Release notes: Irish English

Release notes: Irish English

Most of the OED’s quarterly updates in recent years have featured the results of our ongoing work on broadening the dictionary’s coverage of world varieties of English and tracing the lexical development of these varieties in both the historical and modern periods. In this month’s update, we focus the spotlight on the Emerald Isle as dozens of new Irish English words and senses  make their way into the OED for the first time.

A considerable number of the new Irish English entries in this update are borrowings from the Irish language, such as blas, n. (first attested 1906) ‘an accent, a distinctive way of pronouncing a language’, ciotóg, n. (1832) ‘the left hand; a left-handed person’, grá (1833) ‘a feeling of affection or love; a fondness or liking for someone or something’, and bualadh bos (1908) ‘clapping, applause; praise’. Cúpla focal, seen earliest in 1975 in the local County Kerry newspaper The Kerryman, means a few words in Irish, and is used especially to refer to a token Irish phrase used to introduce a speech or other text that is otherwise in English. Sean nós, whose earliest quotation is taken from a 1964 issue of the Irish Press, literally translates to ‘old custom or style’ and is used to denote a style of traditional, unaccompanied singing, usually in the Irish language.

Some entries of uncertain origin included in the current update are also likely to have been loan words from Irish, such as bockety, an adjective first used to describe a person who is unable to walk without difficulty or a body part that has been injured or impaired (sense first attested 1842), and then, by extension, something that has fallen into a state of disrepair or is likely to fall apart or break down (sense first attested 1902).There are two probable origins of this word: it could have come from combining the Irish word bacach ‘lame, imperfect’, with the English -ety suffix, perhaps due to the influence of the synonymous adjective rickety. It could also have come from the reflex of an unattested but regular past participle form of the Early Irish word baccaigid ‘lames’. Bockety can also be spelled bacaidí, comparable to the Irish word bacaidí ‘lame person or animal’ which could also have been reinforced by association with the English -ety suffix.

A degree of orthographic variation can be seen in some of the Irish loanwords featured in this update. One example is banatee (1825), which refers to the female head of a family or household, a housewife, or a landlady or hostess, borrowed from the Irish expression bean (an), meaning ‘woman of the (or a) house’. As is the rule with all OED entries, the most common current spelling, banatee, is used as the headword, but no less than 13 other variants are listed in the entry’s forms section, most of which are still in use today, such as banati, bean an ti, beanati, and bean tighe. There are also obsolete forms beginning with the letter v, such as vanatee and vanathee, which apparently reflected an inflected form of the Irish phrase (as in the vocative a bhean an tí), showing lenition of the initial consonant, which was written with bh- and pronounced /v/.

Even more varied in spelling is the word ráiméis, meaning ‘nonsensical talk; overblown or empty rhetoric; claptrap’. Since its earliest published appearance in the 1828 story The Croppy, one of the O’Hara tales of Irish short story writer Michael Banim (1796-1874), the word has been spelled 23 different ways in English, including rhamaush, rawmaish, ramaish, ramesh, raumaish, rawmaysh, and rámáis.  Ráiméis was borrowed from the Irish word ráiméis, raiméis, or ráimáis, ‘unrefined poetry, rigmarole, or nonsensical talk’. This Irish word itself comes from the English word romance n. likely in the sense ‘an extravagant fabrication; a wild falsehood, a fantasy’.

Béal bocht (1932) is a complaint of poverty or misfortune, especially one that is intended to elicit sympathy, often used in the phrase to put on or to plead the béal bocht. The word was popularized by An Béal Bocht, the title of a 1941 novel by Irish author Brian O’Nolan (1911-1966, better known by his pen name Flann O’Brien). The title literally translates to ‘The Poor Mouth’, a construction reflected in the English expression to cry (also play, talk, etc.) poor-mouth and to put on or put up a poor mouth, both of which mean to complain or to plead poverty. Comparable phrases in Irish are béal bocht a dhéanamh, literally ‘to make a poor mouth’ and chuir sé béal bocht air ‘he put on a poor mouth’, literally ‘he put a poor mouth on him’.

Two Irish English words in this update are used as terms of endearment or affectionate forms of address. One is segotia (1917), a word referring to a friend. It is now often used to address one’s friends, especially among men, and often in the expression old segotia. The exact origin of this word is unknown—it has been suggested that this is an arbitrary alteration either of the English word associate or the French phrase mon cher gosse (‘my dear child’), but OED etymologists have found no direct evidence connecting either of these to the Irish English word.

Another expression of affection is the Irish borrowing a chara (1829), ‘my friend, my dear’. It is frequently used s as a polite form of address at the beginning of a letter, either on its own or following the name of the recipient. A notable recent usage is included in the OED’s quotation paragraph for this entry, taken from a letter written by the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, to the newly elected President Biden, published on Higgins’ official Twitter account on 20 January 2021, the date of Biden’s inauguration. Higgins writes to Biden, an American of Irish parentage: ‘Dear Mr. President, Joe, a chara, I write to offer my most heartfelt congratulations as you assume the Office of the President of the United States of America today’.

This update also includes senses of existing English words or compounds consisting of English elements that are used often or chiefly in Ireland, such as blow-in (1908), a person who has recently arrived and settled in a place, and ghost estate (1978), a housing estate which has been largely abandoned; now especially a newly-built estate in which most of the units are uninhabited or unfinished. Coddle is the name of a typically Irish stew of meat and vegetables, typically bacon, sausages, potatoes, and onions. In Finnegan’s Wake, published in 1939, James Joyce (1882-1941) includes the sentence ‘Cuddle up in a coddlepot’, which may imply currency of the word. However, the earliest clear usage of the word that OED editors have been able to find is from the 1942 novel Never No More by Irish author Maura Laverty (1907-1966): ‘On washing days we always had coddle for dinner’. Delph, an Irish English word for dishes or crockery, originated as a variant of Delft, the name of a specific type of tin-glazed earthenware typically decorated with blue designs on a white background that was originally and primarily produced in the Dutch city of Delft; the word later developed a more generic sense in Irish usage.

The update also covers a variety of Irish English phrases, such as to make a hames of ‘to do something very badly or ineptly; to make a mess of’. The phrase could have originally been used with reference to the ease with which the hames, or the two curved pieces of wood or metal placed over, fastened to, or forming, the collar of a draught horse, could be positioned the wrong way up. Another phrase is to get or to have notions (1866) ‘to have ambitions or desires beyond what might be expected of one’s social position, class, community, etc.’

The words and phrases featured in the OED’s March update provide a small yet vivid snapshot of Irish English usage in the past and present. We will continue our efforts in enriching the dictionary’s coverage of Irish English and feature even more new words and senses in future updates.

Special thanks to Prof Raymond Hickey for lending his expertise to the OED’s work on Irish English, and Prof William Gillies of the University of Edinburgh for his help on the etymology of loan words originating in the Irish language.

New Irish English words, senses, and phrases added to the OED in the March 2022 update:

To learn more about Irish English in the OED, visit the Irish English section of the OED’s Varieties of English pages.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.