Boys a Dear.

Jamie Dornan has an enjoyable video about Northern Ireland slang; if you don’t feel like watching a three-minute clip, you can get the gist, and most of the expressions, at Erica Bush’s Metro write-up. There’s lots of good stuff, e.g.:

“Any more of this and there’ll be less of it.” I mean, that’s so stupid. That’s as Irish a statement as you’re ever likely to read. It’s like “Put an end to it, stop it or you’ll get what’s coming to ya.” It could only be uttered in Ireland, that’s why I love it.

But what drove me to post was “Boys a dear,” equivalent to the apparently more widespread “boys-a-boys,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “(Irish) a general excl. of amazement, disbelief.” It makes no sense in English, which of course is par for the course for idioms, but I’m wondering if either version might be derived phonetically from some Irish word or phrase. Anybody know? (Thanks, Eric!)


  1. Boys a boys and boys a dear have an air of minced oath about them. Are there any saints or holy places that could have been the origins?

  2. As to “it could only be uttered in Ireland”, I would beg to differ from Belgium. “Als dit hier nog lang gaat duren zal het lang gedaan zijn”/”Si ça va durer encore longtemps ce sera vite fini” (“If this is going to last a long time, it will be finished soon) is a similar expression, generally attributed to Brussels policemen. Of course, Belgium shares many characteristics with Ireland, such as a love of the potato (although we prefer it fried) and of surrealism.

  3. And beer. Don’t forget beer.

  4. Quite possibly mangled gaelic – no idea what though.

  5. boys-a-boys reminds me of man-oh-man.

  6. boy oh boy

  7. I was surprised by how few of these terms were new to me. I was brought up in the North East of England and have lived in various locations across England. Jammie, faffin’, pull, eejit and sound are all in regular usage in my social milieu. Craic we recognise as an Irish term that we’ve incorporated. Dead-on, steamin’ and kex I don’t think are used much but would be easily understood. Were any of these new to any UK-based readers?

  8. So craic is basically da kine?

  9. My high school senior English teacher would often greet us with something like, “Have a nice weekend? Smoked some crack?” I suspect that this had begun in earlier years as a play on craic which at some point he stopped bothering to explain.

    He was a cool guy; he recommended that I read Ulysses.

  10. Never heard of ‘boys a dear’, though I’m from the far end of Ireland. I would have guessed a (possibly jocular?) blend of “[o] boys o boys” and “[oh] dear oh dear”.

    OTOH cf. “the dear knows“, for which ‘Bliss and Dolan suggest a conflation of dear, as in “oh dear” or “the Dear Lord”, and deer, by analogy with the conflation in Irish of Fiadha “God” and fiadh “deer”.’

    The Gaelicised spelling ‘craic’ disguises its origin in English ‘crack’. Rachel can reclaim it with pride.

  11. Kate Bunting says

    ‘Faffing about’ is an expression I (Derbyshire) use myself, and I don’t think of ‘jammy’ or ‘to pull’ as Irishisms. I’ve always thought of ‘wee’ in this sense as Scottish (yes, I know many Northern Irish folk are of Scottish descent).

  12. Craic we recognise as an Irish term that we’ve incorporated.

    In fact craic is the Irish spelling of the Scots and Northern English word “crack”, meaning chat, gossip, news, which dates back to the 18th century at least. The Irish incorporated it a few decades ago (changing the spelling as they did so), and almost all Anglophones now seem to think it was originally Irish.

    Almost all the words there are recognisably Scots or English slang as well. “Yoke” for “thingy” or “whatchamacallit” is interesting though – from Irish?

  13. “Wee” for small is interesting because it isn’t universal across Scotland. In Orkney they’ll say “peedie” instead (presumably from “petit”).

  14. I’ve been living in Ireland just long enough and trying to make sense of the spelling for barely long enough that I hear in “boys a dear” something that might be “buile sa deara”, which it is not likely to be, or something like it that someone who actually HAS Irish might get a bit of clue from. (I don’t have Irish. What I have is more like pattern recognition.)

  15. Maybe unrelated, but it reminded me of Southern US phrases such as “PN’s so dumb, bless his/her heart.” And amphibolous blessing. Just me. Not Irish.

  16. And “boys a day” too from the “Dictionary of Scots Language”

    ‡BOYS A DAY, int. “A very common exclamation fifty years ago. Now hardly ever heard” (Arg.1 1931); “often said to a child in greeting” (Lth., w.Sc. c.1900 (per Lnk.3)). s.Arg. 1917 A. W. Blue Quay Head Tryst 23:
    Boys a day! He quat the job greetin’ like a wumman.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    That sense of jammy/jammie is noted here without being shown as regional: Can’t say I’ve ever heard or seen it in AmEng, though.
    Maybe this explains the second half ot the Robyn Hitchcock lyric “You are an insect mother / I your jammy son” although I’d always just taken that to mean “jam-like” and put it down to RH’s general penchant for surrealism.

  18. Jeanba Dennis says

    A lot of the terms are used in the South. We use yarn as a tale or story. For idiot we use idjit. I think because so many of the early Southerners were from Ireland or England.
    I want to go to Northern Ireland and stay long enough to come back with that beautiful accent!

  19. Don’t Americans use ‘yarn’ to mean tale or story?

  20. I prefer the spelling “pfaffing around”, to align with its spurious eponym, clownish Belgian goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff.

  21. Bathrobe: Up to a point. It’s pretty backwoodsy, which is why the South still uses it (and their Scots-Irish heritage doesn’t hurt). But it’s surprisingly modern: Green’s and the OED attribute it to early 19C nautical slang, where spinning yarn meant talking idly, then telling a story (especially a preposterous one). A literary yarn isn’t just any tale: it’s one where the teller’s style of speaking is at least as important as the content of the story. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is a paradigmatic yarn.

  22. Cf. skaz (which I’ve talked about at LH a fair bit).

  23. David Marjanović says

    early 19C nautical slang

    German Seemannsgarn “tall tale told by sailors”; current enough that de:Wikipedia has an article about it. Wiktionary and DWDS say it’s attested since the 19th century and don’t offer any hypotheses on where it’s from…

  24. “Yoke” is fantastic; from “item of tack” to “pair of draught animals” to “animal-drawn vehicle” to “vehicle” to “thingy”!

  25. M’ Northern Irish friend used to use ‘boys a dear’ all the time unselfconsciously when we were at university. Given his background was in the very much non-Irish speaking community, I suspect it’s not Gaelic-derived.

  26. Yeah, I’m guessing the above commenters who compare it to expressions like “boy oh boy” are correct.

  27. @DM Do German children still say Du spinnst when they think someone is lying?

  28. Stu Clayton says

    I’ve heard it occasionally from children in Cologne, on the street. By that I mean I am not exposed to children’s speech 24/7. It’s less commonly used by adults now than 40 years ago, that is my impression. I assume something equivalent has taken its place, and would gradually be passed on to their children. But the perennial du bist doof! is always available in a pinch.

    Also, du spinnst is not necessarily a charge of lying. For that there’s du lügst! Du spinnst generally means du hast keine Ahnung, das stimmt nicht – or du bist doof!

  29. David Marjanović says

    Du spinnst means “you’re crazy”, pure and simple.

  30. But Spinn nicht (rum) means “don’t talk nonsense / don’t act in a stupid manner”.

  31. David Marjanović says

    If I ever heard that, I must have interpreted it as “don’t be crazy”, which is close enough…?

  32. Hmmm… could have done better with a little research. The terms ‘jammy’ (lucky), ‘faffing’ (wasting time) and ‘on the pull’ (on the pull ;-)) are ordinary British English slang and apart from ‘faffing’, which I don’t recall having heard before about 2005, have been so for a generation at least.

  33. Even in the 1970s Boys a dear would have been considered very old fashioned and countrified as an expression; the sort of thing the “yos” yokels said.

  34. Helen Leckey says

    I just came across this thread from a couple of years ago and found it interesting. I wonder if ‘boys are dear’ could be derived from the irish, ‘buíochas le Día’, which is used as an expression of amazement eg oh my God, although it literally means ‘ thank God’. I am also wondering if this could explain the root of the phrase ‘dear help him’ which i always thought was a very odd phrase.

  35. I’ll bet you’re right; certainly the “dear” in expressions like “dear help him” is from Dia.

  36. In Canada we still say “Boy o’ Boy

  37. Mackey-Holmes says

    Boys a dear. Possibly, Buíochas le Dia = Thank God/ Goodness gracious. Pronounced in Ulster Irish as bwee- as luh Dee-ah.


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