Me Mot.

The NY Times book review section is running a series of pieces called “Read Your Way Through [City],” in which an author recommends books that will illuminate a traveler’s experience of a city they know well. The latest, by Tana French, is on Dublin, and its opening paragraphs are of Hattic interest:

One of my favorite things about Dublin is its relationship with words. History is embedded deep in language here. A lot of Dublin communities are tight-knit, with roots that go back centuries, so the dialect is sprinkled with words and phrases that have been passed down over the generations, even after they’ve vanished everywhere else. In Dublin, “my girlfriend” is still “me mot,” from the Victorian English “mort” for “woman” — long gone out of use in England, but still alive here. And back in the 16th century, “child” meant specifically a girl child; it’s been gender-neutral almost everywhere for hundreds of years, but within the last decade, when I had my second baby, older Dublin people still asked me “Is it a boy or a child?”

Even with so much ingrained history, Dublin’s language is the opposite of stagnant. Virtuosity and creativity with language aren’t seen as reserved for any kind of elite. They’re everyone’s birthright, and plenty of the most lyrical or wittiest or most original phrases aren’t carefully crafted by authors, but tossed into pub conversations by people who would never consider themselves to be literary types. And that creative eloquence isn’t a rarefied thing, to be treated with reverence; it’s cheerfully mixed in with every flavor of mundanity and vulgarity. If you love words, Dublin is a good place to be.

The OED’s entry for mort ‘girl, woman’ (updated December 2002) says:

Etymology: Origin unknown. See also mot n.³ [‘A promiscuous woman or girl; a harlot, prostitute’], and compare also English regional (Northumberland) moat woman.
With sense 1 perhaps compare mort n.³ [‘a young salmon,’ origin unknown] With sense 2 and mot n.³ perhaps compare Middle Dutch motte, mutte (compare motyhole n. [‘a term of abuse for a woman: a slut, a bitch,’ origin uncertain]). It has also been suggested that the word may be < Romani (1874 in G. Borrow Romano Lavo-Lil, but glossed ‘a cant word’), or an alteration of French amourette flirtation (12th cent. in Old French as amorete).

For child (entry updated December 2013):

Etymology: Cognate with Gothic kilþei womb, inkilþō pregnant woman, probably < the same Indo-European base as (with a different root extension) Gothic kalbo calf n.¹ and classical Latin glēba glebe n. Perhaps compare also Sanskrit jaṭhara belly, womb, although its origin is uncertain and disputed.

And note this interesting passage on “variation in stem vowel”:

The stem vowel is subject to lengthening before the homorganic consonant group ld in late Old English, but this lengthening does not occur before ldr as found in the r-plurals. This leads to the alternation in Middle English of forms with long ī in the singular and short ĭ in the plural, and eventually, after the Great Vowel Shift, to the contrast between singular /tʃʌɪld/ and plural /ˈtʃɪldrən/ in modern standard English. Occasional forms with apparently unlengthened short ĭ in the singular, as e.g. recorded by the 16th-cent. orthoepists Smith and Hart (see E. J. Dobson Eng. Pronunc. 1500–1700 (ed. 2, 1968) II. §12), may show the influence of the stem vowel of the plural.
The modern English regional (south-western) form chield /tʃiːld/ (and variants: see Forms 1β) derives from a form in which the lengthening of the stem vowel before ld took place later, after the general lowering of short vowels had realigned /ɪ/ ( < /i/) as the short equivalent of /eː/ (see further discussion at chield n., a northern and Scots variant showing the same development). Surv. Eng. Dial. records pronunciations indicative of these forms from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset.
A British pronunciation, neither regional nor nonstandard, with /ʊ/ in the first syllable, is reported (as the ‘present form’) by H. Sweet Hist. Eng. Sounds (1888) 74; he says that ‘the i has been gutturalized and labialized into u by the l’. This pronunciation is also given (alongside a variant with syllabic l in the first syllable) as a variant in all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. up to the 14th (1987), but not in the 15th (1997); it is also given in the Longman Pronunciation Dict. (1990).

I might add that there are a number of other mort entries, for nouns meaning ‘death, slaughter,’ ‘a kind of wax candle,’ ‘lard; pig’s grease,’ and ‘a large quantity or number; a great deal’ (“Usually with of”). That’s a mort o’ morts!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I was trying to remember where I had come across “mot” in a song, and by the wonder of Google found out that it was in Solomon Gursky was Here, and the song goes

    I should like to have a youth who me
    Would in his arms enfold,
    Who would handle me and dandle me
    When my belly it was cold;
    So I will be a mot,
    I shall be a mot,
    I’m so fond of Roger,
    That I shall be a mot.

    (There is much more. That is probably the most decorous verse. Google Books will reveal all, from Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period, Vol 2, “I will be a mot.” §316)

    Apparently it’s a parody of “I won’t be a nun” and comes from the first half of the nineteenth century.

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says

    See, I thought child was formerly specifically male, as in Childe Harold and the chiel amang you taking notes.

  3. So I will be a mot,
    I shall be a mot

    Odd will/shall alternation.

  4. The street etymology for “mot” derives it from Irish maith an cailín “good girl”, as said to a child. Maith is /mɑh/ (in the Irish taught in Dublin schools – in Ulster I think it’s /mai/), which is indeed the Dublin working-class pronunciation of English mot, or pretty close anyway.

    I’ve always thought “Is it a boy or a child” was a conventional joke playing off the allegedly monstrous nature of small boys. I haven’t heard child=girl in any other context.

  5. OED:

    1. b. spec. A female infant, a baby girl. Now chiefly English regional (south-western) and Irish English.
    Formerly more widespread in English regional use in western varieties as far north as Lancashire; now apparently restricted to the south-west.

    a1616 W. Shakespeare Winter’s Tale (1623) iii. iii. 69 A very pretty barne; A boy, or a Childe I wonder?
    1755 S. Johnson Dict. Eng. Lang. Child,..4. A girl child.
    1775 J. Ash New Dict. Eng. Lang. Child, an infant—a son or daughter..a female infant.
    c1780 MS Gloss. Devonshire in J. O. Halliwell Dict. Archaic & Provinc. Words (1847) Child, a female infant.
    1876 Notes & Queries 22 Apr. A country woman [in Shropshire] said to me, apropos of a baby, ‘Is it a lad or a child?’
    1888 F. T. Elworthy W. Somerset Word-bk. Chiel, a female infant… Well, what is it thee-as time, a chiel or a bwoy?
    1934 W. W. Gill Manx Dial. II. 32 Is it a boy or a child?
    1950 I. Waters Chepstow Talk 11 So Mrs. Smith’s got a new baby… Is it a boy or a child?
    1979 N. Rogers Wessex Dial. 75/1 Child, still used in its old sense of ‘girl’, and pronounced cheel.
    1995 P. O’Keeffe Down Cobbled Streets 15 ‘What is it?’ I said as I turned to follow her. ‘A child,’ she said, ‘another little girl, God bless and preserve her.’

  6. @LH: I’m not casting doubt on it, just avowing my error.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    But then

    2c. More generally: any man without reference to age; a lad, fellow, chap. Frequently used contemptuously or affectionately. Cf. chield n. 2. Now Scottish regional.

    3. A young man of noble or gentle birth. Frequently as a title (either preceding or (in early use) following a proper name), in ballads, etc. Obsolete (archaic in later use).

    I wonder if this is actually a change to the opposite, or if it’s the south and west restricting the word in one way and the north and east restricting it in the other.

  8. Good question!

  9. Trond Engen says


    With sense 1 perhaps compare mort n.³ [‘a young salmon,’ origin unknown]

    Norw. mort m. “Common roach (Rutilus rutilus). Not that I know where that comes from.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    Mart is cow or heifer in (Old) Irish. If this were the original meaning for mort, you could argue that the girl meaning is an extension via “(young) female animal” and the salmon meaning is an extension via “source of meat”.

  11. There are etymologies for the family of Norwegian mort ‘roach’ easily accessible online, here in Danish in the Ordbog over det danske Sprog and here in Swedish in the Svenska Akademiens ordbok (click and expand the element Etymologi and run through through your favorite translator).

    Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon in his Íslensk orðsifjabók (1989) has the following for Icelandic (quick translation by me):

    1 murta kv. ‘lítill silungur, einkum bleikja’; murti k. ‘smávaxin silungstegund’; murtur k. (s.m.). Sbr. fær. murtur ‘smáufsi’, nno. murt k. ‘seiði, ufsaseiði, smáurriði’, hjaltl. murt ‘síli (á fyrsta ári)’, sæ. mört ‘ferskvatnsfiskur (cyprinus rutilus), …’ (to. í e. máll. mort ‘ungur lax’ og mlþ. morte ‘smásilungur’). Uppruni umdeildur. Fremur ólíkleg eru tengsl við gr. smarís (ef. smarídos) ‘lítil fisktegund’ og marmaírō ‘glitra’ (sbr. merla) eða fír. mrecht ‘marglitur’ (sjá myrkur (1) og morgunn). Sennilegri er skyldleiki við so. murta (s.þ.) og no. murta kv. ‘e-ð smátt’, sbr. einnig murti, murtur k. viðurnefni (líkl. ‘smávaxinn maður’), hjaltl. murt ‘smávaxin lífvera, snáði’, fær. murtur ‘penis’, nísl. murti (s.m.), fær. murtn h. ‘sjávarsvif’, e. máll. murt ‘smávaxinn maður, lítill hlutur’ (to.?). Sbr. ennfremur lþ. murt kv. ‘e-ð niðurmulið’, mhþ. murz ‘smábútur’. Sk. lat. mordeō ‘bít (í sundur)’, gr. amérdō ‘ræni’. Sjá martl og murta (2).

    1 murta f. ‘small trout, especially Arctic char’; murti m. ‘small-sized species of trout’; murtur m. (id.). Cf. Faroese murtur ‘podley’, Nynorsk murt m. ‘fry, coalfish fry, small brown trout’, Shetland murt ‘fry (in its first year)’, Swedish mört ‘a freshwater fish (Cyprinus rutilus) [= Rutilus rutilus, the roach], …’ (loanword in English dialectal ‘young salmon’ [parr? smolt? grilse?] and in Middle Low German morte ‘small trout’). Origin disputed. It is rather unlikely that there is a connection to Greek σμαρίς (genitive σμαρίδος) ‘small species of fish’ and μαρμαίρω ‘sparkle, gleam’ (cf. merla [‘shine, sparkle’]) or to Old Irish mrecht ‘variegated’ (see [Icelandic] myrkur (1) [‘dark’] and morgunn [‘morning’]). It is more likely related to the verb murta (q.v.) [‘to whittle, whittle away at’] and the noun murta f. ‘something small’, cf. also murti, murtur m., a nickname (probably ‘person of small stature’), Shetland murt ‘small creature, little thing’, Faroese murtur ‘penis’, Modern Iceland murti (id.), Faroese murtn neut. ‘marine plankton’, English dialectal murt ‘small person, little thing’ (loanword?). Cf. also Low German murt f. ‘something ground small’, Middle High German murz ‘short piece cut off, stump’. Related to Latin mordeō, ‘I bite’, Greek ἀμέρδω ‘rob, deprive, bereave’. See martl [‘trifles, small items, crumbs’] and murta (2).

    I found this very interesting to look into, because the Faroese form murtur ‘podley’ is possibly an additional typological parallel—from the maritime northwest of Europe even, no less!—supporting the etymology of Hiberno-English langer ‘penis’ from an Irish form like Muskerry leangaire ‘an unusually long, slender salmon’, which was mentioned last year at LH (beside Arabic قرموط qarmūṭ, lit. ‘catfish’, which I encounted in Egyptian slang some years ago). (If Faroese murtur ‘penis’ is not simply from *’little guy’ or the like, more generically.)

  12. Trond Engen says

    @Xerib: Thanks. Cognates in Germanic. Not much outside, and at least nothing with a clear etymology. I was too busy in the kitchen to go into those details.

  13. Mart is cow or heifer in (Old) Irish

    Peter Schrijver proposed an interesting etymology for Old Irish mart, masc. o-stem, ‘an ox or cow slaughtered for meat, an ox or cow carcass, and by extension a living ox or cow’ in his article ‘Indo-European *(s)mer- in Greek and Celtic’ in Indo-European perspectives: studies in honour of Anna Morpurgo Davies (2004), p. 292–299. He notes that beside mart ‘slaughtered ox or cow’, there exist the masculine o-stem mart and a rare, apparently feminine i-stem variant mairt, both ‘a death, massacre, slaughter’. I hope you can see his dicussion here here, in the bottom half of page 294:

    Hence I tentatively suggest that mart, mairt approximately means ‘prognosticated or impending death, death fate’.

    Irish has what might seem to be a different word mart, which means ‘cow destined to be slaughtered, victim, slaughtered cow’. This probably represents a highly specialized usage of the first mart. Its meaning can be understood as an extension of ‘impending death’ to ‘animal that is for the chop’.

    He further connects the Irish mart and mairt to Welsh marth ‘sorrow, distress, ?painful wonder or surprise, fright; ?shame, disgrace’ (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru) and Middle Breton marz ‘miracle’ and takes them from a Celtic *mar-sto-, *mar-sti-, from earlier *mr̥-sto-, *mr̥-sti-, approximately *‘fate’, as derivatives of the Proto-Indo-European root *smer-. This root can also be seen in an archaic-looking series of formations in Greek, including μόρος ‘fate, destiny, doom, death, corpse’ (< *smór-o-), μοῖρα ‘part, portion; lot, destiny; doom’ (< *smór-ih₂), μέρος ‘part, portion, destiny, share, one’s turn’ (< *smér-es-), Homeric ἔμμορε ‘has a share in’ (< perfect *se-smor-), and in Latin mereō ‘deserve, merit, be entitled to, gain, earn’.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    I find the proposed etymology for mart interesting but at least naively presenting some difficulties, e.g., transfer of meaning from dead cow to live cow instead of the other way round…but he needs dead cow for death > sacrifice > dead cow.

  15. The two mots in Ulysses are more harlot than girlfriend:

    [Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam] his chin lifted, he saw the image of Marie Kendall, charming soubrette, beside the two puckers. One of them mots that do be in the packets of fags Stoer smokes that his old fellow welted hell out of him for one time he found out.

    [Corny Kelleher] Two commercials that were standing fizz in Jammet’s. Like princes, faith. One of them lost two quid on the race. Drowning his grief. And were on for a go with the jolly girls. So I landed them up on Behan’s car and down to nighttown. … (Laughs.) Sure they wanted me to join in with the mots.

  16. I see Tana French’s Dublin Reading List includes “no time for day trips” books set elsewhere in Ireland; even if road and rail were much improved, you would be hard pressed to get from Dublin to their settings and back in one day.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if there are actually two distinct etyma: mort “girl” and mot “harlot”?

    Although most England-English seems to have become non-rhotic by the early nineteenth century, it’s still striking that the “harlot” words seem to be consistently non-rhotic from quite an early stage. Later on, confusion in Brit would be fairly unremarkable. Mind you, Hiberno-English seems to be uniformly rhotic.

    “Slut” -> “girlfriend” seems more plausible (if regrettable) as a semantic shift to me than “young girl” -> “slut.” (Unfortunately, I can think of parallels.)

  18. Unfortunately, I can think of parallels.

    Yes, I’m afraid it’s an extremely common conflation, like “hit, beat up” and “fuck.” I can’t tell you how many Russian words have those pairs of senses.

  19. Kate Bunting says

    ‘Mort’ is much older than Victorian. When I looked up a verse from around the 17th century in which I remembered having seen the word, I discovered that Joyce actually quotes from it.

  20. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    So I will be a mot,
    I shall be a mot

    Odd will/shall alternation.

    It seems normal to me: “I will be a mot” expresses an intention; “I shall be a mot” expresses a prediction.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Indeed. You’d better not stand in her way.

  22. I remember a coupla years ago watching a minister speaking in Westminster when backbenchers from both government and opposition rose to offer points; in declining to give way the minister said [looking at one] “I shan’t, [turns to the other] and I won’t.” [laughter from hon. Members]

  23. The OED’s histories for child in the senses of ‘fetus/newborn regardless of sex’ and ‘young person regardless of sex’ go all the way back to Old English; Jen in Edinburgh must be right about the south and west restricting the word in one way and the north and east restricting it in the other. Since the earliest attestation for the ‘specifically female infant’ sense is Shakespeare (in a late play), it’s plausible, but not documented, that it was in use in the late 16th century in Shakespeare’s childhood.

    Girl is another case of ‘young person regardless of sex’ becoming specialized to ‘young female’. OED says the ‘either sex’ sense is “Now Irish English (Wexford).”

  24. Ah, thunder and lightning is no lark
    When Dublin city is in the dark
    If you’ve any money go up to the Park
    And view the Zoological Gardens.

    Last Sunday night we had no dough
    So I took the mot up to see the zoo
    We saw the lions and the kangaroos
    Inside the Zoological Gardens.

    Well we went out there by Castlenock
    Said the mot to me ‘Sure we’ll court by the Lough’
    Then I knew she was one of the rare old stock
    Inside the Zoological Gardens.

    Said the mot to me ‘My dear friend Jack
    Sure, I’d like a ride on the elephant’s back’
    ‘If you don’t get out of that I’ll give you such a crack
    Inside the Zoological Gardens’.

    We went out there on our honeymoon
    Said the mot to me ‘If you don’t come soon
    I’ll have to sleep with the hairy baboon
    Inside the Zoological Gardens’.

    Hard to find the original words attributed to Dominic Behan because the popular version by the Dubliners dominates the search results. But I believe this is close to the “standard version”. However, “Sometimes attributed to Dominic Behan, he himself has written that he first heard it from a neighbour, a Mr Brown.”.

    The Fresno State ballad site give the publication date as 1973. However, this recording takes it back to 1958.

    There’s a recording of it performed by Brendan Behan in the 1950s. A similar recording was made by Alan Lomax in 1951 (also on YouTube). I couldn’t find the recording by Dominic. The words are a bit different from those above. There are a number of variant versions floating around.

    The Fresno State site also speculates that the “in the dark” line refers to a WWI blackout of Dublin, but I don’t know if that even happened. Most German air raids in WWI were on the east coast of England. But there’s no documentation of the song earlier than 1951 that I know of.

    The zoo in Phoenix Park goes back to 1830.


    Phoenix Park[:] Even in my rusty Irish the name has nothing to do with the mythical bird. The English who have made it their imperial business to speak everything from Sanskrit to Esperanto would never pronounce the Irish words because they thought that we, in our stupidity, were trying to say ‘Phoenix’. How conceited is the arrogance of the ignorant. […] Finn’s Town, Finn’s City, like all human life everywhere it came from Finn Uisce, the Waters of Finn. (Dominic Behan, The Public World of Parable Jones 71)

  25. Stu Clayton says

    [Phoenix Park] came from Finn Uisce, the Waters of Finn.

    What has Dublin done to this Mr Finn that he should rise up in a public park and empty his bladder there?

    Ah, research suggests that the book explains all.

    Everyone and his dog say that “fhionnuisce”, pronounced “fenisk”, means “clear water”. A stream runs beneath the park.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Finn Uisce could hardly mean “Waters of Finn” in any case, surely? It would be (if anything) “Finn of Water.”

  27. I’m sure D Behan was aware of the received etymology. I can’t say whether his alternative was proffered in eccentric sincerity or impish leg pulling, by himself or the unreliable narrator or a character in the novel.

  28. He was just bein’ a Behan.

  29. (Thegrowlingwolf used to love to quote Brendan as storming out of a performance shouting “They’ve made a muck of me play!” Of course, you shouldn’t treat his growlings as gospel truth, either.)

  30. Mind you, Hiberno-English seems to be uniformly rhotic.

    Almost, but it is precisely traditional working-class Dublin English that was non-rhotic, probably for the same kinds of reasons that the cities of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard were and are non-rhotic (always excepting Philadelphia). Its descendant, Local Dublin English, is now weakly rhotic. The other class accents of Dublin are non-rhotic. “Ireland has two parts, there’s Dublin, and there’s all the rest, which is grass.”

  31. PlasticPaddy says

    I agree sources say non-rhotic for this accent, but I think it is very restricted, mostly if not exclusively to ends of words, where other consonants also disappear, as in “Shu’ de bleedin’ doo’, it’s fuckin’ freezin’!”
    I wanted to contextualise Brendan’s statement (I think it is referring to his collaboration with Joan Littlewood) with a quote from Ulick O’Connor’s biography of Behan (or maybe O’Connor’s own autobiography) but was unable to track down a primary source. I think it has been argued that burlesque, parody, homo/bisexual and music hall elements were part of Behan’s own dramatic vision (or that he introduced these elements, because he wanted his plays to be seen by a wide audience, in order to communicate a message), and that Littlewood’s part was in encouragement or selection (what do you do when the author keeps rewriting the play?).

  32. The other class accents of Dublin are non-rhotic.

    You mean “rhotic”.

  33. David Marjanović says

    “Ireland has two parts, there’s Dublin, and there’s all the rest, which is grass.”

    “There’s New York, and there is America”?

  34. Dubliners notoriously conflate metropolitan with urban and provincial with rural. One of the benefits of Irish “re”unification would be half a million Greater Belfast folk disabusing them of that notion.

  35. Not just Dubliners; some of the rest of us have internalised that too. Just today I was in a conversation in which Friend 1, from Galway, self-identified as rural while Friend 2, from Bray, less than half the size of Galway but within commuting distance of Dublin, called herself a city-dweller.

  36. You mean “rhotic”.

    Yes, of course. Multiplex negatio farblondiat.

    “There’s New York, and there is America”?

    New Yorkers wouldn’t say that because it wouldn’t occur to them to mention America in connection with The City. Non-New Yorkers wouldn’t say that because they do their best not to mention us altogether.

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