For the uninitiated, that word’s pronounced “crack.” In fact, that word is crack. Meaning it’s an English word (crack) borrowed into Irish (Gaelic) as craic; then that Irish spelling was reborrowed into English (starting with Hiberno-English, which is, simply, the dialect of English written and spoken in Ireland).
I know, it’s confusing. But craic has started showing up in my Facebook feed in posts of friends who are definitely not Irish, so it may be time for us to look into it. Because we’re not talking about the crack that can break your mother’s back; we’re not even talking about a wisecrack. (Actually, my favorite dictionary lists nine separate definitions for the noun crack, none of which are the crack/craic I’m talking about.)
Still with me?
Crack dates from Middle English (dialects of English spoken for about three hundred years, between the late twelfth and late fifteenth centuries). Back then it was crak, and it meant “loud conversation, bragging talk,” according to A Dictionary of Hiberno-English by T. P. Dolan (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2006). A hundred years later (1590, the oldest reference I could find easily), we see Edmund Spenser using it in The Faerie Queen (book II xi, 8): “vainglorious crakes [braggarts].”
So there it is in (British) English, and the context and meaning evolved as it moved through history, from braggadocio to conversation and chat to news (“What’s the crack?” means “Have you any news?” or even “How are you?”) and gossip and … fun ambience.
And there it is, in fact, in the Oxford English Dictionary (added in 2008), which dates craic at “1968 or earlier.” The concept of crack as fun was in use in Ireland and elsewhere but, according to the OED, the Irish spelling was “popularized by the phrase beidh ceol, caint agus craic againn, lit. ‘we will have music, chat and crack’, the catchphrase of the Irish-language television programme SBB ina Shuí, running from 1976–83.”
Aha. I’d thought it was an old Irish (Gaelic) word, not something we might classify as, you know, mid-century modern. Which is probably what bugs some folks in that part of the world (linguists, for the most part). It’s faux-Irish, they say. And even now you see it spelled crack by some Irish writers (Roddy Doyle and Dermot Healy are two I can say for sure), so the Irish spelling isn’t universally used. But—having some experience in the quibbles of language—I must ask how it can be fake if so many Irish folks use it?
Those cranks are spoiling my craic. Because the Irish have made this word, no matter its origin, their own.
But what does it mean? you ask. In Ireland, that is.
Well, kids, there are as many definitions as there are Irish pubs—some of them really cheesy—in North America, one of which you may find yourself in this weekend. Craic means high-spirited entertainment, including lots of talking and laughing … it means fun, usually when mixed with alcohol and/or music … it means having a laugh in a social context (craic is the original social medium) … it means a good time … it means conversation, chat. It means merriment (my personal favorite). But here’s a definition I stumbled on a few years ago: craic is the combination of the music, the drink, the conversation, and the spirit of the surroundings. “How was the craic?” one might be asked the morning after. “Deadly,” might come the answer.
Which means, you know, really good in Hiberno-English. But that’s another post.
This post originally appeared on my professional blog, Read>Play>Edit on 14 March 2013.