farmer with a view to getting a sheep dog:

‘Is this the dog?, I asked.

His fur was that light rust or orange colour we talk of as red hair, and so often associate with Ireland. At home, in America, I would have called him a brown dog. Here in the Donegal hills, I found out later, he was a yellow dog. As I watched him squirming towards me, his belly so low to the ground it seemed as if he was almost afraid to stand at his real height, with that look in his eyes of hope filled with fear, I thought to myself, ‘At least he’ll be friendly.’

‘Will he make a good sheep dog?’ I asked.

‘The best,’ Mickey Paddy answered.

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Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

April 24, 2015

I have two more posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Yes, I mentioned a prior couple just a week ago – I wasn’t keeping up!)

First: Grammar at cross purposes highlights a common source of unnecessary strife over language use: the meaning of grammar, by which linguists usually mean syntax, morphology, and so on – the rules we pick up informally when we’re very young. By contrast:

When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage. . . .

Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal.


One example of a ‘rule’ imposed by decree from logic, Latin, and higher ideals is the proscription against multiple negation, better known as double negatives.

Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures.

The post then briefly documents double negatives’ fall from grace as a result of unwarranted pejoration from 18thC grammarians and those who’ve carried the torch for them ever since.

Older posts can be read in my archive at Macmillan.

‘Making strange’ in Ireland

March 4, 2015

Claire Keegan’s superb novella Foster, expanded from a short story published in the New Yorker in 2010, has an idiom I remember hearing in childhood and only seldom since. The book’s narrator is a young girl in an unfamiliar place, accompanied here by a woman, Mrs Kinsella, with whom she is staying temporarily:

Out in the street, the sun feels strong again, blinding. Some part of me wishes it would go away, that it would cloud over so I could see properly. We meet people the woman knows. Some of these people stare at me and ask who I am. One of them has a new baby in a pushchair. Mrs Kinsella bends down and coos and he slobbers a little and starts to cry.

‘He’s making strange,’ the mother says. ‘Pay no heed.’

The verb phrase make strange means to act up or be nervous or shy, etc., when encountering a stranger or strange situation. It’s normally said of babies or small children, but not always.

Claire Keegan - Foster - faber and faber book coverLike many expressions characteristic of Hiberno-English it seems to have been loaned from Irish, where coimhthíos a dhéanamh le duine literally means ‘to make strangeness with someone’, or to be shy or aloof in their presence; coimhthíos means strangeness, shyness, aloofness or alienation.

Another phrase, bheith deoranta le duine, means essentially the same thing with a different verb (be rather than make) and, said of adults, can also mean to be distant with someone.

John Banville, in The Untouchable, points to a sinister origin in folklore:

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A muffit of tea

February 25, 2015

‘Do you want a muffit of tea?’ This expression – if you’re unfamiliar with it – can be heard in a short sketch by the Scottish comedian Brian Limond, aka Limmy, in series 2 of his brilliant Limmy’s Show:



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