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Irish Influences on English

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

By
Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Irish English uses many words differently from American and British English, and "myself" is just one example. I also discovered some interesting Irish idioms about pigs.

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.”

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 :

“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.

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

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.

‘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. 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.’ ”

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 Etymonline, Hibernia is from a Latin word that meant “land of winter,” and it’s related to the word “hibernation.”

Next we’ll talk about some sayings that are and aren’t from Irish.

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Is ‘shebang’ Irish?

First, a listener asked if the word “shebang,” from the saying “the whole shebang,” is Irish. And it’s not. I checked all the sources I could find, and none of them mentioned an Irish connection. A few suggested it might be from a French word for a type of bus or wagon with many seats. 

What are smithereens?

But “Smithereens” from the phrase “blown to smithereens” is from an Irish word that means “small fragments.” Both Phrase Finder and Etymonline say that the “een” suffix on the end may have the same diminutive meaning as it does on the end of the names Maureen, Noreen, and Colleen, which is actually my middle name.

On the pig’s back

The idiom “on the pig’s back” is a translation directly from Irish. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, it means “living a life of ease and luxury or being in a very fortunate situation.” The Phrase Finder site says it’s been in use in Irish since the 17th century and in English since the 19th century. 

People often think it’s related to the American phrase “to live high on the hog,” which seems to have come from the idea that the cuts of meat from the pig’s back are more desirable and expensive than cuts from other parts of the pig. Wealthy people were more likely to eat the meat that is from the pig’s back or high on the hog. 

Unfortunately, there’s actually no evidence that the two phrases are related, and it’s more likely they arose independently. 

Have the pig on your back

The sources I found don’t think the Irish phrase comes from the idea of expensive cuts of meat, but they also don’t know where it comes from. It’s definitely Irish, but it’s also a mystery. One clue is that it may come from a more literal “riding on the back” idea is that there’s also a reciprocal phrase saying — “the pig is on your back” — that describes having a hard time. 

The pig’s tail is part of the pig

To create a pig trifecta, I’ll end with this Irish saying: “The pig’s tail is part of the pig,” which means essentially the same thing as the English saying “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” meaning generally that you’re as bad as one of your parents. 

So I hope you enjoyed this segment and that you find yourself on the pig’s back this St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Get to know Irish English with words like "shebang," "smithereens," and "himself."

Image: Mignon Fogarty

Sources +

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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