Who knew? Irish language words for which there is no English equivalent.

By Dymphna Lonergan

It has been of longstanding interest to me that in the language transfer of the Irish language to English, some Irish words were retained in Irish English, most likely because there was no English equivalent.

Despite having lived longer in Australia than I did in Ireland, I still find myself resorting to Irish language words at times. There is no English equivalent to meas in my mind as a put down or a rebuke for someone who does not value something or other. ‘Don’t give it to him, he has no meas on it’, I might say to Irish friends. Note too the word ‘on’ in this sentence, a typical Irish English construction coming from the Irish language when English would use another preposition, or none. An English construction would be ‘Don’t give it to him, he will not value it.’ It can be heard in the positive sense in Irish English too, ‘she had great meas on education’.

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I might use the word plámás, ‘flattery’, in an English sentence. Again, the Irish word seems to carry an extra condemnation when used in Irish English – ‘He was only plámásing me’ meaning he was flattering me in order to get something. Or ‘she was very plámásach’ for someone who was complimentary. Or in a joke I might say to someone who has been particularly generous ‘You’re very fláthiúlach, meaning you are overly generous’, from the word flaith, a ruler, lord or chief. It’s meant in a satirical sense, just as it would be unlikely to receive anything from a lord or chief if you were a mere peasant. It can also be heard devoid of satire, ‘. Of course, these Irish words work only if you and the hearer share a similar background. The term mar dhea (pron. mar yah) is especially so. In English it would translate as ‘supposedly’, but I think the Irish use has an extra bite: ‘she said she was helping out, mar dhea.’ I remember hearing the retort’ my eye’ when I was growing up in Dublin. Perhaps they are related.

And taking about Dublinese, who doesn’t love the Irish English term of disparagement ‘eejit’? It is, of course, the English word idiot. But the pronunciation indicated in the spelling of ‘eejit’ matches the Irish language pronunciation of ‘d’ as ‘j’ when preceded or followed by a slender vowel. And for extra emphasis, someone could be a ‘right eejit’ in keeping with the Irish word ceart as meaning ‘true’ or ‘real’ and used as an intensive. In Irish an amadán ceart would be a ‘right eejit’.

I once astounded my mostly Australian-born family by using the phrase ‘put it on the long finger’ to suggest postponing something. They were as puzzled as I was once on hearing the American term ‘rain check’ to do with shopping. Those were days before Google. Now most answers are at the tip of our typing finger, and Google explains that a ‘rain check’ means if an item is out of stock, you can have it at the same price when it comes in again. The term originates in sport. I don’t know if it applies to cricket when ‘rain stops play’.

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Google today has an explanation for the term to put something on the long finger. If everything is postponed, that is put on the long finger, that finger will become short. I’m not sure about that explanation. My own thinking is the long finger is the furthest point from you if you stretch out your hand. And no, I don’t agree that if you stretched out your foot at the same time that that could be the furthest point. Try it and see if you don’t topple over in the effort.

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This discussion was prompted by my discovery in reading a piece in Tuairisc.ie that the Irish language has a word for the short time between showers. I don’t recall ever needing such a word when I lived in Ireland. I think it just rained and rained in Dublin. Spells need sun, I think. In Australia spells are usually long and dry.

The Irish word for a spell between showers is aiteall. It sounds a bit like ‘Achull’ with the t sounded as ‘ch’, like the short ‘achoo’ sound we make when sneezing. If it continues, though, it might be hay fever, or these days, long term Covid.

Aiteall is a useful word, however, and I would like an equivalent in English for the short time you have to get the clothes off the line before it starts raining again. If you miss it, you feel a right eejit.

Dymphna Lonergan is an academic status researcher at Flinders University and a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team. Her latest publication is a collection of Irish language short stories with English translations As Gaeilge: Irish language short stories and translations, immortalise.com.au, Adelaide, 2022