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Irish Influences on English

Will himself be on the pig’s back this St. Patrick’s Day?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
March 15, 2013
Episode #360

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Irish influences on English

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.”

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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)

For instance, a 1983 academic article by Raymond Hickey about Irish English uses these examples (4):

Himself isn’t here at the moment.

and

Where’s himself.

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)

Image: Ireland Cliffs of moher, Tobias Helfrich at Wikimedia. CC BY 3.0 Unported

Next: Shebang, Smithereens, and Being on the Pig's Back

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