My Enchanté column from EMC News this week
By Mark Bergin
The week of the Irish is upon us. For many, that means revelry. For others, it’s a simpler celebration of all things Irish: Brendan Behan, James Joyce and other literary greats; Liam Neeson, Saoirse Ronan, Brian O’Byrne and the horde of Irish actors gracing the world’s stages and screens; Eithne Ní Bhraonáin (Enya), U-2, The Pogues and hundreds of other musicians; and thousands of arts and cultural events around the world.
The Celtic thought process is not like that of the left-brain-dominant world. Irish thought resembles the Celtic knot, twisting and turning with a glorious lilt. And nowhere is that lilt more obvious than in the language.
The Irish culture in which I grew up is based on language and storytelling. We listen to our parents, grandparents and favorite aunts and uncles telling us grand tales and elaborate jokes.
But starting in the 17th century, our language was made illegal, banned. Speaking Irish could get you jail time and a good beating. A few other gems in the collection of England’s Irish Penal Laws included the Irish being banned from: public office; legal professions; teaching; holding firearms; buying land; and ownership of a horse valued at more than 5 British pounds. During a lengthy period in the 18th century the Irish, barely being considered human, were not even allowed to vote.
These laws were carefully crafted to harden the power and privilege of a class of English elite. Native Irish were reduced to a life of subsistence living.
The last of the ways to oppress the Irish was the system of National Schools, created in 1831. Children were only taught in English. Any child caught speaking Irish suffered brutal punishment. And finally, an Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger) struck between 1846 and 1849. It is estimated that a third of the Irish population died, while beef and plentiful crops were shipped to England. The potato crops, on which native Irish depended for life, failed. The Irish Famine is one of the greatest lies ever written in history. Amidst food aplenty, the Irish died and were carted to mass graves in wooden carts. In the town of Skibbereen alone, a mass grave the size of a football field, covered in shamrocks, holds thousands of corpses from an Gorta Mor. Rebellion brewed in this background.
It wasn’t until 1920, when much of the Republic of Ireland violently split from England, that Ireland became free of the last of the Penal Laws.
At the middle of the 19th century, the majority of speakers in Ireland were still Gaelic. By the beginning of the 20th century, the language had been decimated. However, pockets of Irish-only communities remained in more isolated areas of Ireland’s west coast. Today, these regions, known as Gaeltachtaí, are expanding, thanks to a resurgence of the language and the fact that the Republic of Ireland is a bilingual country that has schools offering Irish-immersion programs.
With this historical background, it is little wonder that the Irish language contributions to English have been ignored in modern dictionaries.
Most of the world’s English language dictionaries were first established in England. Since the Irish were considered lower than second-class citizens with about the same – or fewer – rights than animals, and the speaking of the Irish language was illegal, there was no way the creators of dictionaries were going to consider that the Irish language influenced English. Until the past decade or so, no one knew the origins of many English words.
Countless colorful English words and sayings can be traced to the Irish Gaelic language of our immigrant ancestors galore. And here we’ll start.
The word galore, which, in English, means abundant or plentiful, hails from the Irish Gaelic term go leor (and the Scots Gaelic gu leòr), meaning abundant or a lot.
The feminine pronoun she is considered in almost all dictionaries to be of unknown origin. When racist blinders are removed, it doesn’t take much research to discover that there might be a link to the Irish word sí, pronounced “she.” Sí is the third person feminine pronoun in Irish Gaelic.
How about the word boycott? Not from the Irish language, but from an Irish act of rebellion. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English land agent in Ireland. In 1880, the oppressive and cruel landlord was the recipient of Irish tactics. Boycott’s tenants withdrew their labor in an uprising against him.
Then there’s the vulgar calling of someone you don’t like an a–hole. Here again, there is an Irish origin that has nothing to do with the lower end of the digestive tract. The Irish word for donkey is asal and it’s a common insult in Irish to call someone a donkey.
By the mid-19th century, millions of Irish left the country for other lands like North America, Australia and New Zealand. Their language accompanied them.
Thousands of words remain listed as “origin unknown” in English language dictionaries, simply because the Irish language as a source is ignored. Here are some examples. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that the words snaz/snazz and snazzy mean polish, gloss, elegance, style and so on, yet they are listed as “origin unknown.” However, the Irish word snas (pronounced snas or snaz) means polish, gloss, elegance, style. The connection, although ignored by dictionary linguists, is glaring.
Here are a few more. The word slum has an Irish source: slom, meaning an exposed, vulnerable place, an impoverished place, a poor life. The same goes for the English word scam; the Irish word scam means deceit or trick. Helter skelter in English means in defiance of order. The Irish words áilteoir scaoilte mean a run-amok clown or a wild prankster.
The word scram, our English word for get away or leave hastily can be traced to the Irish scaraim, meaning “I get away,” “I escape,” or “I depart.”
Irish culture’s storytelling heavily influences music, song lyrics, melodies and the vernacular of musicians. Even the word jazz, which typically is listed as “source unknown,” has been traced to the Irish language.
The early spelling of jazz was jass. The word now describes an African-American style of music. In its early usage, it meant passion, heat, something or someone hot or exciting, and also referred to sex. The first known use of the word was the Original Dixieland Jass Band, which comprised Irish, Sicilian and other working-class lads from New Orleans. The word “jass,” to describe a certain style of music, traveled from New Orleans to the red-light districts of San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
This hot, passionate new music took on the label of jass music, and it wasn’t long before it was relabeled as jazz (“z” seeming more exotic). But its first use was back in New Orleans by the Jass Band with the Irish musicians saying the Irish word teas, which, you guessed it, is pronounced “jass/jazz”. In other words, this early band in New Orleans was simply using an Irish word of the streets, jass, to describe their music: passionate, hot, exciting.
For those interested in exploring the impact of the Irish language on English a couple of good books with which to start are Daniel Cassidy’s How The Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads (Counter Punch, 2007) and Loreto Todd’s Green English: Ireland’s Influence on the English Language (Irish Books and Media, 1999).
Happy Day (and week) of the Irish.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin