Game ball, Jimmy Joyce!

Ulysses by James Joyce has an enormous lexicon of over 30,000 words. As well as employing “normal” English words, Ulysses uses many archaic words, throws Anglo–Saxon and Middle English into the mix and relies extensively on expressions and quotations from other languages, especially Italian, Spanish and Latin. While reading the novel, there was one category of words that interested me — Hiberno–English, that is, those words used in the English spoken in Ireland and could be words taken directly from Gaelic or words or usages unique to a people that learned English from matrix of Irish speaking. As I waded my way through the novel (with the churning waters of Joyce’s prose very often lapping over the top of my wellies and threatening to pull me under!) I took note of Hiberno–English words that were still in use in my part of Ireland when I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s.

Grig: To tease or annoy. I recall my father warning me to “stop grigging” him when I was being an obnoxious teenager and he had to imminently go on night duty. Grig comes from the Irish griog. According to A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, by Terence Patrick Dolan, a significant part of the word’s meaning is an attempt to make the object of the teasing jealous.

Game Ball: This means fine or grand or OK. This is one of those expressions that doesn’t seem to have come from Irish, but whose usage is particularly Irish. I was very surprised to find it in Ulysses, always having thought that game ball was a more recent appearance. We used it with such glee as children, usually accompanied by an enthusiastic thumbs up, and even had a little song: “How’s your aul’ one? Game ball!”

Bosthoon: A number of intimidating and bellicose teachers, especially a certain Christian Brother, would call us bosthoons. This word is in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “an uncouth or ignorant man or boy” and gives its origin as mid 19th century from the Irish bastún. Merriam–Webster defines it as boor or dolt, which is exactly what Br. X was intending to call us. Bastún in Ó Dónaill’s Irish dictionary is given as a staff made of rushes or a heavy stick. The origin of bastún is posited by Merriam–Webster as from the Anglo–French bastun. This makes sense to me; in Spanish, bastón is a walking stick.

Fecking: This curious word makes an appearance in Ulysses, where it’s meaning is to steal or rob. The Oxford English Dictionary does not have this meaning in its definition. Wikipedia is quiet comprehensive on the word and does include to steal in its definition of feck. As kids we would have said: “Johnny was caught fecking apples this morning and last week he fecked some Mars bars from Howard’s.” The most authoritative treatment of feck is to be found on my old friend, Stan Carey’s, language blog.

Flahoolagh: This is a very commonly used word in the Ireland of today, as it was when I was young. It has a beautiful musical quality when spoken out loud and means generous or free-giving. It comes from the Irish flaithiulach and is often used ironically or in criticism of someone’s lack of generosity. “Yer one is very flaithiulach with the whiskey,” you might say if you were served an Irish coffee that was all coffee and cream but a bit scarce on the Jameson!

Pishogue: This is used to describe a practice or belief based on folklore or superstition. The phenomenon at work when one visits a holy well as cure for a wart could be described as a pishogue. Putting a statue of the Child of Prague on the lawn the night before a wedding is a pishogue. I’ve even heard a neighbour’s use of poteen to cure lumbago being described as “an old pishogue“. The word comes from the Irish piseog. Ó Dónaill has the Irish definition as charm or spell but superstitious practices are also included in piseog‘s meaning. In The Grotto, I have a character called Fr. Tola who is an expert on the piseogs which are employed in the cursing or bringing of bad luck on enemies:

“I’ve accumulated a lot of things over the years. Most of the cursing stones and piseogs are brought to me by people who think someone has put a curse on them or their land. I perform a blessing to take the badness out of them and, with the help of God, decommission, as it were, the object.” . . .Fr. Tola picked up a bundle of sticks about a foot in length tied with a piece of rag, and handed it to Mac, who noticed that the tips of the sticks had been pared to a point at one end.

“That’s a piseog,” explained Fr. Tola. “Nine rods of ash, sharpened at the top. If someone wishes you ill, they prepare this item, pour their malice into it and hang it from the branch of a tree on your property. It goes on more than you would imagine.”

Kithogue: This means a left-handed person and comes from the Irish, ciotóg.

Gansy: Means jumper or sweater. I never heard my father use any other word for this article of clothing.

By the hoky: Of all the words I came across in Ulysses, this warmed the cockles of my heart the most. Be the hoky is an expression of shock or incredulity. As well as be the hoky, you often hear as a kind of rhyme, be the hoky koky. Someone might tell you that so-and-so won sixty-thousand euro on the lottery at the weekend and your response might be: “Did they now, be the hoky!” I’ve always associated by the hoky with Dublin slang, but my investigations have placed its use more widespread than that. A great example of the use of be the hoky koky are Tom Dunne’s hilariously exaggerated deep Dublinese impersonations of Dr. Bill Cullen. I had always assumed that the expression had grown up in 1950s or ’60s inner city Dublin, but by the hoky has a more venerable origin. It features in the song from the 1780s, “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched”, written in Dublin prison slang.

Gouger: I was again surprised at this word’s appearance in Ulysses. It means an unprincipled ruffian, a low-life, a trickster, huckster. It probably comes from the verb, gouge, and may have its origins in faction fights, where those that employed ungentlemanly combat techniques were branded gougers.

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About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
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3 Responses to Game ball, Jimmy Joyce!

  1. Very interesting read. I enjoy learning word origins 😃

  2. And now I must go reread Ulysses–and probably come back to Ireland where my understanding of things will have expanded exponentially. Terrific post!

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