Hooligan or Hoolihan?: How Irish influenced English

Dubai - Shashi Tharoor looks at how English came to use many Irish words

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

shashi tharoor, sings, hindi, ajnabee, viral, video
shashi tharoor, sings, hindi, ajnabee, viral, video

Published: Thu 30 Jun 2022, 8:44 PM

This column’s occasional excursions into the French, German and even Japanese origins of words we use in English prompted an Irish friend to object that I had left out the most important language English had borrowed from, his own. The Celts of Ireland may have used a language which, when written down, seems impossible to pronounce (their Prime Minister, for instance, is called the Taoiseach, which sounds something like “TEE-shock” in English!). But their claim to have infiltrated their words across the Irish Sea is, in fact, well-founded.

The most obvious evidence for Irish influence is the word “whiskey”, an Anglicisation of the wonderfully named ‘uisce beatha’ (pronounced ish-ce bah-ha) – the water of life. And if you are partial to those single malt whiskies which have a smoky smell and taste, you would know that comes from the peat bogs in Scotland and Ireland, whose water gives off that distinctive aroma. That may be associated in your mind with Scotland – but the word “bog” itself is the Irish word for “soft”, and was applied to the wetlands of Ireland where the land was soft and yielding to walk on.

One of the few English words that is widely known to be Irish is “shamrock”, the country’s national symbol, a direct English version of the Irish ‘seamróg’ which means young clover. But there’s also “banshee”, from ‘bean an sídhe’ (woman of the burial mound), for those ghostly female creatures who haunt stories of the supernatural, wailing and shrieking. If you say a movie about banshees has horrors “galore”, you’re using another Irish word, which comes from the Irish ‘go leor’ meaning plenty. And if you are of a certain vintage, you‘ll understand that the expression “Hey man, do you dig it?” means “do you understand?” in 1970s “cool cat” lingo. “Dig” in the sense of “do you get me?” comes straight from the Irish ‘an dtuigeann tú’ (pronounced on dig-in too).

If you’re a football fan, you’re surely aware of the tribe of English football “hooligans”, whose bibulous depredations during matches once caused their compatriots to be banned from the European Continent. The word is a twist on the Irish surname Hoolihan. A 19th century English comic strip featured an Irish family called the Hooligans, who in those racist times were depicted in stereotypically negative fashion, and the name stuck. Irish words have travelled extensively. In Australia, it’s common, and not offensive, to refer to women as “sheilas”. This Australian slang for members of the female sex comes from the Irish name Síle. Or you can travel to South Africa and discover the Irish word “shebeen”, for an illicit drinking tavern. The word descends from the Irish ‘síbín’, which in turn derives from ‘séibín’ (small mug), but then became synonymous with the mug’s contents (home-brewed whiskey) and eventually to the premises where the drink was sold. It is said that during the bad years of the apartheid system in South Africa, shebeens were the only bars available to blacks in that country who felt like a drink.

So we have much to be thankful to the Irish for in terms of words, but what’s really special are the expressions in English that reflect a uniquely Irish sensibility. An Irishman wishing you a “grand soft day” is celebrating a very particular kind of rainy day – “when you can’t see or feel the rain but you get wet anyway”, as the Irish Times puts it. Someone who is really, truly stupid is described as being “as thick as two double ditches”. And if he is also useless or worthless, you could say he’s only ‘fit to mind mice at a cross-roads’. The profligate Irish habit of spending your money before having it in your hands is called ‘eating the calf in the cow’s belly’. And if you did something wrong while pretending you had a good reason to do so, you’re guilty of be ‘blindfolding the devil in the dark’. After all, the devil can see what you’re up to! But then you’d merely have been “chancing your arm”, an expression originating in 15th century Dublin where two feuding families, the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds, needed to end hostilities. The Fitzgeralds asked the Butlers, who were holed up in St Patrick’s Cathedral, to come outside and make peace, but the Butlers were unwilling to risk it. The Fitzgeralds then suggested cutting a hole in the door so that they could offer a handshake through it – in effect, “chancing their arms”. The Butlers agreed, and thus was born the Door of Reconciliation, and a lovely Irish phrase. The door is still there today.


More news from