Look at the cut of this Irish expression

February 18, 2018

Growing up in rural Ireland, I regularly heard – and still occasionally hear – some version of the phrase the cut of someone. It’s an informal idiom that means the state or appearance of someone and usually incorporates criticism or amusement or both. Here’s an example I just read in Deirdre Madden’s novel Nothing Is Black:

‘Look at the cut of me!’ Claire’s mother had said the last time she’d visited her. She’d been sitting by a mirror, combing out her faded hair. ‘I’m as grey as a badger. How come I look so old, yet I feel no different to what I was forty years ago? Where’s the sense in that?’ She’d started to laugh …

In Irish literature the expression is generally found in dialogue or in vernacular narrative. Madden’s example is typical in a few ways: it’s light-hearted, colloquial, and deprecatory – in this case self-deprecatory. In a similar vein, the next two examples involve mirrors. Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There:

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On foot of an Irish idiom

August 14, 2017

In a comment on my post about 12 Irish English usages, Margaret suggested that I write about the Irish expression on foot of. It was a good idea: the phrase is not widely known outside Ireland and is therefore liable to cause confusion, if this exchange is any indication.

On foot of means ‘because of’, ‘as a result of’, or ‘on the basis of’. T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English offers the example sentences ‘On foot of this, we can’t go any further with this deal’ and ‘On foot of the charges, he had to appear in the court’.

These lines suggest it’s a formal phrase, and that’s invariably how I see it used; I’ve yet to hear it in everyday conversation. A search on Google News shows that it’s common in crime reporting in Ireland. I also see it in academic and business prose, an impression confirmed by the example sentences in Oxford Dictionaries, e.g.:

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Have a sky at this language

February 14, 2017

I’ve just finished reading Titanic on Trial: The Night the Titanic Sank (Bloomsbury, 2012), sub-subtitled Told Through the Testimonies of Her Passengers and Crew. It’s a sad and absorbing account, edited by Nic Compton, with about 70 ‘narrators’ plus a few outside experts (such as Ernest Shackleton) who gave evidence at the inquiries after the disaster.

It’s also of no little linguistic interest. One item that struck me was the evocative expression have a sky, meaning ‘have a look’. James Johnson, an English night watchman on the ship, reported:

I had no lifebelt then, so I went down for it after. I thought I might have made a mistake in the boat station list, and I went to look at it again. I said, ‘I will have a sky again.’

nic-compton-titanic-on-trial-the-night-the-titanic-sank-bloomsburyThe line is at #3415 on this page, where the surrounding context can be read. In his introduction, Compton refers to the idiom but changes the verb from have to take. Describing the witness testimonies, he writes:

Not only are they unfiltered by any author, but they are absolutely contemporaneous and are imbued with the character of the times – good and bad. There are wonderful turns of phrase which were once the norm but now sound impossibly poetic – such as ‘I will take a sky’, meaning ‘I will take a look’.

James Johnson was apparently English, aged 41, and his line is the only example of the expression that I found on the Titanic Inquiry Project website. It doesn’t appear in the OED. So I’m not convinced that it was once commonplace, but I’d be interested to know if any readers have heard it.

It also prompted me to look up the etymology of sky, and I was rewarded with this lovely discovery:

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Up to your oxters in Gaelic expressions

June 4, 2016

Up to your oxters (or my oxters, etc.) is a phrase I often heard growing up in County Mayo in Ireland. Oxter means ‘armpit’, normally, so up to your oxters means ‘up to your armpits’ – whether literally or figuratively. You could be up to your oxters in a river or in housework.

The word is used in dialects in Ireland, Scotland, England, and the Isle of Man. As well as signifying the armpit, it can refer to the underside of the upper arm more generally, to the fold of the arm when bent against the body, and to the armhole of a coat or jacket.

Oxter also has various verb senses. The OED lists these as: ‘to support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around’. It dates the earliest example to Robert Burns in 1796: ‘The Priest he was oxter’d, the Clerk he was carried.’ The noun is centuries older.

stan carey - scariff Irish seed savers - tall grass up to your oxters

Tall grass up to your oxters, at Irish Seed Savers in Scariff, County Clare

The etymology of oxter is surprisingly complicated, but the word is of clearly Germanic cast. From the OED:

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‘Making strange’ in Ireland

March 4, 2015

Claire Keegan’s beautiful 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.

Mary Morrissy’s story ‘Two China Dogs’, from her collection A Lazy Eye, uses the expression a couple of times:

A sullen nature might have compensated, but I was a sullen child. I would sit in the playpen, the toys ranged carefully outside, staring solemnly through the bars. I remember the strange distortions of my caged world. Huge legs and feet, my mother’s mottled calves, the glint of her copper hair as she bent to pick me up, her eyes the startled green of an angry cat’s bearing down on me. She complained that I made strange with people. But it was they who made strange with me. Neighbours would not bend over cooing into this pram, or if they did, they would suddenly withdraw, uncertain and embarrassed.

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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Acronyms, idioms, and spelling program(me)s

October 15, 2013

I’ve a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts follow.

An FYI on acronyms clarifies the difference between acronyms and initialisms, before showing how technological changes have affected them, as revealed in the recent update to Macmillan Dictionary:

Some new entries, such as API, BYOD, and QR code, explicitly reflect the significant role of technology in altering the lexical and cultural landscape. With the spread of wi-fi, the online–offline divide has become increasingly blurred, so it’s no surprise that some internet-born abbreviations have become more word-like as they’ve spread beyond jargon and slang. ROFL all you like, but people have begun to rofle.

Read on to witness more newcomers to the acronym scene, new definitions for old-timers, and my first (and surely last) use of YOLO.

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An idiom that has its cake and eats it looks at a puzzling old expression that “crumbles under examination”:

Part of the trouble is the order of events. The phrase makes more sense when recast as eat your cake and have it too, since this is more self-evidently impossible. Indeed, it’s how the phrase was first constructed. The later sequence of having your cake and eating it arose in the mid-18th century, and appears to have overtaken the original in the early 20th.

Alfred Cheney Johnston cakeThere are other problems with the phrase too, such as the obvious question of why anyone would want to hold onto cake in the first place: unlike the proverbial miser’s gold, it doesn’t keep. You can share the puzzlement here – and the cake, if there’s any left.

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Finally, Get with the spelling program(me) addresses something often overlooked about the familiar subject of UK/US spelling differences: why does BrE have programme but not anagramme or diagramme? History has the answer; but first, an etymological note:

The modern term programming language accidentally plays on the word’s etymology. Program comes from Late Latin programma ‘proclamation’, from a combination of pro- ‘forth’ + graphein ‘to write’ (the same root we find in telegram and anagram). Curiously, program is how the word entered English in the 17th century, and was used especially by Scottish writers.

Read the rest at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, or delve into my archives for more.

[Old cake image via Wikimedia Commons]

Giving out, Irish style

September 7, 2013

The phrasal verb give out has several common senses:

distribute – ‘she gave out free passes to the gig’

emit – ‘the machine gave out a distinctive hum’

break down, stop working – ‘at the end of the marathon her legs gave out’

become used up – ‘their reserves of patience finally gave out’

declare, make known – ‘management gave out that it was unsatisfied with productivity levels’

In Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale I read an example of this last sense: ‘At the moment the Communist Party is giving out that he was off his head.’ Had Fleming been Irish, this line would be ambiguous – give out in Irish English commonly means complain, grumble, moan; or criticise, scold, reprimand, tell off.

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