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  The lexicon of Irish English


The linguistic level which has been given greatest attention by non-linguists is certainly the lexicon. The tradition of gathering word-lists goes back at least two centuries if one takes the glossaries gathered by Vallancey for the archaic dialect of Forth and Bargy in the south-east corner of Ireland (Vallancey 1788).

Some Irish English words represent archaic or regional usage which has survived in Ireland. For instance, the adjectives mad and bold retain earlier meanings of ‘keen on’ and ‘misbehaved’ respectively. In some cases the words are a mixture of archaism and regionalism, e.g. cog ‘cheat’, chisler ‘child’, mitch ‘play truant’. There are also semantic extensions and shifts which have taken place in Ireland as with yoke with the general meaning of a thing/device or hames ‘complete mess’ (from ‘collar on a horse’). An additional feature is the merger of items which are complementary in meaning: ditch is used for dyke; bring and take, rent and let, borrow and lend are often interchanged and learn is used colloquially to mean ‘teach’ (archaic English usage) as in That will learn you!

Although Irish today is spoken natively by less than one percent of the population and although the knowledge of Irish among the majority is, in general, very poor indeed, there is a curious habit of flavouring one’s speech by adding a few words from Irish, sometimes condescendingly called using the cúpla focal (lit. ‘couple of words’). Such words are always alternatives to English terms readily available, e.g. ciúineas ‘silence’, piseog ‘superstition’, sláinte ‘health’ or plámás ‘flattery’. Such incursions into the lexicon of Irish are brief and superficial. Borrowings can go both ways, e.g. the common term craic for ‘social enjoyment’ is a loan from Irish, itself originally a borrowing from English.

The difficulty with the lexicon of Irish English lies not in finding words which come from Irish or from regional/archaic English but in determining whether these are current in present-day Irish English and, if so, for what sections of the population. There is a great difference in the lexical items available to and used by, say, older rural inhabitants and young urbanites.

Lexicographically, the north of Ireland is well served by Fenton (2014), Macafee (1996), Todd (1990) and the south in recent years has experienced a number of publications in this sphere (with varying degrees of linguistic analysis), Ó Muirithe (1996), Share (2003 [1997]), Dolan (2004 [1998]). Traynor (1953) and Moylan (1996) are regional lexical studies. For more detailed discussions of the Irish English lexicon, see Hickey (2005). Kallen (1996) provides a linguistically interesting examination of the structure of the present-day lexicon. There also exist studies of the vocabulary of individual literary authors, especially James Joyce, e.g. Dent (1994), O’Hehir (1967). Wall (1995) is a general lexicon of literary works.


Beecher, Seán. 1983. A Dictionary of Cork Slang. Cork: Goldy Angel Press.

Bergin, Osborn 1943. ‘Bróg “shoe”’, Éigse 3, 237-9.

Dent, R. W. 1994. Colloquial language in Ulysses. A reference tool. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Dolan, Terence P. 2012 [1998]. A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. The Irish use of English. Third edition. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Fenton, James 2014 [1995]. The hamely tongue. A personal record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim. Fourth edition. Newtownards: Ulster-Scots Academic Press.

Hickey, Raymond 2005. ‘English in Ireland’, in D. Alan Cruse, Franz Hundsnurscher, Michael Job and Peter R. Lutzeier (eds) Lexikologie-Lexicology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 1256-60.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 1996. ‘Entering lexical fields in Irish English’, in Klemola, Kytö and Rissanen (eds), 101-29.

Kirk, John M. 1999. ‘The dialect vocabulary of Ulster’, in: Cuadernos de Filolgia Inglesa, 8: 305-34.

Macafee, Caroline (ed.) 1996. A concise Ulster dictionary. Oxford: University Press.

Moylan, Séamus 1996. The language of Kilkenny. Dublin: Geography Publications.

Murphy, Gerard 1943. ‘English ‘brogue’ meaning “Irish accent”’, Éigse 3, 231-6.

O’Hehir, Brendan 1967. A Gaelic lexicon for ‘Finnegans Wake’ and glossary for Joyce’s other works. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ó Muirithe, Diarmuid 1996. Dictionary of Anglo-Irish. Words and phrases from Irish. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Share, Bernard 2003 [1997]. Slanguage — a dictionary of slang and colloquial English in Ireland. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Todd, Loreto 1990. Words apart. A dictionary of Northern Irish English. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.

Traynor, Michael 1953. The English dialect of Donegal. A glossary. Incorporating the collections of H. C. Hart, etc. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Vallancey, Charles 1787-8. ‘Memoir of the language, manners, and customs of an Anglo-Saxon colony settled in the baronies of Forth and Bargie, in the County of Wexford, Ireland, in 1167, 1168, 1169’, Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 2, 19-41.

Wall, Richard 1995. A dictionary and glossary for the Irish literary revival. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.