Irish Influences on English

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

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #360


Is "Shebang" Irish?

Finally, Brian left a comment on last week’s episode saying he thought “shebang” from the saying “the whole shebang” might be Irish. 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. (9, 10)

But everyone seemed to like idioms so much last week that I have two phrases for you that do come from Irish.

What Are Smithereens?

First, is “blown to smithereens.” “Smithereens” is an Irish word that means “small fragments.”  A couple of sources say that the “een” suffix on the end may have the same diminutive meaning as it does on the end of the name Colleen. (11, 12)

Why Would Being on a Pig’s Back Make You Happy?

Second, 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.” (13) The Phrase Finder site says it’s been in use in Irish since the 17th century and in English since the 19th century. (14)

I checked a bunch of sources, but I couldn’t find anything that explained why being on a pig’s back would make you lucky, fortunate, or happy. It’s a mystery to me, so if you know, please leave a comment.

Quick and Dirty Tips for Better WritingMignon Fogarty, is the author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, The Grammar Devotional, and many other books about language.


1. Gabaldon, D. Outlander. Anchor Canada. 2002.

2. “himself.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary online. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/himself (accessed March 14, 2013).

3. “himself.” Dolan, T.P.  A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. 2006. Gill & Macmillan, Ltd. Dublin. http://j.mp/Z2vFwD (accessed March 14, 2013).

4. Hickey, R. “Remarks on pronominal usage.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia (15). 1983. 47-53 https://www.uni-due.de/~lan300/02_Remarks_on_Pronominal_Usage_in_Hiberno-English_(Hickey).pdf (accessed March 14, 2013).

5. Haggerty, B. and Haggerty, R. “About Us.” Irish Culture and Customs. http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/HimHerself1030.html (accessed March 14, 2013).

6. “myself.” Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition. 2003. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/124613?rskey=Ti12s0&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid (accessed March 14, 2013).

7. “Twas myself that was in it.” A Bit Irish. http://abitirish.tumblr.com/post/30621748487/twas-himself-that-was-in-it (accessed March 14, 2013).

8. Harper, D. “hibernia.” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionaryhttp://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hibernia (accessed March 14, 2013).

9. Kipfer, B.A. and Chapman, R.L., eds. “shebang” Dictionary of American Slang, 4th edition. 2007. Collins: New York. p. 454.

10. Harper, D. “shebang.” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/shebang (accessed: March 14, 2013).

11. Martin, G.  “Blown to smithereens” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/blown-to-smithereens.html (accessed March 14, 2013).

12. Harper, D. “smithereens.” Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/smithereens (accessed: March 14, 2013).

13. Ayto, J., ed. “on the pig’s back.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 3rd edition. 2008. Oxford University Press. p.263

14. Martin, G.  “on the pig’s back.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/on-the-pigs-back.html (accessed March 14, 2013).

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


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.