“All Ireland went into the making of this book,” the Sunday Tribune wrote of English As We Speak It In Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce (1827-1914). An exaggeration, certainly, but a forgivable one when describing this wonderful, idiosyncratic collection of Irish-English sayings, proverbs, expressions, folklore, vocabulary and barely categorisable linguistic oddities. There are chapters on grammar, old customs, swearing, and proverbs; there is one devoted to exaggeration and redundancy; there is even a chapter exploring the expressions pertaining to the devil. As the title page declares: “The life of a people is pictured in their speech”.
This blog post is not a review of P. W. Joyce’s book, just a hearty endorsement. Such has been my pleasure as I read it over the last few days that I want to recommend it warmly to anyone listening – that is, reading – who has an interest in Ireland’s folk history or in the endlessly witty and strange innovations the English language underwent under the influence of the Irish tongue. Growing up in the rural west, I was exposed to all manner of colourful turns of phrase and modes of speech. Some I inherited and use to this day; others I lost along the way. Joyce’s book has reacquainted me with a few and introduced me to many others, as fresh today as they might have been a century or two ago.
Irish-English has a great many words and phrases used to describe a person’s lack of intelligence, decency, or industry; one of my favourites is: “There’s a great deal of sense outside your head.” Upon the approach of a conceited person – a pusthaghaun (m) or pusthoge (f) – you could say, with cheerful sarcasm, that here comes “half the town”, a translation of the Irish leath an bhaile /læh ən ‘wɒljə/ or /ljæh ən ‘wɒljə/. A useless fellow is “fit to mind mice at a cross-roads”. Contrary to Freud, a Munster saying insists that “a slip of the tongue is no fault of the mind”. Upon hearing of danger or tragedy, a person might exclaim: “The Lord between us and all harm!” A spaug (Irish: spág) is a big clumsy foot. I’ve heard these last two a lot.
You could say, of a very familiar person, that you’d know their shadow on a furze bush. If someone falls well short of an aim or target, they “didn’t come within the bray of an ass of it”. A version I’m more familiar with, especially in a sporting context, is that they didn’t come “within an ass’s roar” of something. Apparently the phrase harks back to ancient times, when sounds such as bells and animal noises were used as approximate measures of distance. The donkey also appears in a popular expression used of a garrulous person: they would “talk the jawbone off an ass” (or “the hind legs off a donkey”); English As We Speak It In Ireland cites an equivalent saying: that they would “talk the teeth off a saw”.
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