7 Interesting Words with Irish Connections

1. Quarks (and Finnegan’s Wake)

In 1963, Murray Gell-Man, proposed a name for his concept of an elementary particle of matter that is smaller than a proton or a neutron.

 “When I assigned the name “quark” to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon,” he wrote in his book The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, “I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been ‘kwork.’

“In one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word ‘quark.’”

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Sure he has not got much of a bark

And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

The line struck him as appropriate, since the hypothetical particles came in threes, and he adopted Joyce’s spelling for his “kwork.”

Murray Gell-Man imagined Joyce’s line to be a variation of a pub owner’s call of “Three quarts for Mister Mark.”

Joyce himself apparently was thinking of a German word for a dairy product resembling cottage cheese; it is also used as a synonym for quatsch, meaning “trivial nonsense”, and had clearly meant quark to rhyme with Mark or bark etc.


2.  Séanas (no word in English for this!)

In English, the word for a space or gap between two teeth is “diastema” – which can refer to any teeth.

The Irish have a particular word for this a
ttractive feature – the gap between your upper front teeth = “séanas”.





3.  Shebeen

A shebeen (Irish: síbín) was originally an illicit bar or club where excisable alcoholic beverages were sold without a licence. They played an important part in Ireland, but spread to many other countries, notably South Africa.

Shebeens began to  pop up in women’s homes in the 1800s in South Africa and expanded significantly after 1927, when the Liquor Act was enforced and prohibited non-white South Africans from entering licensed establishments that sold alcohol and also from selling alcohol themselves.

Especially when apartheid legislation was enforced in 1948, these makeshift and illegal businesses became havens for those seeking to express their thoughts freely. They also served as a breeding ground for artful forms of expression from talents such as musician Spokes Mashiyane and guitarist/composer Allen Kwela—trailblazers who created the hallmark sounds of upbeat African jazz and kwela: pennywhistle-enriched street music with jazzy undertones.

By the ’60s, there were reportedly more than 10,000 in Soweto alone.


4. Hooligan

This almost certainly comes from a twist on the surname Hoolihan. In the 1890s the English comic paper Nuggets featured an Irish immigrant family called the Hooligans, depicted in a typically pejorative way.

A, The Hooligans, was known to have been performed by the Irish comedians Jim O’Connor and Charles Brady to great success as two roistering boys named Bill Jinks and Bob Buster at the Theatre Royal Hull at the end of 1891:

Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
    Always on the riot,
    Cannot keep them quiet,
Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
    They are the boys,
    To make a noise,
    In our backyard.




4. Plámás

This means flattery,  or soft talk.

We’re quite familiar with this one, simply because there is no English word quite like it – it means flattery, yes, but a certain type of flattery. One that’s used to soften someone up, bend them to your will…

It works as both a noun (as in “Ah sure that is just plamás”… “he has a bit of the ould plamás about him”) and as a verb (“he plamásed his way into her good books”).





5. Boycott

From Capt Charles Boycott, agent for the absentee Mayo landlord Lord Erne during the Land War (1878-1909).

Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English land agent whose ostracism by his local community in Ireland gave the English language the verb “to boycott”.

Charles Stewart Parnell, as president of the Irish National Land League, kicked it off by urging people to ostracise anyone who attempted to take the farms of evicted tenants.

Boycott became one of the first victims when he tried to evict tenants after they demanded a decent rent decrease following a poor harvest at Lough Mask near Ballinrobe.






6. Seoinín

An Irish person who imitates British ways.

This, ironically, inspired the English word ‘shoneen’, which can be used to refer to someone who behaves obsequiously to someone important (a lick, in other words).





7. Brogue 

This basic footwear made from hide was worn in Ireland, and was so commonplace it needed only to be called “bróg”, or shoe.

Origin perhaps from the meaning “rough, stout shoe” (made of rawhide and tied with thongs), of the type worn by rural Irish and Scottish highlanders (1580s), via Gaelic or Irish, from Old Irish broce “shoe.”

The footwear was “characteristic of the wilder Irish” [Century Dictionary], thus the noun might mean something like “speech of those who call a shoe a brogue.”

Or perhaps it is from Old Irish barrog “a hold” (on the tongue).


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