What’s the craic?

Irish immigrants have had a significant influence on the history of New York and the surrounding areas. One of the lingering effects is that Saint Patrick’s Day has become a day on which almost everyone, regardless of ethnicity, takes pride in being “Irish for a day.” Unfortunately, this generally translates into nothing more than wearing green, drinking a lot of green beer, and wearing “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” buttons as a way to get a little guilt-free touch from strangers.

Folks should at least learn a little bit more about the Irish as a way to celebrate. Most of us adore an Irish accent (I know it makes me a bit weak in the knees!), though trying to imitate it is a daunting prospect: most mangle it beyond recognition. A better place to start would be a bit of slang that they could pick up to impress their friends over a jar of the black stuff (a pint of Guinness).

Annie Moore’s is just half a block from Grand Central Station.

Annie Moore was 14 years old in 1892 when she left County Cork, Ireland on the transatlantic steamship Nevada. She celebrated her 15th birthday on the day she landed in New York and became the first immigrant to be officially processed through the newly-opened Ellis Island. Now, there are statues of her both in Ireland and in New York.

There’s also Annie Moore’s, an Irish pub on East 43rd Street in Manhattan. That’s where I would go to wait for my 11:03 p.m. Hudson Line train home from my first teaching job after graduate school. It’s also where I heard my first bit of real, live Irish slang.

One night when I was there with a friend, it was more crowded than usual, and we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by a group of Irish businessmen in town just for a few days. They were laughing loudly, singing, and doing nothing to dispel the stereotype of the drunken Irishman. They asked us to sing them a song.

“All we want is fer an American girl to sing us a song!” And so we sang for them in return for a couple of drinks.

“Ah, fair play, lasses! Fair play!”

There it was. Fair play. I asked what it meant, and he said it was what they say when someone did something good, like saying well done. So we sang some more to get them to say fair play again in that wonderful, lilting Irish accent.

Years later, I was working in Portugal with a woman (I’ll call her Bee) from Northern Ireland. The first time she said fair play, the memories of Annie Moore’s came flooding back. Even better, though, was that I had much more time to learn more Irish slang from Bee than I ever did from bolloxed (very drunk) businessmen.

I loved hearing her speak, even if I sometimes didn’t always quite understand her. She once came into my classroom in the middle of a lesson. She said something that sounded like “Javyerkays?” After a couple of more times, I finally figured out it out: “D’ya have yer keys?” She’d locked hers in the teachers’ room.

Beyond the fabulous accent, I also loved the new words I was learning. In warmer weather, Bee would come slamming through the door of the office after teaching her kids class, and yell, “Ach, the wee fuckers are MINGIN’ today!”

The wee shillelagh that Bee gave me. It’s a small Irish fighting club. Click on the picture to learn more.

Ah, mingin’. Come to think of it, it was often qualified with fucking (or fecking). I suppose that makes sense. When something smelled bad enough to be called mingin’ or mankin’, and not just smelly or stinky, then it required a strong qualifying adverb. This also seems true of eejit (idiot).

When the kids were good, however, they were no longer wee fuckers but instead became wee dotes, or cute little kids.

Bee would often talk to her da (father) who would always remind her to eat her spuds (potatoes) so that she wouldn’t get ill (Sick would be vomit.) On a Fridays, she might ask us “What’s the craic?” That last word is pronounced like ‘crack’, and it meant that she was asking what fun things were planned for the coming weekend.

The craic then for this weekend is to enjoy the day and, though I’ll be avoiding the 5th Avenue parade and subsequent crowds at Annie Moore’s, I’ll most likely indulge in a pint or two. Of course, no Saint Patrick’s Day celebration would be complete without knowing how to say “Cheers!” like a proper Irish person. That would be the Gaelic word Sláinte (pronounced “slahn-cha” and meaning ‘health’).

And please, for the love of Jaysus, Joseph and Mary, please don’t wish anyone the top o’ the mornin’! ‘Tis yourself dat’ll sound like an eejit.

For more fun Irish slang, check out Irish Abroad.

So you Americans – what slang are you going to try out tomorrow?

 And if any real Irish folks out there are reading, do you have anything to add or correct?

27 thoughts on “What’s the craic?

  1. Oooh, now. Minging. It’s a word my (English) daughter and friends use a lot. Can anyone help here? Is this the voice of the Irish, or simply the young? It’s ages since I’ve heard a real Irish accent. It seems to be missing from life in the south of France. What a pity. Like everyone else, I love it, both the northern and southern variety.

    • I didn’t include a lot of the words or phrases I learned from Bee that were also common to my English and Scottish colleagues, but she seemed to be the only one that used ‘minging’. I don’t know if it’s spread, or if it has, which way it spread (Irish to English or vice versa). All I know is that I love it :)

      • Interesting, my English husband uses the word ‘minging’ on occasion, but exclusively as an adjective applied to a particularly unattractive woman. So that seems a separate, but perhaps related, use of the word.

      • The best I can come up with so far is from Wikipedia:
        ‘From Scots “mingin”. revolting, stinking, putrid, rancid etc.’ So those Gaelic origins may have encouraged it to cross the water to Ireland. Who knows?

      • Here’s the entry from the Urban Dictionary.

        Ignoring entry #1, which seems incongruous, the interesting ones are #3 and #6. Both suggest that the word didn’t reach beyond Scotland and northern England until 10 years ago or so. Entry #6 gives credit to the British Army for spreading the term, which certainly seems possible. The military – in any country – can often be more of a linguistic innovator and conduit than it’s often given credit for.

  2. In May ’98, I spent a weekend in Dublin. Best weekend ever. Tasted my very first Guinness at the brewery. Best Guinness ever. Heard many words – listened to many conversations. Best place ever. :)

    • It certainly sounds like it was! :)
      I’ve been told that the Guinness really is best in Dublin. It tastes different even in other places in Ireland. I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s just local pride (like New Yorkers and bagels), but either way, I want to find out! Mmmm, Guinness…

  3. Hmm, it’s St. Patrick’s Day and I didn’t even notice until I read this (yet another excellent) post. Not a clover or funny green hat to be found anywhere in the shops. I find it ironic, given I’m living in a country which includes a part of Ireland, that it’s the Americans making a big deal of March 17th. Perhaps I’ll have to ask my Irish sister-in-law how they celebrate the day back home… The quintissential sound of an Irish accent to me is when she speaks of going to see a “fil-em” (film).

    • Oh gosh, I’d forgotten that Bee used to talk about “fil-ems” :) She told us that at least in Northern Ireland, St.Pat’s is not a big deal at all. I’ll bet NY has one of the largest St.Pat’s celebrations anywhere. About 7 out of every 10 people I saw on the street today were wearing green (we’re staying in Manhattan for the weekend). There are pub crawls, there are tons of college kids in from the suburbs, there are older people who are actually of Irish descent and not just out for happy hour, there are people of all races wearing green t-shirts that say ‘Irish once a year’, and one guy is walking around with a Lucky Charms box on his head as a hat. I’ve already seen people drunk enough to be vomiting at 4 in the afternoon. The parade just ended (it ran from 11-5…we avoided it at all costs…).

      It’s safe to say that New York embraces St.Pat’s ;)

      • Limr
        St Patrick’s day not celebrated in Northern Irl, 6 counties, as opposed to the North of Ireland which includes the other 3 counties. Northern Irl is under British rule and so wouldn’t be quite the same as other 26 counties comprising of North” as opposed to Northern”, East, West and South of Irl. In Irl if you refer to Southerb Irl you would be talking of countiez down south like Cork and Kerry.

  4. Thanks for the Urban Dictionary: I’d forgotten all about it. And thanks for that interesting detour sparked by your blog, which I always love. I’m really enjoying this community of bloggers. What will I come up against next?

  5. Tee hee I loved this post more than a wee bit! I absolutely love Irish and English accents (okay, I’m obsessed with accents in general) and learning new slang/phrases.

    Happy belated St. Patrick’s Day to you!

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  7. I’m a bit late to this post (I guess you could call me ‘Paddy last,’ which we used to use as children in Ireland for the very late or last in anything!) One phrase that I’ve always loved is ‘you put the heart crossways in me’ – to be used when someone has given you a fright or a start. Beautifully vivid!

    • Oh, I love both phrases but especially the second one! I can just hear my friend’s voice saying something like that. She probably would have put an “Ach!” at the start of it. It’s the kind of phrase that just doesn’t sound right in a boring American accent, so I might have to do it with the lilt. (I’ve been told – by Irish people, even! – that I can do a fair Irish accent, so maybe I’ll be able to pull it off. :) )

      Thanks so much for the comment!

  8. Although craic often refers to fun (“great craic in town tonight”), its meaning in the standalone phrase What’s the craic? is a bit different. It’s not an enquiry after news or social plans so much as an open question like What’s the story?, What’s up?, or What’s going on? If it was meant in reference to, say, weekend plans, I think this would generally be specified, e.g. “What’s the craic for tonight?” And it’s also used in contexts like “What’s the craic with that fella?”, it essentially means “What’s the deal/story…?”

    • Very good to know, thanks Stan! It’s very possible that Bee included the “for tonight” when she asked about plans, but it probably fell out of my memory because I was so intrigued by the “What’s the craic” part of her question.

      It also makes me wonder if the meaning drifts a bit when we steal phrases like these from the expat community because we don’t fully understand the context but just like the phrase. We in New York really are enamored of the Irish influence and community in the area (and seem to have handily forgotten the era of “Irish need not apply” signs on businesses…). We even have our own Craic Fest: http://thecraicfest.com/

      One year when I was about 14, I protested the whole “Irish for a day” mentaility on St.Pat’s and wore a “Kiss me, I’m Portuguese” shirt that my friends had made up for me :)

      • I’d be surprised if the meaning of craic didn’t drift a bit in NY speech, or lose or gain a sense along the way, etc. Your protest is funny!

        P.S. There’s a missing “where” in the last line of my last comment, just before “it essentially”. What I meant was probably – hopefully – clear enough, but I felt I should point it out anyway.

  9. I always understood “craic” as specifically meaning good conversation. For the Irish of course, “fun” and having good conversation is practically synonymous.

      • Could be, but I’m from Boston, though I have relatives in Cannacht (aka Connaught). I couldn’t really identify any regional variations, but it’s certainly possible. .

  10. Interesting comments. It is worth bearing in mind that your pal, Bee, was from the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland (depending on which side of the divide you come from, politically and culturally). So *some* of the phrases she uses would not be used in other parts of the island, so often. We use quite a bit of English slang, too.
    “Mingin'” is more English than Irish, but understood here. It means gross or unattractive. I am from Kilkenny, in the south east, and we say something, or someone is “a gallery” when it/they amuse us.
    Nobody in Dublin would understand that, or in other parts of the country, either. Likewise a Dubliner (blue collar, working class) would refer to his girlfriend of wife as “the mot”. Probably from old French.It’s just slang for ‘your lady’. Dubs also used to use the term “gurrier” for any lowly person. Not so common today, but still used – seldom heard outside the capital, however.
    Up North the slang terms are very different. But not when it comes to the craic.
    Craic? It means what you want it to mean. “Any craic?” (Good morning, what is happening with you guys?) “Divil (devil) a bit, horse,” (No news, buddy), or “The craic is 90!” (We are having a great time!). Take it handy. Relax the kaks. :-D

    • Thanks for your input, Patrick! It’s so interesting to me to learn about regional differences like the ones you wrote about.
      There was another Irish teacher that we knew, Sean, who was from Dublin and it was just fantastic watching the two of them go back and forth. I hope that didn’t come off as if you were a circus act or something: “Oh look at the charming Irish people, aren’t they precious?” Just any chance to hear language as it’s spoken by people who speak it differently from either me or each other is always fascinating to me. And of course sometimes it was turned on me when people would ask me to “Say something in New Yorkese!” If I was in the right mood, I’d tell them exactly what a New Yorker would say when someone is getting all up in our faces ;)

      One silly sidenote: The term “the mot” made me laugh a lot because it suddenly reminded me of the days back in the 80s when it was popular for kids (in the NY area anyway) to say “word” instead of “cool” or “awesome”. (A: “Hey, did you hear? There’s a sub for chem today and we don’t have the test!” B: “Word!”) Some of us geeks who were taking French took to saying “mot” to each other for a couple of months. In our defense, we were doing it tongue-in-cheek. It was still painfully nerdy though.

    • Bernard Share in his dictionary of Irish slang has “mot” as from the middle Dutch word for “prostitute”. (I’d have always thought it was from the Irish “maith” meaning “good” myself.)
      You’d hear girls in general referred to as “mots” or “the mots”

      “Gurrier” is to mean more somebody who’s rough rather than lowly. It’d be derogatory, unless between friends of course (as “you fucking gurrier you”). Same as another Dublin word “bowsie”, which is on the wane as well, but still heard.

      Along the lines of Javyerkays is “gerupp-outa-da” (get up out of that) or “gway-outa-da” (go away out of that), which can both be used in a few contexts. Mainly both are for disbelief, like “you’re having me on”, but can be dismissive too, like if you want someone to stop doing something or saying something. Or “gerrup the yard” meaning go away. “Gerrum off ya” (get them off you) as an invitation to undress, is a nice one too.

      There’s a nice video on Dublinese on youtube for those who haven’t seen it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ej_51H1zWGY search Story bud

      There was another video called Just Saying that was a monologue in a good Dublin accent

  11. Im an immigrant living in Ireland -10 years now- and even though my accent isn’t exactly Irish, I use the slang/phrases all the time with an Irish lilt (I say “eejit” like any Irish fella would, but a lot of my other words/phrases that aren’t specifically Irish have a distinctly exotic accent due to my ethnicity).

    I live in a rural area, so a lot of the slang there can be differento that of Dublin city slang, and I find the Northern Irish accent is entirely different to my Midlands accent, or someone elses Sligo accent or Dublin accents, they are all very different and the phrases can be very different too even though this is a very small island!)

    A phrase I have come across is “Story horse” (pronounce “stah-ree harse” where I live byy people with stronger accents). I don’t use this phrase myself, but it basically means “Any news, Whats up?” its a “culchie” (country folk) phrase.

    Dogs bollax -according to my uncle- is actually GOOD. I always thought it was bad (since when I say “Oh I’m bollaxed” or knackered, I am saying I’m really really tired, or if I were to say “The engine in my car is bollaxed”, it means its broken. When my uncle says “These spuds are the dogs bollax!” he actually mens they are really great. He can be a bit of a trixter though so perhaps dogs bollax means they are really good but he is pranking me.

    In high school -not sure if people still say it since I graduated a few years ago- when the kids were up to mischief (smoking around the corner etc) what they used to do was get someone to watch around the corner for teachers (this was called “keep sketch”, a person who was watching the corner was keeping sketch), whenever a teacher came, they would say “SKETCH!” and basically it warned everyone to put out their fags (Irish people called cigarettes/smokes fags, my mom got in trouble in chicago once for asking for a pack of fags because she didn’t know the term wasn’t used in America).

    When calling someone gay as an insult/slur -the way fag is used in america- peope here would say “faggot” instead, but with the accent its more like “faggit”. They also say cunt and wanker a lot -forgive the dreadful language!!! Sometimes cunt is used endearingly though, I know in American language its considered a grave insult, in Irish it can be insulting too, but sometimes best friends say it to each other “I love you, ya mad cunt ya!” and its actually meant affectionately, at the same time you can use it insulting “He’s a real stuck up cunt!”

    Something I came across here is “yoke” .. In Ireland everything is a yoke, your mom is a yoke, your car is a yoke, your pencil is a yoke!!! Its the word people use if they forget the name of something, like calling something a “thingamabob” or “that thing”.

    In rural areas they call tea, “tae”, which is the Irish word for tea (its pronounced TAY).

    Something I noticed here, they call strips of bacon “rashers” and a ham roast is called “bacon”. I call rashers, bacon so this is confusing!

    Wellington boots are called wellies here, where I’m from they are called gumboots!

    Something I say a lot lately is “Mitch” or “mitching”, it basically means hanging out places, specifically at friends or relatives houses -from my experience-. For example if I come home late and my friends ask where I was I would say “I was mitchin’ at my aunties gaf” -I was hanging out at my aunties house (gaf is house). When you are going over to someones house just to hang out you can say “Im going to mitch at Annas house”.

    “Giving out” is used when someone yells at you. For example if I was a child and I broke my “mas” vase she would “give out” (chastise/yell) at me.

    “Few scoops” can be used to refer to a few pints of beer and “few naggins, be grand” basially means “have a few more naggins -measurement- of vodka, it’ll be okay!”

    At halloween the trick-o-treaters are called “Pookas” from an old irish ghost story (The Kildare Pookas). Little kids are often called “gasuns” (gah-soons), its basically endearing/cute like when you see a new born baby you could say “Look at the sweet little gasun!”

    Im sure there are pletny more but those are just a few examples I’ve come across. As a foreigner who has lived here for such a long time I forget my old slang from my native country so I can’t compare it to Irish slang, but at the same time, I do notice language that is certainly specifically Irish and totally unique to Ireland.

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