Sharp enough to shave a mouse asleep

August 25, 2015

Laura Huxley’s essay ‘Love and Work’ (1962), a transcript and description of a guided psychedelic session she undertook with her husband, Aldous (he took psilocybin, she attended), contains an amusing and unusual expression I’ve encountered in an Irish context but have never heard spoken in person.

Towards the end of the session, Huxley is recalling the woodwork activity he practised as a boy. His school had a carpentry room which the children attended for 2–3 hours of official class time a week. They could also spend free time there, making whatever they wanted – a sledge, a bookcase, a box – and indeed were encouraged to do so.

Laura Huxley records Aldous saying the following:

There was this excellent man who did all the odd jobs around the school, but who was an old-time artisan who got through all this himself. But he was a very shrewd man: it was a pleasure to be with him. And he could talk; and he had delightful phrases – like when he sharpened a tool he said, ‘Now it is sharp enough to cut off a dead mouse’s whiskers without its waking up.’ But all that is gone now. But what shouldn’t have gone is the perfectly sensible thing of providing boys with something to do.

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Blather and blarney and blindfolding the devil

October 14, 2009

“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”.

Stan Carey - P. W. JoyceThis 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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