A face like a fur hatchet and alike. English in Norn Iron

Posted by on January 13, 2010

Belfast Botanic Gardens - photo by Roisin Muldoon

Don’t forget! It’s Irish-English week! Here’s our second guest blog post, this time from Roisin Muldoon, on English in Northern Ireland.

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I’m from Northern Ireland. Or, Norn Iron as we like to call it at home. Although English is my native language, I was lucky enough to be able to learn Irish (Gaeilge – rather than the Scots Gaelic. They are similar, but separate languages) and studied the language all the way to A level. Moving to England to come to university here, and subsequently becoming an English teacher, made me love and value my own language and idiolect even more, which is what I’m going to have a go at writing about today.

This online dictionary of Northern Irish usage might be useful to you in reading this entry. In fact, I contributed to this!

I think Northern Irish English is a very rich, highly expressive, and very funny language. Although Gaeilge has become very rare outside of the political ‘jailtacht’ use (‘jailtacht’ refers to former terrorists who learned how to speak Irish in prison; it’s a blend of Irish Gaeltacht, an Irish speaking region and the English word jail) it has had a lasting effect on the way we speak and the phrases we use. A good example of this would be in describing someone who was in a bad mood. You might say they had “an oul head on them” and this construction comes from the Irish way of describing emotion. To say that you are angry you say “Tá fearg orm” – there is anger on me. I particularly like this construction because I think it reflects the way in which moods and feelings are often fleeting, they settle on you or you wear them, and then they move on.

As with any regional dialect, the most interesting words and phrases are often the most insulting ones. Northern Irish English has a real richness and humour in insults as well. I always enjoy hearing someone being described as a dose, e.g. “Isn’t Kevin’s wife an awful oul dose?” means exactly what you would imagine, she’s as much fun as a dose of salts, or she’d put you to sleep like a dose of something strong. The great English insult “She had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp” never quite took off in NI but we have a good variety of similar insults. A fairly indecipherable but pointed one is “She has a face like a fur hatchet” and one I’ve heard used often to describe someone looking glum or sour is “He had a face on him like a well-chewed chip”. I’m not going to even attempt to find a provenance for those expressions but I think their meanings are fairly clear!

As most of Ireland is still very rural, a good deal of our language comes from the agricultural life. The word ‘Culchie’ is a well-used one in both Norn Iron and The South/The State/The Free State (all various ways for NI people, especially those of us on the border, to describe the Republic of Ireland) but its meaning in Northern Ireland is a little bit different. In the South it’s a good deal more insulting, referring to anyone from outside of Dublin. In NI, the term is usually more affectionately meant and refers to country people. In Northern Ireland we’re all country people, though, so it really isn’t very offensive at all. It’s unclear where exactly the word comes from. It could be from the Irish ‘Coillte’, to describe people living in the woods, or it could just be from the word ‘agriculture’. There isn’t really a clear translation for this word, but “Ye big Culchie ye!” can be used to describe anyone who doesn’t live in a town.

I’ll bring this to an end by giving all of you non Norn Irish folk some of my favourite NI words and phrases:

Quare – this is used in a variety of ways, but usually as a superlative e.g. “That’s a quare nice car you’ve got there” or “He’s the quare lad” or “That’s a quare day, isn’t it? The sun’s splitting the trees, so it is!”

‘Bout ye? – This is a standard NI greeting. You can precede it with the word ‘Well’ if you like e.g. “Well, our lad, ’bout ye?”

Eariwig/ Earywig – an earwig. I don’t know why we put the extra letter into it. You can also use this as a synonym for eavesdrop e.g. “I caught that sleekit wee bitch eariwigging on me.”

Slippy-tit – this one isn’t all that common, but I love it anyway. It means someone who is sneaky, or can be used to describe someone who is trying to wheedle something out of you e.g. “He was slippy-titting about trying to get out without me noticing.”

Hoke – to root around for something e.g. “Hi Grainne, wid you quit hoking around in there!” A friend once asked my Dad “Here Eugene, have you ever been caught bin-hoking?” He said no, and the friend retorted “You must be wild good at it then!”

One final thought about how we speak our language in Northern Ireland. We love adding things on to the end of sentences:

“That’s a brave nice day, hi!”
“Aye, she’s a great going wee car, boy!”
“And she was late to meet me, but!”
“I’m away to get my messages, so I am.”
“I’m not being charged, ampninat?”

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Remember! You can submit your own Irish English words to the Open Dictionary on this page. What’s the Open Dictionary? Read more about it here.

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Comments (20)
  • Thank you for a very entertaining and interesting post! I love these kinds of colloquialisms. Sometimes it’s only through the Irish (or other) origins that a turn of phrase makes sense, as you showed with “an oul head on them”. I hear this and similar expressions quite a lot in the west of Ireland. Other examples might be “Would ya look at the face on that wan”; “That fella and the big head on him”.

    Culchie is now, I think, less derogatory in the south than it once was. It seems to be increasingly embraced as an affectionate term, albeit an unflattering one! The Culchie Festival positively celebrates culchiedom, while the Irish pop culture blog Culch.ie delivers in its title a double joke, with “culch” an abbreviated form of “culture”. Other possibilities as to the word’s origins are (1) Cúl an tí (“back of the house”); and (2) Coillte Mach (Kiltimagh, County Mayo), hence “Culchiemachs” in Brendan Behan’s Confessions of an Irish Rebel.

    Posted by Stan on 13th January, 2010
  • Hi Stan, thanks for the positive comment! I do agree with you about the word ‘Culchie’ in that it is definitely an affectionate insult. Have you seen RTE’s Soupy Norman at all? All eight episodes are on YouTube, if not – they’re great examples of the way in which the idea of Culchies has become institutionally funny. Actually, they’re worth watching anyway because they’re so funny 🙂

    Posted by Roisin Muldoon on 13th January, 2010
  • Hi Roisin, you’re very welcome! Yes, I saw and loved Soupy Norman, but thanks for the suggestion.

    Posted by Stan on 13th January, 2010
  • My maternal grandmother was Rose Ann Brydon by name, and her mother Eliza Dillon came to Argentina from Baltimore in the south of Ireland in the eighteen fifties. I love Irish English and learned the Hail Mary prayer by rote when I was only three.

    One day I felt bold enough to try my hand at real Irish and bought a copy of Teach Yourself Irish, a popular course by the London University Press. Well, I got to lesson 2 and then gave up, which I think must have been a record!

    Posted by Rich on 13th January, 2010
  • Great article, Roisin. Like you I am also from NI and an English teacher living in England. During this snowy, icy period I have been describing the slippery roads as being “like a bottle”, much to the amusement of my family and colleagues who are unfamiliar with this phrase.

    Also to describe someone as glum or sour, I use “a face on him/her like a Lurgan spade” (ie the long, thin type of spade).

    Finally another rural phrase for “Bout Ye?” is “How’s she cuttin?” to which the response would be “full of the blade”.

    All interesting stuff.

    Posted by Maria McClure on 14th January, 2010
  • Enjoyed that article. There’s a couple of other phrases that I think could be originally Irish or at least don’t seem to exist in standard English. I lived in a flat in London in the early 90s and there were times when I felt like a right culchie-alien.
    Like “Where’s the cups?” “They’re in the press!” “What, you put the cups in the press?!!” “Where else should I put them?” “Well we do have cupboards you know.”
    Or me: “Would you ever stop giving out?” “What?” “Would you ever stop giving out.” “What should I stop giving out? What on earth are you talking about? Do I smell or something? Or is that another one of your quaint little Irishisms?” I won’t give my answer here, but I thought about it and wonder if it doesn’t come from the Irish ‘bhí sé ag cur amach’ which means (for all the non-aliens out there) ‘he was giving out’ in the sense he was scolding or telling someone off.
    And then there’s the mother giving out 🙂 to her child saying ‘you’re a bold boy now. You shouldn’t be hitting your baby sister’. And she doesn’t mean he’s very manly and brave for smacking someone half his size. She means he’s a naughty child. Something from the Irish language?? I hope so, it would feel sort of comforting.

    Posted by Sinead on 14th January, 2010
  • Sorry should explain that in Ireland a little cupboard in the kitchen is a press. In England press is more restricted to a linen or clothes press.

    Posted by Sinead on 14th January, 2010
  • Oh, Maria, I love the phrase ‘how’s she cuttin’?’ and I haven’t heard it for ages, it’s a really rural one! And Sinead, giving out is a great expression too. It must come from the Irish and I think it is very expressive. Something that gives my English friends and my English boyfriend great amusement is when I start sentences with the word ‘sure’ like “Would you like to go to the pub tonight?” “Sure why not, that’d be great”

    Posted by Roisin on 14th January, 2010
  • Yes, really love the “how’s she cuttin’?” too. And completely overuse it when back in Ireland on holidays… What about the old classic: “how’s the craic?” London friends used to think it was an obscenity while it’s only a bit of innocent Irish fun. But I think these days it’s gone global (?). Although…time to admit ignorance. In between sentences I checked it up in Wikipedia and it actually seems the Irish language ‘borrowed’ it from Scots/Northern English dialects somewhere in the 50s/60s and then the English ‘borrowed’ it back again with the Irish spelling. Gas craic altogether! And where on earth does that ‘gas’ bit come from?

    Posted by Sinead on 14th January, 2010
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cynthia Sparks, Jag Bhalla, trixl, Ghausia, Linda Smith and others. Linda Smith said: RT @hangingnoodles: RT @MacDictionary: My favourite Irish-Eng word of the day? Slippy-tit, of course! http://bit.ly/753ZoW = someone wh … […]

    Posted by Tweets that mention A face like a fur hatchet and alike. English in Norn Iron -- Topsy.com on 15th January, 2010
  • Hi Roisin, just to confirm the comment from Stan that “Culchie” originates with the Mayo town of Kiltimagh. I heard this and no other explanation of the word during my years living in Dublin between ’80 and ’87. Great article by the way and well worth the read. Another British one for an ugly face is to “have a face like a bulldog licking piss off nettles” (which personally I adore).

    Posted by Patrick Chambers on 15th January, 2010
  • Dear Roisin,

    Thank you for your interesting article accompanied with the detailed vocabulary choice. I think I’ll be visiting the Blog more often for I’ve been learning a lot from you all. Moreover, I’ve already recommended it to other colleagues (EFL teachers of English).
    In 2000 I organised a study trip to Ireland (The State), and was delighted with the way locals speak their Irish-English. I remember when we were around Dan Laoghaire (… wrong spelling?) and we pronounced it so differently! I am not sure about the way it sounds…
    (Dan Lieri?…)
    I would appreciate very much your help on these Celtic proverbs: “As an obair a thagann an fhoghlaim.” (Learning comes through work); ” Mollan an obair an fear.”(The work praises the man). As we can see, the word “obair” appears in both proverbs. Does that mean work?
    Best wishes.

    Posted by Maria C. Costa on 15th January, 2010
  • Hi Maria,

    ‘Obair’ is the verb ‘To work’, you’re right! And they are very good examples of proverbs, which in Irish are called seanfhocail, which literally means ‘old words’, another turn of phrase I like a lot!

    Posted by Roisin on 15th January, 2010
  • Interesting; “How’s she cutting” in the south is correctly answered by “She’s trimming well”, and is taken as a nautical greeting.

    Obair is a verb, and also a noun.

    Posted by Pageturners on 18th January, 2010
  • What a marvelous find! As someone fascinated by language as well as having picked up a few words of Irish (Gaelige) here and there, I’m so excited to have found this site. Really looking forward to settling in for some good reading.

    Side note: I’ve always found it interesting that Gaelige sentence structure is so similar to that of Spanish–e.g., “There is anger on me.” In Spanish it often translates to “I got an anger” or “The anger came upon me.” Much more satisfying, I think.

    Posted by Emma Alvarez Gibson on 26th February, 2010
  • […] you are… ladies I mean – you’re all lovely!) have managed to provide posts about Irish English, Scottish English and South African English – I know some of my talented readers can pull an […]

    Posted by Of drugs, scowls and books « Second Hand Shopper on 22nd June, 2010
  • I love the phrase ‘would you look at the bacon and cabbage head on him’ meaning a man/farmer with a ruddy face.

    Posted by Wilson on 14th July, 2010
  • Excuse me for being a nag, but having some knowledge of Irish, I was struck by your using the name “Gaelige”, rather than “Gaeilge”…

    Posted by Matthijs Bouma on 24th June, 2014
  • Hi Matthijs, thanks for pointing out the typo. This has now been corrected.

    Posted by Macmillan Dictionary on 25th June, 2014
  • Thank-you so much. Made me laugh out loud, mostly due to many happy childhood memories. Arrived at this website to put my good wife right on the alternate meaning of starvin. Then thought about hoking and a bin hover. Jesus, I didn’t half laugh out loud. Took years off me. Thank-you.

    Posted by Kyle on 1st July, 2016
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