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November 23, 2015

Byddi Lee: Irishisms in America #MondayBlogs

The difference in language and how it is used in two countries that both speak English is astonishing. We see it all the time between British English and American English: rubbish and trash, nappies and diapers, trousers and pants, biscuits and cookies. Perhaps that last example is a stretch. I’ve come to appreciate that cookies are softer, chewy versions of their crisp and crunchy British counterparts. On my first visit to the US, many years ago, I bought a cookie in a shopping mall. It was soft. In Ireland, soft means it’s stale. So I brought it back to the vendor who patiently explained that they were supposed to be like that. I wondered what kind of a country I had come to, where the tea was cold (iced tea) and the biscuits soggy!

It took a while for me to get used to the word “pants” as well. On our side of the pond, you wear your pants under your trousers. I still struggle to keep my face straight and be gracious when someone here tells me they like my pants! In Ireland, I’d just slap them for looking where they shouldn’t.

Irishisms are another tier of language differences again. It’s a combination of our cultural differences and the fact that we have our own language hovering in the wings, known as Gaeilge or Gaelic. The sentence structure of the Irish language often puts the verb at the beginning of the sentence, so you might hear an Irish person say something like, “Will you be wanting milk in your tea?”

Then there are words that we have pulled directly from Gaelic. For example, an Irish person would know exactly what a “munchy” is. The Irish words muintir na háite (pronounced like “moon-chore na hat-cha”) literally translates as local people. Munchy is used in the same way an American would use the word “hillbilly” and it’s considered a fairly derogatory term.

One of my favorite words from the Irish language is craic, pronounced like “crack.” One of the most versatile and user friendly words we Irish have, it can mean fun, as in, “Was the pub good craic last night?”  It can mean gossip. For example, “Any craic from the pub last night?” means, “What happened at the pub?” Particularly did anyone disgrace themselves? Always a favorite topic of discussion. If you had a tale of lots of bad things happening in the pub last night, that would be “bad craic.” Of course, you don’t need a pub to feature in the craic at all but it helps!

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My writing group in California found it difficult to get to grips with the word “craic” thinking it was some kind of illicit recreational drug. But Americans may be more familiar with the term “dig it” which is derived from the Irish an dtuigeann tú? (pronounced like “An dig-in too”) and means, “Do you understand?” Then there’s bróg (brogue) the Irish for shoe and cailín (colleen) for girl, to mention but a few.

Writing a book based in Belfast and having it critiqued by Americans held challenges, apart from the foreign words. I had to write in American English and do things like drop the “u” from words such as honor, favor and neighbor. Great – I’m all about one less keystroke. But concepts were another matter.

It took me most of an evening to explain to my writing group what a “hot press” was.

“It’s the cupboard you keep your emersion heater in,” I explained.

“What’s an emersion heater?”

Oh boy! An emersion heater is a big copper tank with an electrical element that heats up water. Some of that heat escapes into the cupboard around it, providing an excellent place to dry clothes, especially in a rainy country like Ireland, where surprisingly few people use tumble dryers. You have to turn the emersion heater on twenty minutes or so before you have a bath or shower to let it warm the water. You turn it off as soon as you are finished so that you don’t waste electricity, which is very expensive in Ireland, hence the shortage of tumble dryers. When I was a kid, leaving the emersion heater on was a crime right up there with doing drugs or getting pregnant.

In the end it was too hard to weave the explanation into in the book, and my character just didn’t bother with the damp towels. Instead, I sent her straight for her tea.

“Why is she having tea?” one critiquer asked, when I’d submitted the rewrite.

“Because it’s tea-time,” I replied.

“But can’t you drink tea anytime?”

Indeed, especially in Ireland where they drink tea all day long, my characters were constantly putting on the kettle. However, there is a time slot in the day called, “Tea-time,” which is at dinner-time. If you’ve already had dinner at lunch-time then dinner-time becomes tea-time. Supper can also take place at dinner-time, but dinner can never take place at suppertime - too late for such a heavy meal. Breakfast is always breakfast, unless it’s brunch which can be lunch if you don’t eat breakfast food.

Even within Ireland, Irishisms vary. The word “deadly” in Belfast means something is very bad craic. In Dublin, one hundred miles south, if you described something as “deadly” it is the equivalent of saying it is awesome! In Ireland, dead does not necessarily mean bad. Seriously, you can enjoy a good wake. A wake is what happens between someone dying and getting buried - and wakes can be good craic, especially if it’s the wake of someone old, who enjoyed a good life. Wakes are a party to celebrate that life and are, for the older generation, a huge social scene.

The Irish are all about the social scene. We are a very gregarious nation. By the third time I’d used a bar as a backdrop to a scene (different bars each time) my critiquing group thought my characters were complete alcoholics. But thankfully my fellow writers in America enjoyed the craic, and even as they questioned the amount of tea and Guinness the characters drank, they could dig it.

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About the author:
Byddi Lee grew up in Armagh, Ireland, and moved to Belfast to study Biology at Queen’s University when she was 18. She made Belfast her home for twenty-one years, teaching science and writing for pleasure. In 2002 she took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled round the world for two years, writing blogs about her adventures as she went. She returned to Ireland in 2004 and resumed teaching. In 2008 she and her husband moved to San Jose, California where she made writing a full-time career. After the publication of her short story, Death of a Seannachai, she decided it was time to write, March to November.
She is currently writing her second novel, a science fiction story set in a future where the earth’s icecaps have melted and Armagh is the capital of Ireland.
Besides being a novelist, Byddi is also a Master Gardener. She writes a blog on life as an Irish gardener and traveler living in California called, “We didn’t come here for the grass.” She also gives talks and classes on gardening.

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