Top of the morning to yourself

Posted by on July 18, 2011

“Top of the morning to you”, or more casually “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya”, is a well-known traditional Irish greeting that Irish people don’t really use any more – at least not without irony, in my experience. Essentially it means “The best part of the morning to you”; a typical response would be “And the rest of the day to you.”

In his much-loved book English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), P. W. Joyce reported that the expression was used throughout the country; a century later, this is no longer the case. It may once have been a common salutation used at either end of some small talk, but I’ve only heard it used ironically or jocularly by Irish people.

“Top of the morning to you” would, like begorra(h) (a minced form of by God), be considered an Oirishism or a Paddyism, something popularly associated with stereotypes of Irishness but which is seldom or never used by Irish people themselves. As a recognisable caricature it has a certain commercial value, so it occasionally appears in marketing campaigns as a shorthand for Irishness and whatever else that’s intended to convey.

I mentioned the traditional response, “And the rest of the day to you”, but the last word would be just as likely to take the form yourself. Reflexive pronouns are very common in Irish English, often used for slight emphasis, e.g., “Good man/woman yourself”, “Ah, ‘tis yourself!” There are a few examples at the foot of this page:

“An’ is it yourself that’s there, Mikee Noonan?” said the one first introduced to the reader.
“Indeed it’s myself and nobody else,” said Noonan
(Samuel Lover, The Burial of the Tithe)

And here:

“You know yourself ‘tisn’t lucky to postpone a wedding.”
“’Tis herself was picked, so no other’ll do.”
(M.J. Molloy, The King of Friday’s Men)

As well as being used this way, herself and himself also serve as informal terms for “the wife” or “the woman of the house”, and “the husband” or “the man of the house”, respectively. It’s a colloquial way of mentioning someone casually, respectfully, and perhaps with a little mild, affectionate mockery. A character in The Irish Twins says, “Come along to my house this afternoon, and listen to Himself telling about the States!” You can imagine eyes rolled or eyebrows raised in knowing amusement in the delivery of that line.

Comments (21)
  • And top of the morning to yourself, Stan. The English are fond of these language stereotypes – not just the ‘Oirishisms’ you mention, but expressions like ‘hoots mon’ and ‘och aye the noo’ (supposed to be used by Scottish people) or ‘bonzer’ and ‘fair dinkum’ (supposedly typical of Australians). As far as I know, no-one ever actually says any of these things except as a joke – but it’s a feature of stereotypes that they persist regardless of any evidence (however strong) which invalidates them. What do speakers of other varieties think that English people say, I wonder?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 18th July, 2011
  • And the rest of the day to yourself, Michael. I remember learning “Och aye the noo” and similar caricatured Scottishisms from the Hot Shot Hamish comic strip in Roy of the Rovers. You’re right that these stereotyped expressions persist regardless, as though they had their own lives quite independent of reality.
    As to BrE stereotypes, I don’t know. Phrases like innit, just not cricket, and fancy a cuppa seem quintessentially English to me, but they also appear to be in common usage, and they aren’t exaggerated the way Hoots mon and Begorrah are.

    Posted by Stan on 18th July, 2011
  • If these phrases are not being used any more, then it is our loss. Is language losing its colour and character, and becoming white and sterile like corporate cubicles? Or does modern language have its own colour that we can’t see, but will be lost, and mourned by the future generations.

    Posted by Passer by on 18th July, 2011
  • Stan:
    Good post. Here in New Jersey we have the same problem with stereotypes. For example, when I was at school(university) in Michigan, and said I was from New Jersey, the 100 percent response was, “Oh, you’re from Joisey!” NO ONE IN NEW JERSEY TALKS THAT WAY!! Actually, that dialectal marker is closer to the Brooklyn dialect that was heavily influenced by Irish immigration( don’t ask me where the Irish got it from, and yes, Brooklyn has other dialectal influences, such as Yiddish). In northeastern NJ, close to the water, specifically in Jersey City, the pronunciation of Jersey is largely non-rhotic, but it is closer to JUHSEY. In Central New Jersey, where I live, most of the dialect is rhotic, except for words like corner or quarter, which we pronounce with internal non-rhoticity (cawner).One more item: Some years back, when I worked in Manhattan, a colleague who hailed from some part of Sussex(England) referreed to Jersey, and I sanctimoniously told her: “Jersey is one of the Channel Islands. I live in NEW Jersey). Luckily, she didn’t hit me.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 18th July, 2011
  • Passer: Those are good questions. I think that the loss of regional variation is everyone’s loss — especially when it’s an entire language that dies, which happens a lot. But there will always be linguistic innovation and invention, and I wouldn’t say language is losing its colour and character. Some phrases inevitably fade and disappear; others emerge to take their place or express another nuance. If there’s a particular expression someone wants to see survive, they can keep using it.

    Marc: Very interesting, thank you. I suppose part of why we stereotype each other so reliably is our tendency to categorise: as kids we learn to label everything and put it in assorted boxes. Also, we imitate our peers and role models so much that we inherit caricatures effortlessly. I grew up surrounded by people who mostly talked quite like me (west of Ireland accent), but if I’d attended a school where my accent stood out, I’ve no doubt it would have been a significant social marker, at the very least.

    Posted by Stan on 18th July, 2011
  • [...] to small talk, with an Irish flavour: in “Top of the morning to yourself” I examine a well-known Irish greeting that no one in Ireland seems to use anymore except in jest [...]

    Posted by Dialects and dimpsy doddermen « Sentence first on 4th August, 2011
  • I never knew what the response to “top o’ the mornin’ to ya” was until I read it here! I experienced it in the U.S. with Americans using it affectionately in recognition of my “Oirishism”. I wasn’t offended and accepted it in the spirit it was offered. The “herself” and “himself” were used regularly by my parents – my mother using it with customers to refer to my father (who was a small businessman) as in “you’d better talk to himself” and my father used it with commercial salesmen in relation to my mother as in “you’d better talk to herself” – in other words, abdicating responsibility!

    Posted by Helen on 13th August, 2011
  • I didn’t know the standard response either, Helen, until I looked into it. The original phrase is so rarely used as an authentic greeting that the response seems to have faded into obscurity. You make a good point about the spirit in which it’s offered. I would have no objections to having it addressed to me sincerely, or even jokingly; it’s the dancing leprechaun – complete with ludicrous accent and something to sell – that makes me cringe.
    Thanks for the lovely example of how your parents used himself and herself. It’s very characteristically Irish.

    Posted by Stan on 13th August, 2011
  • i’ve always enjoyed the variations of different languages and the irish is one of my favorites. been up looking for irish sayings and happened onto this page. i really enjoyed the information.

    Posted by theresa on 16th March, 2012
  • Thanks for letting us know, Theresa; I’m glad you found the article and that its contents appealed. You might also be interested in this page of resources on Irish English.

    Posted by Stan on 16th March, 2012
  • [...] please, for the love of Jaysus, Joseph and Mary, please don’t wish anyone the top o’ the mornin’! ‘Tis yourself dat’ll sound like an [...]

    Posted by What’s the craic? | As a Linguist… on 16th March, 2012
  • [...] Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, design lovers! It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so by all accounts, I should be posting about shamrocks, or three-leaf clover. (Fun fact: St. Patrick used the shamrock in his teachings to illustrate the Christian concept of the Trinity.) However, I quite like this Four-Leaf Clover Print by Banquet Atelier & Workshop. [...]

    Posted by Four Leaf Clover Art - Print Of A Four Leaf Clover | Design Happens on 17th March, 2012
  • [...] Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, design lovers! It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so by all accounts, I should be posting about shamrocks, or three-leaf clover. (Fun fact: St. Patrick used the shamrock in his teachings to illustrate the Christian concept of the Trinity.) However, I quite like this Four-Leaf Clover Print by Banquet Atelier & Workshop. [...]

    Posted by Daily Delight: Four-Leaf Clover Art Print « Weston Chronicles on 17th March, 2012
  • My mother-in-law was born in Canada of an Irish family (Crowley). When I first met her on St. Patrick’s Day weekend (interestingly enough) 22 years ago, she taught me the traditional response, and I have had fun sharing it with others over the years.

    On a different linguistic note, I took 4 years of German in high school from an Austrian teacher. When I started classes in college with a native German professor, she was amused that I spoke with an Austrian accent!

    Posted by Katie on 17th March, 2012
  • Katie: I’ve sometimes wondered what constitutes an Austrian accent, because apparently I have one too! At least I did in university, where my lecturer told me I spoke German with an Austrian accent. I felt at the time that it probably owed something to Irish phonology.

    Posted by Stan on 19th March, 2012
  • [...] Top of the morning to yourself | Macmillan“Herself Long Ago” is one of my most popular books. [] The very title stirs the imagination. [] People want to know about these six Irish women from a thousand … [...]

    Posted by Herself irish | Chinesenamesea on 29th August, 2012
  • when i was a kid in brooklyn, new york,1945 and 46, i had a wonderful teacher in the first and second grades, miss donellen, who was not exactly a young lady when she taught me to read and write. she also taught my class that to the greeting “the top of the morning to you,” one should reply “and the cream to you!” a variant of what others have written above. no doubt a regional idiomatic turn.

    Posted by Fredric Litto on 15th September, 2013
  • Fredric: That’s a new one on me, and I like it. I don’t know its origin, but I imagine it comes from farming territory – a regional variation, as you say.

    Posted by Stan on 16th September, 2013
  • I`m Irish born,living in Australia and I can assure you ,fair dinkum IS used very often

    Posted by kate harkins on 17th March, 2014
  • My grandmother, born in the 1890′s in Newfoundland, was a 3rd generation Newfoundlander. When she spoke, though, she sounded like she was from Ireland.
    When I lived in Vietnam for a short while, I had to speak with an English accent or the English-speaking Vietnamese didn’t understand me. They had learned English from a Brit, while I had my Canadian accent. Luckily, I had lived in England for a couple of years, so the accent wasn’t difficult for me to speak.

    Posted by Dolan on 17th March, 2014
  • Hi Kate, thanks for letting us know.

    Dolan, that’s an interesting example of the difference accents can make to non-native speakers. I’m sure the locals – and you yourself – were grateful for your ability to use a British accent.

    Posted by Stan on 17th March, 2014
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