Language | Sorry for your Troubles : Hiberno-English and a history of euphemism.

infomatique CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Revellers outside Peadar Kearney's pub on Dame Street in Dublin on St Patrick's Day.

In which the author gives out* about the Hiberno-English tendency towards euphemism

*tabhairt amach (lit) to give out (fig) to complain about something

A topical post for the day that’s in it (An lá atá inniu ann – given the special occasion of this day (St Patrick’s Day, the national Irish holiday)),

I was reminded recently about the Irish skill at avoiding the more delicate subjects of conversation, despite being the supposed keepers of the gift of the gab.

Take two of the more turbulent periods in 20th century Irish (and world) history, The Second World War and the Conflict in Northern Ireland.

In Hiberno-English and historically in Ireland, these are referred to as The Emergency and The Troubles respectively. The latter in particular sounds to me like a very understated description of a 30-year-long armed conflict claiming over three thousand lives, with the former evoking a much less serious event than the deadliest conflict in the history of humanity.

Of course, Ireland’s neutrality and the ever-present loss in translation between the Irish language and English may have influenced the nomenclature in the case of The Emergency at least, although other neutral countries did not skirt the issue in their native language. Neutral Switzerland referred to the period as Grenzbesetzung (Border Occupation) 1939–45,  although their closer proximity to matters at hand may have played a role in this description.

Jennifer O’Connell writes in the Irish Times about the supposed Irish humility and love of the word sorry, remarking that:

That’s because when an American – or an English person or an Australian – says “sorry”, they usually mean they are sorry. Out of the mouth of an Irish person, ‘sorry’ can mean anything from “get out of my way” to “I didn’t hear you” to “I’m sad for you”. It is rarely used to denote an actual apology, probably because we are seldom wrong.

At the same time, the long-windedness of Irish English can appear deferent, along with leading in the negative, as in:

You wouldn’t fancy a pint now, would ya?

You wouldn’t be wanting to head out, would ya?

The Irish language’s lack of words for yes and no gave Hiberno English its delightful ’tis as an affirmation, and a conspicuous absence of the word yes, allowing Irish politicians to skirt delicate issues with ease.

Another unfriendly Hiberno-English euphemism that has risen in recently years has been the teeth-gritting epithet non-national, a softened foreigner who has probably been resident in the Auld Sod for more years than he or she cares to remember and could even hold citizenship of the Emerald Isle but wasn’t born in the Land of Saints and Scholars.

Indeed, the term has been ridiculed in both traditional and online media, with a possible interpretation of the term as denoting a form of statelessness akin to Tom Hanks’ character in The Terminal, a citizen of nowhere. Which of course was not the intended meaning, the term likely stemming from the Irish Immigration Bureau’s officialese term non-EEA-national.

At risk of sounding like a typical Irish begrudger, I’d like to say my piece by reminding that despite its fondness of euphemism and other foibles, Hiberno-English has given the world the judged-Nobel-worthy poetry and prose of Yeats, Heaney, Shaw and Beckett, the equally-Nobel-worthy-IMHO writings of Joyce, Synge and Swift, the words smithereens, phoney and through the Anglicisation of my own Gaelic family name O’Loinsigh, a handy term for mob murder found in many languages worldwide!

Happy Paddy‘s Day everyone!

Gerard Lynch, Ph.D is an Associate Editor at Wide Orbits. He was born in Dublin during the Nineteen Eighties and can tend towards sarcasm on occasion. This post was originally published on his blog The Lines of Others and appears here in an edited form.