14 May 2012

Sheughs, stoons and cute hoors

American English, so those who know about these things tell us, is a strong language. New words appear, older words have newer meanings attached to them and all integrate rapidly into the language; think of how the word gay changed its meaning. And there are no nouns that can’t be verbed. British English is a weak language; neologisms are seen as effeminate, feeble things, best left to those who can’t use a dictionary or thesaurus.

There are some American words whose meanings isn’t immediately clear, at least not to me. I came across Bazinga recently, and had to be told that it was Bingo! A Brit might have said Eureka!

Irish English tends to coin new phrases rather than words; there are plenty of words around, many of them unknown to the outside world. And in the north, the ability to speak words without the benefit of vowels and through clenched teeth, almost like a ventriloquist, makes understanding even more difficult for the foreigner. Northern Ireland gets reduced to Norn Iron.

Even within Norn Iron, there are words which have a limited geographical spread. I first heard forenenst many years ago from an elderly lady in Belfast who had, she said, wrought for my grandfather. Forenenst conventionally means “opposite”, “away from”, but the closest I can get to it is “vis-à-vis”. I don’t think yous have to be facing one another to be forenenst. I asked her what the opposite of forenenst was; after a short pause, she said it was begannt*. While forenenst is easily found in dictionaries, I have never found begannt. And forenenst is almost unknown today, certainly out in the western sticks.

Yous is the plural of you; in standard English ‘you’ is singular or plural. But here it seems that the Irish, being forced to learn English and knowing that most English plurals are made by adding an ’s’, made a separate plural where none had previously existed. And if yous isn’t specific enough, then address a group as yous’ns.

You might think you know what a ditch is; the drainage channel at the edge of a field. Well, not here it isn’t. Here, the excavated channel is a sheugh, and the earth that you’ve piled up alongside it is the ditch. And the centre of the ditch forms the field boundary.

Be careful not to injure yourself while digging the sheugh, for if you do, I hope you are a good tholer, well able to endure the stoons of pain. And be sure to dress any would well, less it starts to beel.

After that activity, you might need refreshment at the pub. Notwithstanding the advance of the French Revolutionary metric system, Guinness is still sold in pints. But don’t be a wimp and ask for a glass of Guinness, as you’ll get half what you expected.

Listen to the craic (forgetting that craic is an Irish back-formation from crack). If you were in the South, as opposed to the North, you might hear so-and-so being described as a cute hoor. Now, don’t get that wrong, they aren’t discussing the talents of the local floozie.

Political corruption was/is a sad fact of life in The State — The Republic of Ireland — and many politicians have done financially very well for themselves and their cronies. A cute hoor is such a (male) politician, perhaps before he’s been disgraced, who is regarded with a mixture of awe and jealousy.

*Begannt. I don’t know if this is the “correct” spelling, I reproduce it as I heard it. The old lady did pronounce forenenst, which seems to be the established spelling, as fernenst.

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