Global Irish Words

meitheal a working party

By Dymphna Lonergan

Thanks to the increased availability of digitally uploaded word lists and dictionaries, research into how far the Irish language has travelled globally has been made much easier. It is interesting that individual Irish language words have found new homes in Global English dialects. It is doubly interesting to see these words’ meanings extended to suit new conditions. The American writer Daniel Cassidy in his book How the Irish Invented Slang claims most American slang comprises Irish words in disguise. His claims have been challenged, but I suggest his work is still of value in seeing Irish words existing outside that language and in American English, Australian English and Newfoundland English where they sometimes serve new purposes. For example, he provides the word meitheal (as ‘mihal’) an Irish language word for a working party, usually of neighbours helping each other out at harvest time. Cassidy found it being used in the US in the 1930s and 40s by Kerry-born Michael Quill, one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union, as a code word for a union meeting in New York.

from rope to a bedroll

The US slang word sugan, soogon as cited by Cassidy for ‘a blanket, a bedroll, a sleeping mat carried by a hobo or itinerant worker’ is of great interest in its connection with Ir. súgán ‘a hay or straw rope’ used to make a horse collar or as seating (a súgán chair). Dineen’s Irish-English dictionary provides bacac na súgán ‘the beggar having hay or straw ropes around his person’ that may indicate some kind of portable padding in the absence of a bed. In the US the word was used in the extended sense of a blanket or mat no matter the material. It may have started with Irish speakers but was later used by hobos of any background. As David Crystal says, language is worth studying, as it can give us clues to how people lived and about their cultural contacts. Irish words in an English setting can offer insights into the Irish experience at home and abroad.

a fine pair of brogues

The Appalachians

The Irish and Scots Gaelic word bróg has been used in English for a long time. It is usually spelt as ‘brogue’ and the meaning has changed over time from that of a basic shoe of the common people to a type of sturdy footwear worn by a wealthier type such as a country squire. The footwear can be a sandal, a boot, or a high boot used in fishing according to Dineen. The word surfaced in American English as a verb: to walk, hike, trudge, to wander or to go aimlessly, and is found chiefly in the southern Appalachian Mountains. We must ask ourselves what the circumstances in the southern Appalachians were, that led to this new word formation, from a noun to a verb.


Australia, England and Newfoundland

In a similar vein the Irish pampúta, ‘a moccasin or primitive shoe made from two pieces of leather’, originating on the Aran Islands, has made its way into Australian Aboriginal English as pampuu, meaning ‘a shoe’. It has been commercialised in the UK where the Irish-born designer at says that in her house the word is applied to ‘any kind of slipper, ballet shoe or soft shoe’. In Newfoundland English a pampooty is ‘a sock or a soft shoe’.


Australia and the US

Kit Carsen

Another Irish word that has travelled globally is the word dúd ‘a stump’ in its diminutive form dúidín. It can still be heard in Irish English as doody, the word for a baby’s pacifier. In colonial Australia the doodeen (or dudeen) was the name of a short tobacco pipe popular among settlers and convicts. Even women were known to smoke a doodeen. In the US in 1853, during a meeting between native American Indians and settlers, it was recorded that the famous Indian agent Kit Carson’s ‘own particular ‘dudheen’ was duly filled with tobacco, lighted, and …passed to the oldest man among the Indian guests’ in the absence of the usual ‘peace pipe’.

no longer the humble caubeen

The Commonwealth

The Irish word cáibín is the word for an ‘old hat’. The name appears in the chorus of a once popular Irish song

Put on your old knee-britches
and your coat of emerald green
Take off that hat me darlin’ Pat,
put on your old caibin
For today’s our Golden Wedding
and I’ll have you all to know
Just how we looked when we were wed,
fifty years ago.

Indian Pale Ale

The word was taken into the New Worlds by Irish speakers and in time developed in meaning and use. Its meaning has changed over hundreds of years as the Irish travelled to Newfoundland to fish for cod, often staying for months at a time. In Newfoundland English a caibín (anglicized as caubeen) is the name for any hat, not just an old hat, and in the fish plant refers to the paper headdress worn by the workers. The word also found a new role in military life. In its anglicized spelling it is now used for the regimental headdresses of Irish regiments in the Commonwealth armies and for a beer in India.


Finally, my own theory of Irish word extensions is the dúdaire ‘trumpet player’ and dubh ‘black’ as the Australian musical instrument the ‘didgeridoo’. The word dúdaire is a tri-syllabic word, pronounced, roughly, dooderreh or doodjerreh. Irish and Scots Gaelic also have the words dubh ‘black’, pronounced duv or doo and the word dúth ‘native or hereditary’, also pronounced doo. It may be that Irish or Scots Gaelic speakers gave the name dúdaire dubh or dúdaire dúth (pronounced doodereh doo or doodjerreh doo) to the person playing the native instrument and that the word became associated with the instrument. This theory would explain the curious incompatibility between the word didgeridoo and the sound of the instrument. The word didgeridoo is now seen to be an ‘introduced generic term’ and the Aboriginal word yidaki is beginning to supersede it in some parts of the country.

These material remains of the Irish language in the Englishes of the world speak of the migrant journeys and the mindset of those emigrants. When we come across these words we should think of them not as oddities but as evidence of Irish speakers using words they know for new experiences, a paper hat for the worker in the Newfoundland fishery, the word for a shoe in indigenous Australia, a hobo’s bed, a secret call for a gathering in American English, or a unique way of producing a musical sound. They are evidence of the Irish travelling to the new worlds with a unique cultural capital: the Irish language.

Dymphna’s research interest is the Irish language in an English setting. She is also one of Tinteán’s editors

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