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Feeney: Irish Words

It’s March 17th. Saint Patrick's Day. Thank goodness. Not just because it's a day revered by the Irish the world over, but also because for those of us who live in the Northeast it comes at just the right time.

The parties of New Year's Eve are ten weeks in the past, and the barbecues of Memorial Day are ten weeks in the future. In mid-March we need any excuse to celebrate. Then, too, St. Patrick's Day reminds us that spring is just ahead, that soon daffodils and tulips will superimpose their colors on a bleak winter landscape. I've often wondered if St. Patrick's Day is simply the masking over of an earlier pagan rite of spring with a Christian holy day - from a time when druids celebrated the end of a cold, damp winter.

But if St. Patrick's Day is meant to celebrate the coming of spring, it’s also a time to reflect on the contributions of the Irish to the salad bowl of peoples that collectively created American culture. Most of the contributions of the Irish are well known: whether in literature, music, dance, a certain political style, or in education and religion. But one area that has for long been overlooked is language.

Many of the Irish who came to our shores as a result of the Great Famine of the 1840s came as speakers of Irish Gaelic, one of the Celtic family of languages along with Scots-Gaelic. In many parts of America until late in the nineteenth century Irish would have been commonly heard. In our own Vermont, there was a Mrs. Wall who daily walked along Underhill's Irish Settlement Road in the 1860s and 1870s, smoking a corncob pipe, and gossiping in Irish with many of her old country neighbors. Certainly in places like Boston's heavily Irish Charlestown or New York 's Five Corners, Irish was heard on every street corner.

Eventually, of course, as the emigrant generation passed away, the language died out in this country, but hundreds of Irish words and phrases quietly slipped into American English, first arriving as slang. These words are so familiar to us today that we’re largely unaware of their non-English etymology. Just to cite a few examples: shenanigan is from the Irish "to be sly like a fox," or smithereens , "to break into little pieces," or slogan, an Irish word denoting a clan's unique rallying cry. And Damon Runyon used the Irish word for mouth when one of his New York City gangsters punched a rival in the "puss."

So, if you're planning to celebrate St. Patrick's Day by attending a shindig - yes, this word too comes from the Irish language - I hope you’ll keep this subtle but significant contribution to American culture in mind. Happy St. Patrick's Day.