Irish people came to speak English out of necessity rather than choice, but that didn’t stop us putting by our own unique twist on it. As Oscar Wilde said, “the English came and took our lands and turned them into barren wastes. We took their language and made it beautiful.” Here’s some Irish words and phrases commonly used by English speakers across the world.
In 1880, the unfortunate Captain Charles Boycott went down in history for the wrong reason when he gave his name to this practice. Boycott was an agent for an absentee landlord in County Mayo during the Irish Land War. Following his attempts to evict tenants from the estate, locals refused to work for him and businesses refused to serve him. Even the postman stopped delivering his letters.
From the Irish ‘go leor’ meaning plenty.
Comes from ‘bean an sídhe’ (woman of the burial mound). Earthen burial mounds and passage tombs were common in ancient Ireland. When the Celts arrived around 500BC, they adopted these mounds and tombs as the houses of their gods. The Celts believed that each sídhe was inhabited by a different god or supernatural entity.
The English version of the wonderfully named ‘uisce beatha’ (pronounced ish-ce bah-ha) – the water of life.
A great little word made popular in Britain by Father Ted. Often assumed to be the less offensive version of that other F word, the one you can’t say in front of the posh relations, but feck it if it isn’t way more complicated than that. Linguist Stan Carey explains.
G’day mate. The Australian slang for woman comes from the Irish name Síle.
An illicit drinking house with origins in late 18th Century Ireland. The word comes from the Irish word ‘síbín’ and is thought to derive from ‘séibín’ (small mug). It originally referred to home-brewed whiskey or poitín but eventually came to mean the premises where the drink was sold. This one has travelled far and wide, and took on a life of its own in South Africa in particular. During the apartheid system, shebeens were the only bars available to black South Africans. They were run by women called Shebeen Queens.
Now associated with football violence, but its thought to be a twist on the Irish surname Hoolihan. A nineteenth century English comic strip featured an Irish family called the Hooligans who were portrayed in typically negative fashion.
Hey man, do you dig it? Or as we’d say in Irish ‘an dtuigeann tú‘ (pronounced on dig-in too) meaning do you understand, do you get me.
The name for the peaty wetland found in Ireland is also the Irish word for soft.
This is a direct translation from the Irish ‘seamróg’ which means young clover. Our national symbol, as Irish as a pint of the black stuff.
While we’ve given plenty of Irish-isms to the world, there are plenty of unique expressions that will only be understood by our own. Here’s some of our favourites.
Chancing your arm
This expression has its roots in fifteenth century Dublin. There were two feuding families, the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds. The Butlers were holed up in St Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Fitzgeralds asked them to come outside so they could make peace. When this offer was refused, the Fitzgeralds suggested cutting a hole in the door so that they could offer a handshake through it – in effect, chancing their arms. The Door of Reconciliation is still there today.
Grand soft day
Another one of our many ways to describe a rainy day. But a very particular kind of rainy day – when you can’t see or feel the rain but you get wet anyway.
Kids in other English speaking countries are scolded but Irish children have mammies who give out. From the Irish “tabhair amach” which literally means give out.
The long finger
Putting things on the long finger is a favourite pastime in Ireland but the expression is not widely understood elsewhere. It comes from an Irish proverb “cuir gach rud ar an mhéar fhada agus beidh an mhéar fhada róghairid ar ball” (put everything on the long finger and the long finger will eventually be too short).
As thick as two double ditches
Thick as in stupid. And not as thick as one ditch, or even two, but two double ditches. Really, really stupid
Bring Back the Old Sayings
Our unique twist on the English language comes from the influence of our native tongue. We put sentences together in the same way we did when speaking Irish. Plus, we brought many old Irish sayings with us into English. A fascinating book called English As We Speak It In Ireland, written in 1910 by historian and writer Patrick Weston Joyce, records many of these old sayings. There are some real gems in there and they’re too good to be forgotten, so here’s a selection for you to bring back into use:
- If someone is useless or worthless, you could say they’re only ‘fit to mind mice at a cross-roads’.
- Spending your money before you get it is called ‘eating the calf in the cow’s belly’.
- If you came across a skillful thief, you might say ‘he’d steal the cross off an ass’s back’.
- If someone falls short of an aim or target, they ‘didn’t come within an ass’s roar of it’. This one harks back to ancient times, when sounds like bells and animal noises were used to measure distance.
Joyce’s book even includes a whole chapter on sayings that invoke the devil. According to the writer, “bad as the devil is, he has done us some service in Ireland by providing us with a fund of anecdotes and sayings full of drollery and fun.”
- You would be ‘blindfolding the devil in the dark’ if you did something wrong while pretending you had reasonable cause. The devil can see what you’re up to.
- If someone is struggling to make ends meet they are ‘pulling the devil by the tail.’
- ‘When needs must the devil drives’ means that when someone is in great difficulty, they may be driven to illegal or criminal acts.
- ‘When you sup with the devil have a long spoon’ means you should be wary if dealing with rogues or criminals.
- ‘Speak the truth and shame the devil’ – used by many an Irish parent to coax the truth from their children before giving out yards to them.