Teach Your Children Well*

My parents, as I’ve noted before, were verbal people who liked to talk, liked to (ahem) exercise the language. As a career pilot in the air force, my father exercised a very different language—often acronymical (I made that up) in nature, much of it profane, all of it evocative and sometimes humorous.

Thus we had ASAP (which meant immediately in our military family), and when Daddy went TDY (on a temporary duty assignment) he stayed in the BOQ (bachelor officers’ quarters), even though we kids knew that bachelors were unmarried men. When things were messed up they were FUBAR (an adjective) or we’d created a SNAFU (noun); we were much older before we knew all the words in those. Something that occurred a long time ago happened “when Christ was a cadet”; one of my most special birthday parties was at the “officer’s club” (back, you know, when Christ as a cadet). Military families either lived “on base” or “off base” (we always lived off). If we went shopping we went to the commissary (for groceries) or the BX (for everything else). Daddy was in SAC (the Strategic Air Command) and was “on alert” (“7 on 7 off”). He did two tours of duty in Vietnam. We kids were, of course, air force brats.**

There was pilot talk—like stalls (you really don’t want to know), chopper, touch and go (practice landing), flight suit—and we knew the phonetic alphabet too: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu. Gosh, just typing those brings my dad’s voice to my ears. 🙂

That was my family’s personal lexicon—words we used every day. But the military life is a wondrous source of slang, and though much of it is lost (What phrases did soldiers use at Concord? I wonder), we do know that men in the trenches of World War 1 spawned fed up, trench coat, and pushing up daisies, among many others. Because troops from different countries fought side by side, the French word souvenir came to replace memento, and Canadian troops introduced swipe to describe acquiring something by unofficial means. This Daily Mail article says historians Peter Doyle and Julian Walker analyzed thousands of documents—letters from the front, newspapers, diaries—from the period to trace language development:

Mr Walker, who works at the British Library, said: ‘The war was a melting pot of classes and nationalities, with people thrown together under conditions of stress.

‘It was a very creative time for language. Soldiers have always had a genius for slang and coming up with terms.

‘This was a citizen army—and also the first really literate army—and at the end of the war, those that survived took their new terms back to the general population.’

This example is a case of many wartime armies serving together and influencing each other, but soldiers who served far from home—British troops in India, say—picked up local words (pyjamas, bangles, shampoo, veranda, calico, for example).

World War 2 troops introduced big wheel, gremlins, and for the birds—as well as the aforementioned SNAFU and all variants of FUBAR. Vietnam gave us Charlie (Viet Cong = VC = Victor Charlie), in country (on the ground in South Vietnam), klick (for kilometer), friendly fire, and on and on. You’ve heard them in movies, I’m sure.

Slang and jargon serve to draw a people group together; military slang often develops in stressful situations and is used to diffuse or buffer fear. Interestingly, while the military situation is similar from generation to generation, the words to describe it change. For example, the condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been variously called nostalgia (American Civil War), combat hysteria, war neurosis (Russo-Japanese war), shell-shock (World War 1), combat fatigue, battle fatigue, combat exhaustion (all World War 2 and Korean War); finally Vietnam gave us post-Vietnam syndrome, which has since become defined as PTSD, though that wasn’t coined until 1980. (Here’s an interesting article about that.) What we now call Gulf War syndrome—a physical reaction rather than the psychological reaction called PTSD—has an equally interesting lexicon: from DaCosta’s syndrome (Civil War) to soldier’s heart (WW1), effort syndrome (WW2), and in-country effect (Vietnam).

I bring all this up not just because I am fascinated by words and language (and particularly slang), but also because today is [not, in this second iteration] Memorial Day here in the United States—the day during which we honor the servicemen and -women who have died in the service of our country. We will not forget you.

* This article first appeared on my other blog on 25 May 2015.
** Interestingly, this phrase hails from Great Britain, and was originally an acronym. Wikipedia tells us, “When a member of the British Army was assigned abroad and could take his family, the soldier was listed as BRAT status, which stood for: British Regiment Attached Traveler.”

They Speak English, Don’t They?

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in October 2012.

When you’re planning your first trip to Ireland—excitedly, it’s something you’ve dreamed of for decades—the one thing you don’t think is Oh, and I’d better pick up a translation dictionary. Because they speak English over there.

Don’t they?

Um, yes, of course they do.  But you may find yourself doing the smile-and-nod (which is universal sign language for “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but … OK”) more often than you’d expect.

(Warning: what follows is not for the sensitively eared.)

Like the time we had a flat tire in Tralee and were directed to Tony O’Donoghue’s Tyre Service. As the driver of the car, I marched in and indicated my need for a new tire to the proprietor, who understood me just fine. (They get a lot of American television over there and are used to—and imitate with glee—our accent.) Tony then replied at length. I smiled and nodded, and as Tony walked away, the Irishman murmured, “I’ll bet you didn’t understand a word of that.” I hadn’t. Not a word. And I’d been trying. “It’s a very thick Kerry accent,” he said. “I didn’t catch everything either.”

It’s interesting, the variety of regional accents one encounters in a country the size of Indiana. (To be fair, I can distinguish a Southern accent on a state-by-state basis, though most non-Southerners would probably hear them as all the same.) And not just accents—the vernacular changes too. When I was seeking editorial help from the Irishman (a Dubliner) for a novel set in Ireland, I had to answer characterization questions first: “Who are the speakers, where are they from? Dublin? The west? Cork? Those Corkmen”—a shake of the head—“have a language all their own. Are they working class or upper class?”

One thing visiting Americans certainly find disconcerting is the use of what we might delicately call profanity, but which are merely mild exclamations or slang completely unrelated to … well, what we Yanks think we hear. Words like feck or arse are somewhat shocking to our Puritan ears, though I am assured those Irish nuns have heard this and more (for example, Dubliners are fond of bluddy hell). It’s just not the same, I’m told. (Don’t believe me? Watch this well-received performance by Fascinating Aïda, complete with subtitles.)

It does get easier when you converse with a native-speaker every day. But when I am with the fam and everyone’s talking at once … I just smile and nod.

May the Blessing of the Rain Be on You

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

Before I visited Ireland the first time, I had the impression (as many do) it rains a lot there. (I packed a raincoat.) Here’s what the Irish Meteorological Service says: “In fact, two out of three hourly observations will not report any measurable rainfall.”

That sounds good. But consider this: “The average number of wet days (days with more than 1mm [3/100 inch] of rain) ranges from about 150 days a year along the east and south-east coasts, to about 225 days a year in parts of the west.” Well. That threshold for what constitutes a wet day is pretty low. And if you do the math, you’ll see 41 percent of the days in the east are wet while it’s wet 61 percent in the west.

So it’s no wonder, then, the Irish have a lot of slang for rain.

My favorite is soft, as in a soft day, which is characterized by a soft rain, which is actually more like mist. (Hence the soft.) A soft day is cloudy and sometimes the wet is a little more drizzle than mist. You might hear a day described as a grand soft day, which is, as best I can tell, no actual rain, just an elevated humidity.

Here are some other wet-weather words (and here’s a chart to help you decipher their relation to size and number of drops):

• Misht: mist with a country accent
• Drizzle: a little heaver than a soft rain, not quite a light rain
• Mizzle: very fine drops, but definitely raining
• Mildering: a light rain, regional version
• Light rain: looks soft, but don’t be fooled; it’ll ruin your hairdo
• Drop of rain: not enough to worry about, but take an umbrella
• Shower: enough rain to know you’ve been rained on
• Sun shower: raining while it’s sunny; watch for rainbows
• Wet rain: yes, they’re teasing you
• Pissing rain: hard vertical rain (not as much wind as lashing rain); an annoyance
• Lashing rain: diagonal, hard rain (due to wind)
• Driving rain: too much wind involved; stay inside or you’ll get soaked
• Heavy rain: you’ll want rain gear
• Teeming rain: heavy rain
• Raining cats and dogs: a heavy rain; careful, you might walk into a poodle
• Spate: a sudden, strong rain, out of nowhere
• Heavens opened: a spate of rain
• Downpour: a heavy rain
• Bucketing rain: you’re instantly soaked, like someone threw a bucket of water at you
• Sheets of rain: like buckets only steadier; walls of rain coming down
• Torrential rain: unrelenting; seriously, stay home
• Almost biblical: can’t get much worse

The real test, though, is the Gaelic. I found this list here, which post is also somewhat amusing for the dueling linguists:

• biadh an tsic (“food for rain”): rain in frosty weather
• brádán báistí: light rain
• braon: the dripping of the rain
• cith agus dealán: sunshine with showers
• ceóbhrán: light drizzle, mist
• durach mor: a big shower
• focíth fearthainne: occasional rain showers
• frás: shower
• fuarbháisteach earraigh: a cold spring downpour
• lá frasaidheacht: a showery day
• greadadh báistí: heavy (pelting) (driving) rain
• plimp fearthainne: a sudden downpour of rain
• síorbháisteach: a continuous downpouring of rain
• scáth báistí (“rain shield”): umbrella
• smurán: a shower
• stoirm ceatha: breeze before a shower
• stoirm shíobhta bháistí: a driving rainstorm
• taom fearthainne: a bucketing down of rain

You’re on your own for pronunciation, so if I were you’d I’d stick to the English. 🙂 And pack a light raincoat. You may need it!

How’s the Craic?

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.

Story Bud? *

Slang is a marvelous thing. It is often beautiful, always fun; it’s intimate and immediate and the imagery can be astonishing. The Irish are really good at it.

So I can’t even begin to tell you how delighted I was to discover this short video a few weeks ago in the Facebook feed of one of my Irish friends. Called “Story Bud?” it’s the first in a planned series of short films by Jenny Keogh that celebrate Irish slang and colloquialisms; this one is all about Dublin slang, we’re told. Gerry is a Dubliner and over the years I’ve heard most of these, I’m astonished to report.

But you may not have. Unless you’re familiar with not only the accent but the slang phrases themselves, you may not be able to understand a word of this. Fortunately, Stan Carey over at Sentence first has got that covered: here’s a handy list of each phrase used. Number 15 explains the title:

15. Story bud? [Short for What’s the story, buddy? = What’s going on? / What’s the news?]

Be sure to click on over to see all seventy-seven of them; you’ll be impressed with the amount of work it took to transcribe it.

But wait! There’s more! Jenny recently released her second short with more slang. It’s called “How’s About Ye?”

And you’re in luck, because Stan Carey’s transcribed this one too.

He also brings up something else.

Jenny’s running a FundIt campaign to raise funds for a larger project—she intends to film up to thirty similar two-minute pieces for other cities, counties, and regions in Ireland, documenting the slang, sayings, and colloquialisms of each place. And you can help!

If you’ve never participated in a campaign like this, it’s easy: you make a pledge of funds. If the campaign reaches its goal, your credit card is charged for the amount you pledged. If it does not, well, that’s it; nothing happens.

You can read more about Story Bud? The Feature Film here. There’s all manner of levels of pledging, so I’m sure there’s one for you. You’ll see there’s ten days left in the campaign and it’s just a little more than 10 percent funded. This project needs you! Please consider chipping in.

* A version of this post ran on my work blog. But I figured you all would enjoy it too.

It’s Patrick’s Day. Paddy, Not Patty. Please.

The day the Irishman was born, his mother watched the St. Patrick’s Day parade from her room in the Rotunda Hospital overlooking O’Connell Street and the Parnell monument. I’d love to be in Dublin for this parade, although they say some of the best St. Patrick’s Day parades in the world are here in the States: Boston, New York, Chicago, and Savannah, Georgia. (Who’d a thunk it?)

One thing we Yanks can’t seem to get right, though, is the spelling of Patrick’s nickname. Browse any greeting card display, for example, and you’re bound to see this: Happy St. Patty’s Day!


No, no, no.

It’s spelled Paddy. That’s the diminutive of Pádraig, which is Gaelic for Patrick. Here’s a website that gives you all the acceptable “wee versions” of Patrick, as well as a scrolling monitor of “eejits” who are using the unacceptable version on Twitter—just in case you’d like to call them out on it. 🙂

Unfortunately, Paddy has too often been used as an ethnic slur in reference to an Irishman. (Paddywagon, for example, of American origin, refers to a police van, either because so many Irishmen became policemen in American cities, or—and here’s the slur—due to the high crime rate among Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century. You can look for it even in the lyrics of children’s songs, like “This Old Man”: Wikipedia tells us the term paddywack was used from at least the early nineteenth century to describe an angry person, specifically a “brawny Irishman.”)

Interestingly, Paddy can just as easily be an affectionate term for that same Irishman; it just depends on who’s saying it and how it’s said. Nonetheless, if you find yourself in Dublin on the grand day, you (with your American accent and all) should probably be circumspect.

The route for the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day Parade is 2.5 kilometers (about a mile and a half) long and leads from Parnell Square on the city’s Northside down O’Connell Street, over the River Liffey via O’Connell Bridge into Westmoreland Street, past Trinity College at College Green, and on to Dame Street. It then turns left at Christchurch Cathedral into Lord Edward Street, Nicholas Street, and Patrick Street before finally finishing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. If you can’t make it in person, you can stream it live here.

Wherever you find yourself on March 17, though, just remember—it’s Paddy, not Patty. And stay away from that green beer.

(This post originally ran on my professional blog, Read>Play>Edit.)