Sleeveen language in Ireland

October 1, 2014

In an article in the Irish Independent this week on privatisation fears and political shenanigans, Gene Kerrigan used a great word borrowed (and anglicised) from the Gaelic:

Is it really okay for the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] to do what he did, then he makes a non-apology and everyone moves on?

Did Enda Kenny lie to us?

You won’t find a straightforward statement in which he said he had nothing to do with the stroke. Instead, he said, “ministers are free to make nominations to particular boards”. Sleeveen language. Deliberately deceptive, while taking pains not to formally lie.

A sleeveen is a sly, smooth-tongued person, a rogue or a trickster. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as ‘an untrustworthy or cunning person’, Collins says it refers to ‘a sly obsequious smooth-tongued person’, while Yeats glossed it as a ‘mean fellow’. You get the idea.

Despite appearances it can be used affectionately, like most Irish insults, but this is obviously not the case above, nor is it normally.

Sleeveen comes from Irish slíbhín ‘sly person’, to which Dinneen adds slighbhín. The Irish words’ s can be closer to /ʃ/ ‘sh’, so the spelling shleeveen is also used – as are sleveen, sleiveen, and slieveen. It’s often used in political contexts, and, like smacht, occasionally makes the headlines:

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