English As We Speak It in Ireland.

This Project Gutenberg eBook for English As We Speak It in Ireland, by P. W. Joyce (London: Longmans, Green & Co., Dublin, M.H. Gill & Son, Ltd, 1910), was recently linked on MetaFilter, and I would be remiss if I did not pass it on to my own readership. It’s chock full of delights, from the Preface (“My own memory is a storehouse both of idiom and vocabulary; for the good reason that from childhood to early manhood I spoke—like those among whom I lived—the rich dialect of Limerick and Cork”) to the chapter on affirming, assenting, and saluting (“The Irish ní’l lá fós é [neel law fo-say: it isn’t day yet] is often used for emphasis in asseveration, even when persons are speaking English; but in this case the saying is often turned into English. ‘If the master didn’t give Tim a tongue-dressing, ’tisn’t day yet‘ (which would be said either by day or by night): meaning he gave him a very severe scolding”) to the chapter on swearing, which begins:

The general run of our people do not swear much; and those that do commonly limit themselves to the name of the devil either straight out or in some of its various disguised forms, or to some harmless imitation of a curse. You do indeed come across persons who go higher, but they are rare. Yet while keeping themselves generally within safe bounds, it must be confessed that many of the people have a sort of sneaking admiration—lurking secretly and seldom expressed in words—for a good well-balanced curse, so long as it does not shock by its profanity. I once knew a doctor—not in Dublin—who, it might be said, was a genius in this line. He could, on the spur of the moment, roll out a magnificent curse that might vie with a passage of the Iliad in the mouth of Homer. ‘Oh sir’—as I heard a fellow say—”tis grand to listen to him when he’s in a rage.’ He was known as a skilled physician, and a good fellow in every way, and his splendid swearing crowned his popularity. He had discretion however, and knew when to swear and when not; but ultimately he swore his way into an extensive and lucrative practice, which lasted during his whole life—a long and honourable one.

If you don’t find hours of entertainment in it, ’tisn’t day yet.


  1. IN the 1950s, we used to party with some of the stewards from the “Strath” boats, the P&O liners from the UK to Australia. They had to absolutely control their language in front of passengers, so to avoid accidents, they condensed all possible profanity into “Oh dear”. It became an extraordinarily effective and expressive form of swearing …

  2. In honor of Joyce (who may have been a relation; my father’s mother was a Joyce), I entitled the introductory chapter of my Lojban reference grammar “Lojban As We Mangle It In Lojbanistan”. My original idea was to use butcher rather than mangle, but various people said that was too graphic an image.

  3. Great paragraph on the spirit of prescriptivism from the end of Chapter 1:

    I well remember on one occasion when I was young in literature perpetrating a pretty strong Hibernicism in one of my books. It was not forbidding, but rather bright and expressive: and it passed off, and still passes off very well, for the book is still to the fore. Some days after the publication, a lady friend who was somewhat of a pedant and purist in the English language, came to me with a look of grave concern—so solemn indeed that it somewhat disconcerted me—to direct my attention to the error. Her manner was absurdly exaggerated considering the occasion. Judging from the serious face and the voice of bated breath, you might almost imagine that I had committed a secret murder and that she had come to inform me that the corpse had just been found.

  4. ” it must be confessed that many of the people have a sort of sneaking admiration—lurking secretly and seldom expressed in words—for a good well-balanced curse, so long as it does not shock by its profanity.”

    Indeed. Here’s a proper curse:

    Comrac fort fri Lochlannach creinnfes do ball ferda!
    “May a Norseman gnaw away at your manly part.”

    (By the way that’s not an invitation, Trond. )


    I wonder what it would look like in Modern Irish.

  5. Three types of Hibernicisms in Joyce are familiar to me,
    four kinds there are that I know well enough myself:
    those that have always been English and Joyce should have left them out,
    those that have become English since his day and no blame to him for that,
    those that we in America have picked up from the Irish among us,
    those that I have picked up myself from when I was in my father’s house.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Old Irish oral tradition? I’m too young for that.

  7. Well played, Trond. The match goes to you.

    “those that we in America have picked up from the Irish among us,”

    This includes specific influences on the formation of AAVE.

    “those that have become English since his day and no blame to him for that,”

    I remember reading “Castel Rackrent” where the expression “let alone X” is used to mean “much less X”, with a prim footnote explaining the meaning intended and pointing out similar fully accepted expressions. As I recall the editor cited “but” and said it had evoled from a contraction of something or other.

  8. I’m always happy to see this book get publicity; it’s a dialectal delight, full of curious twists and turns the language took on the island. I wrote a post about it in the earlyish days of my own blog, and tend to check my copy whenever I’m writing about an Irish English usage.

  9. This includes specific influences on the formation of AAVE.

    And American varieties in general. If standard Italian is la lingua toscana in bocca romana, then AmE is by the same token an Irish tongue in a German mouth.

  10. Here’s the footnote from Castle Rackrent, attached to let alone the three kingdoms:

    Let alone, in this sentence, means put out of consideration. The phrase, let alone, which is now used as the imperative of a verb, may in time become a conjunction, and may exercise the ingenuity of some future etymologist. The celebrated Horne Tooke has proved most satisfactorily, that the conjunction but comes from the imperative of the Anglo-Saxon verb (beoutan) to be out; also, that if comes from gif, the imperative of the Anglo-Saxon verb which signifies to give etc.

    Many of Horne Tooke’s etymologies are wrong, but these two seem to be correct. There is a similar glossary note on the use of demean himself to mean ‘disgrace himself’ rather than the neutral meaning ‘conduct himself’. The OED has not yet been updated to reflect this sense of demean; the entry is from 1895. The ODO, on the other hand, lists ‘disgrace oneself’ as the only sense. But m-w.com and the AHD5 list both.

  11. That’s quite a coincidence, JC: I looked up ‘demean’ just this morning, having been led there by the etymology of ‘demeanour’. But both senses are in the OED, under different lemmas – v1 is ‘conduct (oneself)’, v2 ‘debase (oneself)’.

  12. The older (and nearly or completely obsolete) sense of “demean” is familiar to me mostly from George Washington’s famous letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island:

    “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

  13. There are lots of other fine Hibernicisms in the glossary to Castle Rackrent. I’ll only mention the ones that have spread beyond Ireland since Edgeworth’s time.

    Mad ‘angry’ is now standard AmE. I don’t know if it’s made progress in Britain.

    Swop ‘exchange’ (spelled swap in AmE and among computer programmers).

    Cute ‘clever’, once very common in AmE (it is a contraction of acute) but now obsoleted by its weakened meaning.

    Wake in the sense of the Irish funeral ritual has spread beyond Ireland, but not perhaps beyond the (hyphenated) Irish. A friend of mine once described his home life while growing up as a “Perpetual Irish Wake”.

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