by Mignon Fogarty
Sponsor: Audible.com, the Internet’s leading provider of audiobooks with more than 100,000 downloadable titles across all types of literature, including fiction, non-fiction and periodicals. For a free audiobook of your choice, go to audiblepodcast.com/gg.
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, this week I have some interesting ways that Irish English differs from American English and some words and phrases that have Irish origins.
Himself and Herself: The Important People
I’ve talked in the past about how to properly use the word “myself.” In American English, it’s considered wrong to use it in the object position—to say something like “Bring the corned beef and cabbage to myself.” The right choice is “me”: “Bring the corned beef and cabbage to me.”
However, “myself” is a reflexive pronoun, which means it’s in the same group of words as “himself” and “herself,” and Irish English has a special use for these words. I first discovered it when I was listening to the Outlander audiobooks by Diana Gabaldon. The books are set in Scotland. (Trust me, my family is Irish, so I know that Scottish and Irish aren’t the same thing, but in this case, both languages have the interesting quirk.) In the book, characters refer to Colum MacKenzie, Laird of Castle Leoch, as “himself.”
Here’s an example from the book (1):
“Weel now, that’s varra gude. Now, ye’ve just time for a wee bite, then I must take you to himself.”
“Himself?” I said. I didn’t care for the sound of this. Whoever Himself was, he was likely to ask difficult questions.
It took me a while to realize that they only used “himself” to refer to Colum and not to any other characters, and after I looked it up, it made sense. In Scottish and Irish English, “himself”—and “herself”—are used to refer to someone of importance, like the lord of the castle or the master of the house. (2, 3)
Himself isn’t here at the moment.
Hickey notes that “himself” isn’t just substituting for “he.” It means “a specific person of authority or respect” such as someone’s boss or father or a woman’s husband.
I also found a cute Irish culture website where the people who run the site are listed under the heading “Himself & Herself” on the “About Us” page. (5)
“Myself” as an Object
Although “himself” and “herself” have this additional meaning in Irish English, I also get the sense that it is more acceptable in Irish English to use “myself” in ways that we’d consider wrong in American English.
For example, the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “myself” notes that using the word as the object of a verb is archaic except in Irish English. (6) That would be a sentence such as “He brought myself some corned beef and cabbage.”
I also found a blog about Irish language and culture called A Bit Irish that has some examples of how “myself” is used in Irish English. For example, the writer says, “You will often hear ‘Myself and Tommy went to town’ rather than ‘Tommy and I went to town.’ ” (7)
Why Is it Called Hiberno-English?
As an aside, one thing you’ll notice if you start researching Irish English is that it is also often called Hiberno-English, so I looked into why.
It turns out Hibernia was the Roman name for Ireland. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Hibernia is from a Latin word that meant “land of winter” and it’s related to the word “hibernation.” (8)
Is "Shebang" Irish?
Finally, Brian left a comment on last week’s episode saying he thought “shebang” from the saying “the whole shebang” might be Irish. I checked all the sources I could find, and none of them mentioned an Irish connection. A few suggested it might be from a French word for a type of bus or wagon with many seats. (9, 10)
But everyone seemed to like idioms so much last week that I have two phrases for you that do come from Irish.
What Are Smithereens?
First, is “blown to smithereens.” “Smithereens” is an Irish word that means “small fragments.” A couple of sources say that the “een” suffix on the end may have the same diminutive meaning as it does on the end of the name Colleen. (11, 12)
Why Would Being on a Pig’s Back Make You Happy?
Second, the idiom “on the pig’s back” is a translation directly from Irish. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, it means “living a life of ease and luxury or being in a very fortunate situation.” (13) The Phrase Finder site says it’s been in use in Irish since the 17th century and in English since the 19th century. (14)
I checked a bunch of sources, but I couldn’t find anything that explained why being on a pig’s back would make you lucky, fortunate, or happy. It’s a mystery to me, so if you know, please leave a comment.
Mignon Fogarty, is the author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, The Grammar Devotional, and many other books about language.
1. Gabaldon, D. Outlander. Anchor Canada. 2002.
2. “himself.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary online. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/himself (accessed March 14, 2013).
3. “himself.” Dolan, T.P. A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. 2006. Gill & Macmillan, Ltd. Dublin. http://j.mp/Z2vFwD (accessed March 14, 2013).
4. Hickey, R. “Remarks on pronominal usage.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia (15). 1983. 47-53 https://www.uni-due.de/~lan300/02_Remarks_on_Pronominal_Usage_in_Hiberno-English_(Hickey).pdf (accessed March 14, 2013).
5. Haggerty, B. and Haggerty, R. “About Us.” Irish Culture and Customs. http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/HimHerself1030.html (accessed March 14, 2013).
6. “myself.” Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition. 2003. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/124613?rskey=Ti12s0&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid (accessed March 14, 2013).
7. “Twas myself that was in it.” A Bit Irish. http://abitirish.tumblr.com/post/30621748487/twas-himself-that-was-in-it (accessed March 14, 2013).
8. Harper, D. “hibernia.” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hibernia (accessed March 14, 2013).
9. Kipfer, B.A. and Chapman, R.L., eds. “shebang” Dictionary of American Slang, 4th edition. 2007. Collins: New York. p. 454.
10. Harper, D. “shebang.” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/shebang (accessed: March 14, 2013).
11. Martin, G. “Blown to smithereens” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/blown-to-smithereens.html (accessed March 14, 2013).
12. Harper, D. “smithereens.” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/smithereens (accessed: March 14, 2013).
13. Ayto, J., ed. “on the pig’s back.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 3rd edition. 2008. Oxford University Press. p.263
14. Martin, G. “on the pig’s back.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/on-the-pigs-back.html (accessed March 14, 2013).
Paddy Versus Patty
Bring Versus Take
Talk like the Irish