It’s Irish English week! Here is our first guest blog post from Dymphna Lonergan, author of Sounds Irish: The History of the Irish Language in Australia.
Recently at a family lunch here in Australia I mentioned I was going to put something on the long finger. There was silence for a moment and then my son asked: “What does that mean?” I have been almost forty years in Australia and still use Irish English phrases and words not knowing that they are not understood by all. Of course it didn’t help when I explained that to put something on an mhéar fhada in Irish means to postpone something and that the long finger is the middle finger!
Some mused that the middle finger was furthest away from the palm but it’s a mystery why that would indicate a postponement to the Irish. These are the moments when I marvel at the influence of the Irish language on English long after the language has ceased to be the native expression of the Irish. This influence has traveled around the world, and is bubbling quietly away in other World Englishes. Australian English is an example. Some iconic Australian words are Irish language words in disguise: kip, brumby, sheila, and didgeridoo are evidence of Irish speakers contributing to a new English dialect under the Southern Cross.Email this Post
Fascinating! And not something I would have thought about before now… it wouldn’t surprise me to hear the proliferation of American English derived from Irish, but I’d never even considered Australian!
What an intriguing expression – I shall have to start using it. Fascinating how widespread the Irish influence on language is, and how much people underestimate its reach.
It’s funny how a long-familiar word or expression can be completely new and strange to other English speakers, even those close to us! It happened to me recently: while chatting to a friend, I mentioned caiscín — a type of Irish soda bread — and received a look of inquisitive bemusement. Apparently it’s not a common term even among Irish-English speakers.
The phrase “to put something on the long finger” is one I use myself, and hear quite often. I have wondered about its origin too, but have no information on this. It might have something to do with how we spatialise time, point with our hands, and picture the future unfolding along a line in front of us. The idiom also pops up occasionally in an abridged form: to long-finger. I prefer the wordy original, though, not least because it avoids unseemly connotations.
Interesting how these expressions give color to the English language. I think we have to use idioms like these ones to make our friends think a little bit, while making the English language even richer.
Hello Dymphna, I have been putting this query to you “on the long finger” (notice!) since I read your article but finally have a little space to satisfy my curiousity about another saying. Here in Ireland we use the term “to be on the pig’s back” to mean somebody is doing well, is successful, everthing is going beautifully etc. This is a literal translation from the Irish “ar mhuin na muice bige”. But where does it come from – who or what was the pig and why should being on its back represent success etc?
Go n-eirigh an bothar leat ‘san obair.
I always am delighted with the extraordinary features provided by MACMILLAN DICTIONARY. Fascinating tool!
While reading its Blog, we get so much peculiar information English Language-related. Here we can have an accurate and broader view of how users of English around the world are welcoming it. Thank you for this month plan.
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To be ‘on the pig’s back’ is a reference to the death of Diarmuid in the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne. You should be able to find a version of the story here:
I’m really enjoying this Irish-English week. Also very curious about the examples given of disguised Irish words in Australian English (kip, brumby, sheila, didgerydoo). Could you Dymphna (or anyone else) give some details on the etymological connections?
In my book Sounds Irish: The Irish language in Australia I suggest that Aus. kip (the small stick used to toss the coins in ‘two-up’ ) is Ir. cipin ‘a little stick’; Aus. brumby is Ir. bromaigh ‘colts (young male horses); Aus. sheila ultimately derives from Ir. Sile ‘a homosexual’; and didgeridoo is Ir. dudaire dubh ‘black trumpet player’. These words are discussed in depth in an Ozwords article that is still online.
Thanks a lot Dymphna.
I’m in NZ and just wrote a business letter, which I ran by my Kiwi wife before printing. “What’s “the long finger”?” says she. I never realised it was a particularly Irish expression until now, though thinking about it, I was aware of “an mhéar fhada”, I just didn’t put two and two together. The funny think is that, when I explained it to her, she then went on to say “I’d change that.” God of Almighty! As if I’d leave it in a business letter knowing now, as I do, that it is not universally understood. She’s obviously bought into at least one of the Irish stereotypes 🙂
it is mostly to pospone/to delay ie. if you have courted a fellow or lass for a while but stilll not married … a long engagement?
The long finger they are engaged now six years but no wedding plans yet? The long finger?
My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!
brilliant. I mentioned ‘long finger’ in an email to a spanish colleague who looked it up and found this thread..several of us (Irish exiles in London) have just been debating the didgeridoo origin. Yep, I’d go with that explanation.
I think the source of this is related to delayed marriage/ engagement.. “Secret ” engagements were made with a ring on the middle (long) finger. The marriage was delayed (and often the proposal was never ultimately honored)
mear is the irish for ‘swift’ also ‘finger’.
to tell someone that will be done ‘mear’ but not emphasizing ‘fada’, which means long, is a way of giving a mixed message.
this morphed into english as long finger.
it really means ‘long swift’ ie not swift at all!