It’s no surprise to most of you that I am an Irishwoman, married to an Irishman. You’d think – Ireland being such a small place – that we would, therefore, speak the same language.
Often, in conversation, I will say something which will cause my husband to stare at me, confused, and I’ll have to pick my way back through my words until I find the stitch I dropped – the phrase or saying that I carelessly flung into my chatter which he has never heard before and doesn’t understand. We grew up in opposite ends of the country and so some of the things I say as second nature are (or, I suppose, were, as we’ve been together quite some time now!) alien to his ears. The other evening we were talking about some of these phrases and I had so much fun remembering them that I thought ‘there’s a blog post in this.’
So, for your delectation, here are a few of the phrases I grew up saying, and their definitions. Unfortunately most of the funnier phrases I learned as a youngster can’t be included here as they contain incredible, eye-watering levels of obscenity – but I hope these will do, instead.
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A typical sight in Ireland – a number plate (license plate) from the county of Clare (as evidenced by the CE in the middle) attached to the back of a tractor with a pair of clamps. This, of course, is wildly illegal. That doesn’t mean you won’t see it everywhere you go in the country.
Blackguard, n. Pronounced ‘blaggard’, this word has its origins in the earliest days of Hiberno-English, and like a lot of words which are still used in Ireland it probably came from the days of colonial rule by Britain originally. Once upon a time it would have been the vilest insult imaginable, commensurate with ‘outlaw’, ‘scoundrel’ or ‘ruffian’, but now it’s basically the name my parents spent most of my childhood shouting after my brother and me. ‘Come here you little blackguards till I redden yiz!’ was a typical phrase around our house, c. 1987-1997. It can also mean you have a weakness for something – i.e. ‘I’m an awful blackguard for the drink.’
Cat-melodeon,adj. I’m not actually sure of the spelling of this word as I’ve only really heard it, rather than seen it written. It’s the word my grandfather used to use when my brother and cousins and I, as children, were making a mess of his house or running around screaming our heads off, as kids are wont. It’s a word which means ‘noise’, ‘uproar’ or ‘chaos’, but I always associate it with my granddad, all six feet four of him, standing in the back door screaming that if we didn’t stop this cat-melodeon, there’d be trouble. That was usually enough to shut us up for a while.
Come here to me, phr. This is one of those Irish sayings that you don’t take literally. If someone says ‘Come here to me,’ what they’re really saying is ‘listen.’ You can use this phrase while on the phone with someone, so all it’s really saying is ‘I am talking to you.’ If you obeyed literally, and came over to the person who said it to you, they’d look at you like you were a gobshite (see below).
Fizzog, n. I am from a part of Ireland which was heavily influenced by the Norman, as well as the Viking, invasions. A lot of words and family names in my part of Ireland are therefore taken from French, and fizzog (along with its related term vizzard, see below) is one of those. Clearly a derivative of the French visage, fizzog basically means ‘face’, but used mainly in a pejorative sense. So, if you were in a bad mood, someone might say to you ‘What’s the fizzog on you for?’, which means ‘Why the long face?’ or ‘You’ve some fizzog on you,’ which means, in a roundabout backhanded way, ‘cheer up.’
Gobshite, n. Probably the Hiberno-English word most non-Irish people are familiar with, ‘gobshite’ means ‘idiot’. It can also be used affectionately – ‘Ah, you’re only an old gobshite,’ – and it’s not a terribly hurtful or serious term of abuse. One hears it a hundred times a day here. Literally, it means ‘mouthful of excrement,’ but we won’t dwell on that.
I’ll give you who-ate-the-biscuits, phr. Basically, this means ‘That’ll be the end of it, now!’ If you’re fighting with someone, or having a heated discussion, and your opponent feels they have the better of you, this phrase is one they’d use to alert you to the fact that they are about to lay a smackdown upon you from which you have no chance of recovery. See also that’ll put the tin hat on it, below.
I will, yeah, phr. In my part of the country, ‘I will, yeah,’ most definitely means ‘no’. It’s a bit confusing, I’ll grant, but it’s all about intonation. You need to sneer it, rather than say it, leaning heavily on the word ‘will’. ‘You wouldn’t go to the shop for me, would you?’ ‘I will, yeah.’ ‘Right, you little gobshite. I’ll go myself, so!’
Latchiko, n. A thoroughly unpleasant person, or a delinquent child. Possibly derived from ‘latch’, as in a ‘latchkey-kid’, or a child who lets themselves into the house after school because nobody is there to welcome them home (due, probably, to the fact that their parents are in the pub). My dad used this of me a lot as a youngster, which is why I’m such an upstanding member of the community today.
Quare/Quare’n, adj., adv. This is a term you’ll hear at least a hundred times an hour when you spend any time in the South-East of Ireland, where I grew up. ‘Quare’ and ‘Quare’n’ basically mean ‘very’, and are used as an intensifier. ‘It’s quare warm.’ ‘Yer man over there is a quare’n eejit.’ ‘I’m quare’n hungry.’ It can also be used, roughly, to mean ‘strange’: ‘He’s a quare card’ means ‘he’s a unusual fellow.’ When I was a teenager, it also functioned as a one-word answer to most questions. ‘Do you want to go to the beach?’ ‘Quare’n!’ I love this word. It’s in my DNA.
Slob/Sloblands, n. Basically, ‘slob’ means ‘muck.’ The Sloblands is a part of my home county in which a bird sanctuary has been established; essentially, it’s a marsh, hence the name. I love the fact that words in Ireland look like they mean one thing and end up meaning something totally different – we’re a tricksy folk, that way.
Sure lookit, phr. This one is used a lot in the southern part of my home county. It basically means ‘what can you do?’ and is used to end discussions and conversations on a fairly neutral tone. If you were talking about the atrocious weather and it had gone on a bit too long, someone would drop ‘Sure lookit’ or ‘Ah, sure lookit’ into the conversation, and that’s a clear indicator that no more can be said on the topic. Usually muttered with a laboured, painful tone and martyred-looking eyes.
That’ll put the tin hat on it, phr. Basically, this means ‘that’ll be the end of that’, or ‘I can’t see how anything further could possibly be said/done to improve this situation.’ For example, whenever another tax is levied by the government, people mutter: ‘That’ll put the tin hat on it, now. People won’t stand for much more of this!’ But then we give up mumbling and just get on with it. Sure lookit.
Tundish, n. My father uses this word when most other people would use ‘funnel.’ I never knew that it was an unusual word until one day I tried to use it at school and people looked at me like I was an alien, so it’s clearly a word that is used mainly within my family. Apparently, it’s a word which was used in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it originally comes from Middle English. So there.
Vizzard, n. See ‘fizzog’, above. ‘Vizzard’ has the same etymology, but it means something slightly different. A vizzard is a mask, and when we were young it meant a Halloween mask, specifically. Essentially, it’s something that covers the face or which purports to be a face. Sometimes, rarely, it can be used in place of ‘fizzog’, but this isn’t a normal usage.
You’ve a head on you like Pontius Pilate’s horse/ a face on you like a full moon in a fog, phr. I’m not sure if these are local colloquialisms so much as sayings that are unique to my family, but in either case, nobody is really sure what they mean and they are among the worst insults you can pay to another living human. I have no idea why Pontius Pilate’s horse had such a disagreeable head (perhaps because Pilate wasn’t the most popular of fellows), or what, exactly, a full moon in a fog looks like, but you want to be sure your face doesn’t resemble one. One can pretty much use the construction ‘You’ve a head on you like…’ or ‘You’ve a face on you like…’ with anything, e.g. ‘You’ve a head on you like a sprouting potato’. Try it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-dictionary. Let me know if any of these phrases sound familiar to you, or if there are things you say in your part of the world which are meaningful to you, for whatever reason. I love words, me!