March 17 is a wonderful day. No, not because of Evacuation Day — I’m talking about St. Patrick’s Day!
As an Irish-American, the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint is particularly important to me. Though it has its origins in solemn Christian reverence, it’s come to be more accepted as a celebration of all things Irish — a chance for the rich culture of the island and its diaspora to truly shine.
There’s just one small problem:
People keep calling it “St. Patty’s Day.” Which is totally, utterly wrong.
A “patty” is a hamburger. Or a veggie burger, if that’s your thing. A “Patty” is Patricia, who might well be a wonderful woman. And “St. Patty” was an Italian woman whose feast day is in August.
“Paddy” is the proper way to shorten the Irish name of Pádraig, which has since been Anglicized (literally, “made into English”) as “Patrick.” The name means “noble born” and comes from the Latin roots for “patriarch” — you know, like Father, ’cause St. Pádraig was a priest ‘n’ stuff.
Hamburger jokes aside, the Irish people suffered centuries upon centuries of colonial oppression from Britain, which included the erasure of their language.
So basically, saying “St. Patty” is like pouring salt in a gaping cultural wound.
In fact, there’s been way more Anglicizing of the Irish language than most people realize. Here are a few words (or a “cúpla focal”) that we owe to the Land of a Hundred Thousand Welcomes.
From “slua,” meaning “crowd” (or “sluag,” for “army”), and “gairm,” meaning “call.” “Slua” is pronounced “slew,” which may be why we say “a whole slew of things” too.
From “go leor,” which basically means “until many.” Makes sense, right?
This one is less of a translation and more of a pejorative origin derived from stereotypical depictions of the Irish as rowdy drunken brawlers. See also: “paddy wagon,” which is so named either because the Irish were stereotypically cops or because they were stereotypically getting arrested for being drunk and violent.
This literally means “little pieces,” a combination of “smiodar” for “debris” and “ín,” a common Irish suffix for “small” that has been Anglicized to “een.” See also: “Colleen,” which means “little cailín,” or simply “a girl.”
From, uhh, well, “clann,” which means “family.”
This comes from “sócmhainní,” which means “assets,” or “somhaoineach” for “profitable.” (And yes, the spelling looks strange, but it actually makes a lot of sense once you figure out all the different combinations of open vowel sounds.)
A personal favorite of mine, both in drinking and translation. This comes from “uisce beatha,” which means “water of life.” Yup.
Even I was under the impression that this was a Yiddish word. But it turns out it was likely derived from “caipin,” or “cap,” and “bháis,” or death — literally “death cap,” and the Irish name for a candle-snuffer. Judges also wore an chaip bháis when announcing their sentences.
So basically, when you “put the kibosh” on something, you’re actually killing it. Yay?
This one’s kind of complicated, but also really cool. It probably comes from “fáinne,” an Irish word for a ring, and refers to a confidence scheme called a “Fawney Rig,” which involves “accidentally” dropping a fake ring of value in front of a victim and then selling it to them for way more than it’s actually worth.
“Keening” is to cry or wail, usually for the dead, and it’s just a differently spelled (but similarly pronounced) version of the Irish word “caoineadh,” which means the same.
Like the Irish hero-poet-politician Pádraig Pearse once said: “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam — a country without a language is a country without a soul.”
The Irish language might be struggling to survive, but it’s not dead yet. In fact, it’s one of the oldest living languages in the world, as well as the first national language of the Republic of Ireland, which means that all government documents are written in Irish and English and that children study the language in school.
That being said, less than 2% of the population actually speaks the native tongue on a daily basis, and only 41% claim to speak it at all, even after years of schooling.
But this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the beginning of Ireland’s struggle for independence, making it an extra-special year for celebration.
So go forth with your newfound Irish knowledge and have the craic (that means “fun”)!
Which means a lot more than just drinking alcohol, by the way. But if you are gonna drink, please be safe — and for the last time, stop ordering Irish car bombs.