‘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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St. George? Total legend.

May 31, 2013

Marcus Lodwick’s The Gallery Companion: Understanding Western Art describes Saint George as “a totally legendary saint whose existence has been in doubt since the fifth century”.

The flavours of both totally and legendary have – for me at least – shifted markedly through informal usage, interfering with the intended tone. Reading the line, I was (totally) distracted by the phrase totally legendary, even though the relative clause (“whose existence has been in doubt…”) and general context left no doubt as to its meaning.

Raphael - Saint George Fighting the Dragon

painting by Raphael

In common currency totally is like absolutely: often more a general intensifier or expression of hearty agreement than anything necessarily to do with totality or absoluteness. An example from the GloWbE corpus: “Seems totally harsh for them teachers huh?”

Legendary has been weakened by loose usage to the point where almost any degree of renown or achievement may be granted the description; similar trends with legend and its spin-off ledge(bag) – peculiarly Irish, I think – complete the inflationary effect.

The following (mildly parodic) fictional dialogue may serve to illustrate:

This bus driver is always on time – such a ledge!

Absolutely.

Remember the time she gave us chocolate?

Yeah, that was totally legendary.

Completely. Hey, is that Saint George you’re reading about?

It is.

Didn’t he, like, slay the dragon?

Yeah.

What a legend!

Totes!

I mean like existentially.

Right.


Folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation

February 6, 2013

I’ve been stop-starting my way happily through Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales, two late-19thC collections by the great Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, combined in a plump Senate paperback and handsomely illustrated by John D. Batten:

Celtic Fairy Tales, ed. by Joseph Jacobs, illustrated by John D Batten

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Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in -raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in -ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

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The White Goddess in Twin Peaks

March 31, 2011

Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak her unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall…

This is Robert Graves describing the unseen presence of the White Goddess, in his fanciful and fascinating book of the same name, first published in 1948 and instructively subtitled “A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth”.

What struck me upon reading the quoted passage is that it’s like a checklist of motifs for Twin Peaks. Every element – the hooting owls, clouded moon, trees swaying slowly, rushing waterfall – is recognisably a feature of the show’s iconography. I wonder if David Lynch or Mark Frost read Graves’s book, or is it just an occult coincidence?


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