By Dymphna Lonergan
Did you have a quaffing time over Christmas and the New Year? I’m not a great quaffer of alcoholic beverages, but I did imbibe copious amounts of youtube videos, including that BBC comedy quiz show QI, once hosted by Stephen Fry, and now by Sandi Tocsvig. During a discussion of the letter Q, Tocsvig said that the word quaff possibly originated in the Irish language. Irish language words as they appear in an English setting have been of long interest to me, but I have not come across the word quaff as one of them.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives an ‘etymology unknown’ for quaff, a first recording in 1579, and a meaning of ‘a deep draught’ and ‘amount of liquid’. No Irish connection as suggested by Sandi Tocsvig is apparent, but if we go to Niall O Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge Béarla there is the word cuaifeach for ‘whirling’ or ‘swirling’ (the word being pronounced something like ‘quaffack’) and cuaifeach uisce as the word for a ‘water spout’.
De Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish dictionary too offers cuaifeach uisce for ‘water spout’, but the word quaff is translated into Irish as the word slog. The Irish word slog, meaning ‘to swallow’ (it is pronounced ‘slug’) is a standard word in Irish but a slang word in English. The Cambridge Dictionary gives the English word slug as ‘informal’ with the meaning ‘an amount of drink…that you can swallow at one time’, and the US Merriam -Webster has the verb to slug, ‘to drink in gulps’.
By the time a word appears in a dictionary, it might have been in circulation for a long time. Printed dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary are traditionally based on the idea of capturing the standard English language, the King’s or Queen’s English, and avoiding slang or informal words. As a result, a word’s origins might remain ‘etymology unknown’ forever.
With the advent of technology and an acceptance of slang and other informality on the airwaves and in print, there is more opportunity for word sleuths to speculate on word origin. In turn, there is more opportunity to find other languages’ influences on the English language. For me, an Irish language word at large in the world tells me more about the Irish people: where they travelled, and how they lived, and what words they had that might be useful in a new setting.
The Irish travelled to Australia and brought useful words from their native language that could add to the development of the Australian dialect of English. It is difficult, however, to move this conversation beyond the area of speculation for a number of reasons, not least a curious denial of Irish speakers continuing to use the language after they arrived here. I covered all of this in my book Sounds Irish where I also speculated that words such as didgeridoo were possibly Irish words in disguise.
Not a lot has changed since that book was published in 2004, but my theory of didgeridoo has re-surfaced in Sue Butler’s 2020 book Rebel Without a Clause, significantly as a rebuke to my theory. My starting point has been that the sound of the instrument does not match the word; and that there are many words for the instrument in Australian languages but none resembling didgeridoo.
Irish has the word dúd – ‘a pipe’. It can be found in early Australian English as dudeen, the name of a short pipe used by travellers in particular during colonial days, and apparently holding enough tobacco for one day’s travel. In Irish English a doody is a baby’s dummy. By extension, the Irish language word dúdaire is the word for ‘a trumpet player’ (pronounced something like doojerreh). The word dubh (pronounced ‘doo’ or ‘duv’) means either ‘black’ or ‘native’).
Butler’s book offers a finding that in northern Australia there is ‘a practice’ by some Indigenous Australians who ‘speak or mouth into the didgeridoo a type of word which is written…didjmroo, didgmroo, didgmroo…’. These words are also sung. The comment ends with a suggestion that ‘…this is a practice that precedes any contact with English’. Butler suggests that ‘it is a short step from the word representing the noise that the instrument makes to the name of the instrument itself’. This is, indeed, very interesting, but it still remains a puzzle as to the spread of the sound didjmroo. By 1919 the instrument was recorded as the word diridgerry doo and in 1922 didjeridoo.
Butler says that ‘European settlers’ would more likely have taken an Indigenous word to name the instrument than one based on ‘onomatopoeic fancy’. She finds ‘no plausible context’ for when Irish or Scots Gaelic speakers might have named the instrument. The problem of time and place still remains for Butler.
While the jury is still out on didgeridoo’s origins, I am very pleased to see that uniquely Australian words are still being discussed in this global world. Rebel Without a Clause is more than a discussion of etymology, though. It is on point with comments on Trump and the coronavirus as well as misuse, misappropriations, and mispronunciations. I recommend Sue Butler’s book if, like me, you find reading about words ‘quite interesting’, and food for thought during and after quaffing.
Dymphna Lonergan is a member of Tinteán’s editorial collective.