Making a hames of it

November 7, 2012

The word hame is usually found in the plural: hames are two curved wooden or metal pieces forming part of the collar of a draught animal’s harness; they fit around the neck and the traces are fastened to them. (A draught/draft animal is one used for muscular work, typically pulling – i.e., drawing – a cart, plough, or other heavy load.)

In Ireland, though, hames has been repurposed in the informal idiom make a hames of, meaning make a mess or a hash of. It implies the mess has resulted from carelessness, clumsiness, or ineptitude: a sports player who misses an easy opportunity, or a baker who forgets the leavening agent, can be said to have made a hames of it.

Hames is sometimes preceded by a modifying or intensifying term: you could make a right hames, a fierce hames, an almighty hames, an awful hames, or a complete and total hames of a task. Browsing Google Books we find a variety of things being made a hames of: jobs, plays, heists, documents, Bibles, sums, relationships, Socialism:

This was a good start: my first salaried job and I was making a hames of it. (Robert E. Tangney, Other Days Around Me)

I made a right haimes of my suit. (Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds)

Neil hated computers and could make a hames of the slightest little thing. (Patricia Scanlan, Two for Joy)

Why should a carefully-prepared document be made a hames of by a typographically illiterate user who has set to display as 44pt Punk Bold in diagonal purple and green stripes? (TEX Users Group, Vol. 16, 1995)

Often it’s just it that appears at the end of the phrase, in which case the expression refers to something made obvious by the context:

Expressed at its simplest, it’s ‘You can’t let the Irish run the country, sure they’d make a hames of it.’ (David McKittrick, Endgame: The search for peace in Northern Ireland)

‘How did I make a hames of your play?’ asked F. J. ‘You made a hames of it at that particular line when Donal says…’ (Garry O’Connor, Sean O’Casey: A Life)

Make a hames of is very much an Irish expression. Its meagre results in Google’s vast books corpus, and its total absence from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (and the Historical one), testify to the idiom’s limited province. But it’s in active use here. I heard it regularly growing up, and still do. I love how it sounds, and I use it myself.

A search on the Irish Times website shows several recent instances of its use from politicians, spokepersons, and journalists themselves, including the memorable line ‘But why is the young Irish male making such a hames of the hip-hop hug?’ It even shows up in headlines. More informal examples may be found in the forums.

irish times headline - make a hames of it phrase

The OED says hame is from Middle Dutch (Dutch haam) corresponding to Middle High German ham(e) = fishing rod, of unknown origin. Why it was incorporated into make of hames of is uncertain: maybe because it’s difficult to put hames on the right way. Michael Quinion says his ‘carriage-driving consultant tells me it’s all too easy to put the hames on a horse the wrong way up, thus making a complete mess of things’. Terence Dolan tentatively supports this etymology.

Chambers Slang Dictionary mentions hame and haym as variants of haim (etymology unknown), jazz lingo for ‘a job other than in the music business; . . . a job, usually tedious or unpleasant’, but there’s no obvious connection with the hames discussed above. I could try to forge one speculatively, but I would probably make a hames of it.


See this Twitter chat about Irish words that hames might have come from, including @Karenwq4’s suggestion seamlas whose meanings include shambles and mess, and a related list from Dulach Glynn.

[more posts on Hiberno-English]