Thursday, March 17, 2011


Tis said that on March 17, every lad and lass wishes he/she were Irish. But what about the rest of the year? Actually, the Irish are with us every day, whether we realize it or not - immortalized in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Over the centuries, many Irish surnames have evolved into common English expressions and figures of speech. For "Murphy" alone, the OED lists five meanings. It can signify
(a) asleep, as "in the arms of Murphy"
(b) a potato
(c) a foldaway bed
(d) a device used to perform surgery on the intestine
(e) a con game.
And of course, we also have Murphy's Law, named after American engineer Edward A. Murphy, which postulates that if anything can go wrong, it invariably will.
Murphy keeps good, if less prolific, company in the OED. According to a 1934 citation, "kelly," is "a variety of 15ball pool." "Kennedy" is listed as obsolete slang for a poker. "Mulligan" refers to a potpourri stew or an illegal shot in golf. "Collins" can be an iced drink composed of whisky and gin, or a letter of thanks for entertainment or hospitality, sent by a departed guest. The term derives from the name of a character, William Collins, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Then there are the Boycotts. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was the land agent for the estates of the Earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. When Boycott raised the rents in 1880, the tenants raised the roof. Local stores refused to sell to him and militant protestors destroyed his property and cut off his food supply. Eventually, Boycott was forced to flee to England, but as a small consolation his name was immortalized as "the refusal to deal with a person or business," not only in English but also in Dutch, French, German, Russian, and Indonesian.
But perhaps the most infamous Irish surname enshrined in our language is Lynch. Most etymologists credit a Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) who served with the Virginia militia as the source of the term. Lynch presided over a tribunal established to rid his county of "undesirables" who had eluded the authorities. Lynch and his vigilantes became known as lynch-men and their methods were dubbed lynch's law. By 1836, the verb "lynch" had acquired its current meaning of hanging by mob action without legal sanction.
So whether you're a Murphy, a Kennedy or just an Irish wannabe, enjoy St. Patrick's Day -and raise a pint to Ireland's linguistic legacy.
- Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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