Author Kunak McGann assures Ray D'Arcy that she’s not a scholar. The implication being, presumably, that we shouldn’t be afraid of her new book, A Hundred Words for Grand. It’s a light entertainment book, she says, not a scholarly one. It’s subtitled The Little Book of Irish Chat, so it’s no surprise that some of Kunak’s research involved talking to people:
"A lot of my research was done just from chatting to people, seeing what they use and then getting on to the internet and there’s a lot of people chat. A lot of people have real nostalgia for phrases and words that they used as children and they kind of want to suss out does anyone else remember them."
The origins of words are sometimes readily available, sometimes not. And, as Ray points out, many words have different meanings depending on when and where they’re used. And then there are the uniquely Irish qualifiers:
"We use a whole range of intensifiers like fierce, quare, awful, terrible, you know, all of those ones... And we pair them up often with a word that means the exact opposite."
So that gives us phrases like fierce mild, shocking quiet, awful nice, terrible nice, which can lead to some confusion for the listener, particularly if they’re not au fait with Irish phrases. If someone is described as being terribly nice, well, do you like them or not? We are, as Ray points out, in oxymoron territory. Which sounds a little scholarly.
Another classic from the Irish phrasebook of words that mean something entirely different to their actual dictionary definitions is the phrase, "I will, yeah."
"You never hear it used when someone means, 'I will.’ They mean, ‘I will, yeah’."
As in, I will not under any circumstances whatsoever. Which brings us to fooster, a word that both Kunak and Ray used to hear but don’t so much anymore. This very useful word comes from the Irish to fuss, according to Kunak:
"It comes from the Irish meaning fuss, and we sued to hear it a lot when we were growing up. There was lots of, ‘Will you stop your foostering about?’ And it kind of means that messing about, but also we used to mean to look for something, to fooster about looking for something as well."
One phrase that Ray enjoys – and hears quite often, especially when he’s munching his way through a nice wild salmon and avocado bagel – is ‘It’s far from that you were raised.’ Kunak has a soft spot for this one, despite its gentle slagging nature:
"You know, I tried to keep positive in this book. You know, sometimes we do, there’s an awful lot, we throw around a lot of the Irish insults and the Irish terms for drunkenness and with this book I wanted to kind of stay on the nice side of things. But ‘far from that you were raised’ – it sounds like a compliment, but really, it’s the ultimate slap down, isn’t it?"
The mystery phrases are part of what we are and we use them, even though we have no idea where they came from or what their original meaning was. One of these is ‘up to ninety’.
"I can’t really find a source for that one. You know, is it your heartbeat, is it your temperature, are you going at 90 miles an hour? And that’s another one that you often used to hear your mam say. Mams around the place would say, ‘I can’t be doing that, I’m up to 90 today, sure I haven’t had a chance to sit down."
Let’s finish on a classic: ‘me moh’ (moth, with a silent t – but you knew that). It’s another mystery, really, but Kunak – looking for the romance in it – suggests that it might come from the Irish cailín maith: good girl. That’s probably a reach, but we’ll take it.
You can hear Ray’s full chat with Kunak by clicking above.
A Hundred Words for Grand: The Little Book of Irish Chat by Kunak McGann is published by The O’Brien Press.