Snap, Craickle and Pop: The Controversy of Popular Gaelicisation

Ever since Ireland was told that the black stuff might not be Irish, but rather a porter stout from Covent Garden, the country has descended into a frantic state of uncertain soul-searching and impassioned reflection to clarify once and for all what is actually ‘Irish’ (potatoes, Gaelic Storm, and Saint Patrick aside).

But now the most quintessentially ‘Irish’ institution of them all is under intense academic scrutiny, the much celebrated notion of ‘the craic’ (and that’s before considering the devastating impact this may have on the tourist industry).

Now, this isn’t to say that we’re losing our humour, but rather are embroiled in an intense etymological debate that discredits ‘craic’ as a recent invention of bleary-eyed romantics and multi-millionaire tourist tycoons.

One of the leading figures in the anti-craic camp is Diarmaid O’Muirithe, a retired senior lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin who now keeps his hand in through a weekly column in the Irish Times in which he examines the origin and meaning of words.

Mr. O’Muirithe has this to say on the issue:

“The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word crack as craic sets my teeth on edge. It seems, indeed, that many people think that the word is an Irish one; hence we find advertisements proclaiming ‘music, songs, dancing and craic’; the implication is that craic = boozing and high jinks, great fun as it used to be…”

“The English Dialect Dictionary (Wright’s) deals at length with crack, a word still in use from the English midlands to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It gives crack as ‘1. talk, conversation, gossip, chat’. In this context [Walter] Scott uses it in Rob Roy (1817), ‘I maun hai a crack wil an auld acquaintance here’. ‘The friendly crack, the cheerfulsang’, wrote a lesser Caledonian, Picken, in 1813. 2. A tale, a good story or joke; gossip, scandal. ‘A’ cracks are not tae be trow’d’, is a Scots proverb.”

It transpires that the word crack is of Middle English or old Scots origin, and crossed the Irish Sea to Ulster a few centuries ago and there it remained unadulterated. The Gaelicised version is apparently because the Irish alphabet has no ‘k’, and due to its change has become open to a change in definition: namely miscreant behaviour, mischief and devilment.

Another theory as outlined on Wikipedia is that, “Now, ‘craic‘ is interpreted as a specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun. The adoption of the Gaelic spelling has reinforced the sense that this is an independent word (homophone) rather than a separate sense of the original word (polysemy).” Is the word craic, though a modern phenomenon, indeed a homophone for crack rather than an alternate spelling?

This isn’t to attack either word, but to extend the debate to you fine folk to see if craic and crack can be distinguished once and for all, and to have both words assume their true position within the vernacular.

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  • Irish words have been Anglicised for hundreds of years as any glance at the map will tell you. Here we’ve maybe one going the other way, big deal…

    If this is how O’Muirithe “keeps his hand in” he’d better advised maybe finding another hobby of more import such as flower arraging instead of boring us with his foibles.

    No Seamus you know-all arrogant sod, we don’t “think that the word is an Irish one”, it’s just a word we use and like all languages words and meaning change over time. Get over it…

  • andnowwhat

    I thought the “craic” came about because of the alternative interpretation of “having a bit of crack”?

    Either way, they term is a shorthand term for an atmosphere apparent at social gatherings and an attitude towards enjoyment akin to the Thai word “sanook”.

  • salgado

    It’s not really a big deal. Meanings and spellings of words change over time.

    Ulick – what Irish words other than place names have been Anglicised? I’m sure there’s plenty, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

  • There is a restaurant in Moira called the Ivory, see link below for a picture.

    As can be seen the I in Ivory is surrounded by a circle; many a visitor has been told that an I surrounded by a circle is an Irish I as in Oirish and Ivory is to be pronounced Oivory

  • I thought it was generally accepted that craic was a domestication, mainly for fooling the tourists. It had its first public outing (in print, at least) in the Irish Independent of 8th July 1972. The context was Fleadh Nua, then held in Croke Park (it moved to Ennis in ’74).

    There is, surely, a subtle difference between the Scots and the (Anglo-)Irish crack. The Scots version suggests boastfulness, and was commonly spelled crake. Try the on-line list of Lallans idioms and you’ll find crack at least five times. Take your choice if it’s a metaphor from a cannon or a fart (both have crack as earlier recorded usages). Macbeth, I.ii.41, of course has cannons overcharged with double cracks.

    Refer to The Best of Myles, page 93. There you’ll find: “You say you’d like a joke or two for a bit of crack.” The Nolan was from Strabane, which just might have a significance here. His is, I believe. the earliest use of the term in Irish writing.

    salgado @ 11:54 am:

    What about, for starters — banshee, bard, bog, caber (for the tossing thereof), cam (crooked as in the eccentric cog or the crooked-nosed Cameron), capercailye, clan, corrie/coire, crag/creag, drum(lin) … Admittedly some of those came into English via Scots Gaelic.

  • wee buns

    It is not the fault of the spelling which causes a belief that that the word is Irish in origin, but the fact that currently the word is used exclusively in Ireland – you won’t hear it elsewhere.

    That it has been embezzled from it’s origin is common, but to be embellished with a pseudo spelling has been a necessity, for the benefit of visitors who may otherwise wonder why there is so much talk about fissures and loud noises in this country….

    The ‘craic’ inevitably has arisen as part of a tourism package which describes a demand for atmospheric pubs etc.
    Notwithstanding the helpful spelling, you can often hear visitors say they were ‘having the craic’. It’s complex. Try explaining that while they can have ‘a bit of craic’ or ‘some craic’ or even ‘great crack’; they cannot possibly have ‘the’ crack.

    Being a mainly verbal phenomenon, with a plethora of colloquial uses & nuances, is perhaps another reason that it sits awkwardly in its written form. So wholehearted is my dislike both spellings that I usually avoid using it in its written form.

  • tacapall

    wee buns.

    “Notwithstanding the helpful spelling, you can often hear visitors say they were ‘having the craic’. It’s complex. Try explaining that while they can have ‘a bit of craic’ or ‘some craic’ or even ‘great crack’; they cannot possibly have ‘the’ crack.”

    I can remember Ali G being confused with its meaning when interviewing Sue Ramsey.

  • American visitors to North Antrim are sometimes taken aback when one of the older locals invites them to ‘gie us a bit o’ yer crack’. It’s not an invitation to share cocaine, rather an invitation to join in the conversation/banter 🙂

  • JR


    Galore, Shantee, vinegar, snazzy, gurning, dig, as in do you dig it? Dude, Slugger, shack, Shindig,

    I could go on and on. There are hundreds.

  • salgado

    Cheers. I really should gave got some of them myself.

    Are you sure about vinegar though? Surely it’s french (or possibly latin) in origin.

  • vinegar: c.1300, from O.Fr. vinaigre, from vin “wine” (from L. vinum, see wine) + aigre “sour” (see eager). In L., it was vinum acetum “wine turned sour;”

    Vinegar on an Irish palate mutated to fínéagar.

    Note the v > w shift via the Germanic root:

    wine: … Also from L. vinum are O.C.S. vino, Lith. vynas, Welsh gwin, O.Ir. fin.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Will confess craic does annoy me, I almost always use crack, and cringe anytime an “outsider” uses it badly. The other word that is debated is kailey, or Céilidhs, although the meanings have become quite seperate now.

  • JR

    I’v herd it argued that it actually comes from Irish for Sour wine. The Irish for wine is Fíon, and sour is géar.Though Maybe that one can be left off the list. I will give you hooligan, gob and tory instead.

  • veryoldgit

    I always thought St Patrick was Welsh??

  • Similarly: —

    shantee, more usually shanty, is French-Canadian from chanter, a place where one sleeps or stores. Think, “I’m a lumberjack and I don’t …”

    gurn is good Middle English gyrne, with a metahesis of r in “grin” (compare brent as in Brentwood, Brentford, with burnt.

    I’d love to see the 1930s jazzman’s “dig it” coming from anything Irish. I’d have suggested it comes from the idea of “digging for knowledge”, which appears as far back as the 18th century.

    shack is definitely dubious; but the OED diffidently points to Mexican jackal , Aztec xacalli … which just might prove the wanderings of St Brendan the Navigator, or Prince Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd.

    I may not be convinced by any of those imports from US slang, but what about:

    esker, Fenian, Gael, Gaelic, gallo(w)glass and kern (OK, Shakespearean), gillie, glen, keen (as in mourning) …

    One for the asking: gull, the bird, as in Welsh gŵylan, Cornish guilan, Breton goelann (and so into French goëland) and Irish faoileann? It seems to appear across all Celtic languages, and I’m wondering if it’s possibly one of the very few words to persist from Brythonic into modern English.

  • Gob is very old. It was found in Ireland and in the north of England so the common source might be Gaulish gobbo

    Gab looks like a variant. ‘Gift o’ the gab’ is very familiar but I like this one ‘weel shod o’ the gab’.

  • What’s the Irish for “going looking for offense where none exists”? or indeed “sets my teeth on edge”

    Bet it’s some craic round his house of an evening.

    other’s I’ve heard of:
    Galore – go leor
    Smashin’ – is maith sin!

  • Correction to @ 3:17 pm: that should, of course, be Fr. chantier. I failed to correct the automatic spelling correction. And also “metathesis”.

    I’d go along with gob coming in through Lallans. (Sir) Patrick Hume of Polwarth has it in his contribution to The Flyting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart from around 1585.

  • socaire

    Not ‘gurn’ but ‘girn’ from Irish gearan to whinge, complain. Shanty from sean tí – old house? Kern, wood kern from Irish ceathairn – foot soldier?

  • Fair enough, socaire @ 6:10 pm, but gyrn(e) (showing the teeth in anger, snarling dog-like, complaining all the while, fretting) is in Middle English from the 15th century. It turns up even earlier, perhaps the 1370s, in Archdeacon John Barbour’s massive poem, The Bruce. We are again into Scots, and that might tip into your etymology.

    On the other hand, accept the Northumbrian-into-Scottis metathesis from grin (to draw back the lips and display the teeth) and it’s in Cynewulf, around AD 596. Modern German has grinsen and Dutch grijnzen.

    In general:

    Much of this thread, so far, seems to me to be a bad rewrite of the tundish scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Chapter 5) — and for the same reasons. Joyce was pointing to the multiple and at times contradictory elements within a cultural context termed Irishness [Michael Patrick Gillespie, editor: James Joyce and the Fabrication of an Irish Identity, page 3].

  • Here’s an interesting little twist, Socaire, when the latter word is borrowed into Scots: ‘Ketharan, -ine, ketterine, n. [Med. L. ketheranus, a. EIr. cethern a troop or company of foot-soldiers, a mercenary soldier, kern , also cethernach (Kuno Meyer), mod. Sc. and Ir. Gael. ceatharn and ceatharnach.’ .. source DSL.

  • Mark

    andnowwhat ,

    The Thais certainly know how to have a bit of sanook or just sanook depending on whether you’re Thai or not ….. as I’m sure you are aware . they rarely waste a word .

    O’Muirithe sounds like he couldn’t recognise a bit of craic / crack / sanook if it was staring him in the face .

    I don’t think people really give a fuc? where guinness comes from at this stage .

  • JR

    Well Malcom, most of the words I put up are so phonetically similar and used to mean the same thing in both languages I am going to stick to my guns. There are alot of words used in speach around where I live that are pure Irish though I don’t think they are used throughout the english speaking world.


    Amadan – Fool,
    Bodhar – deaf,
    Bocht – Tired out,
    Call (caill) – need,
    Cardi – Trixter,
    Clout – Thump,
    Coup – Tip,
    Fusaigh – Desert (after dinner),
    Girseach – Young girl,
    Gulpan – Greedy eater,
    Hallian- wild person,
    Pus- Sulky face,
    Scud- a hit of somthing,
    Scealp – slap,
    Scoitar- Diarroea,
    Smiderini- Small pieces.
    Spree- Fun,
    Sponc- Courage,
    Clabaire- talkitive person or fool.
    Tuig(twig) to understand

  • DT123

    1890s, of unknown origin, first found in British newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898, almost certainly from the surname Houlihan, supposedly from a lively family of that name in London (who figured in music hall songs of the decade).

  • tuatha

    I always assumed that the 19thC ozism “larrikan” – meaning a wide boy or smart arse – had oirish origins, like hooligan, but have never been able to verify it, dictionaries just give “origin unknown”..

  • If Mark @ 9:11 pm was suggesting this is all an exercise in futility, the posts by DT123 @ 8:09 am (on hooligan) and by tuatha @ 10:23 am on larrikan/ larrikin are the corrective.


    The version given above seems to be widely accepted. Geoff Pearson did a “classic study” back in 1983, subtitled “A History of Respectable Fears”; and most accounts seem to stem from that. Others have dug up accounts which pre-date 1998 (see here for the details).


    [From the OED] The word seems to have originated in Melbourne not long before 1870; but the story that it was evolved by a reporter from an Irish policeman’s pronunciation of larking, heard in a Melbourne police-court in 1869, appears to be a figment, no trace of the incident being found in the local papers of the time. (See Morris, Austral Eng., s.v.) A guess that has been proposed is that it is short for English slang leary kinchen. Wright, Suppl. to Eng. Dial. Dict., cites larrikin ‘a mischievous or frolicsome youth’ from informants in Warwickshire and Worcestershire … Compare Eng. Dial. Dict., Larack (larack about, to ‘lark’ about), cited from C. C. Robinson’s Dial. Leeds & Neighbourhood (1861).

    Chiefly Austral.

    Convincing, huh? OK …

    In neither case is there definitive proof of an Irish connection. The eponymous “Patrick Hoolihan”, cited by Clarence Rook in 1899 (and cited by wikipedia), is nowhere to be found.

    So, perhaps, we ought to go looking for a wider explanation. In which case, there’s the whole anti-Irish prejudice that “respectable” English society developed from the mid-Victorian period, greatly helped by the “scientific” work of John Beddoe in his Races of Britain (1862). Beddoe conclusively proved, at least to his own satisfaction, that the English were intellectually superior, while the Celts were related to Cro-Magnon man, were further back down the “Index of Nigrescence”, and inferior.

    Just how far this prejudice went is in that celebrated letter by the Rev Canon Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (and son of slave-owners in Barbados, whose wealth was severely curtailed by Abolition in 1833): I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don’t believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. [For more of the same, see L.P.Curtis Anglo-Saxons and Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England (1968).

  • JR,

    clout: to clod the clot 🙂

    It’s probably fairly common for words that may have dropped from use in their old home to continue in use in their new one; Shakespearean English might be more readily understood in Armagh than in Stratford.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    shebeen (síbín), scam (is cam é).

    Can you dig (tuig) it, Daddyo? (Daideo- Grandad)

    Chook – Aussie chicken comes from ‘Tioc, Tioc’

    And of course Dracula – droch fhola (bad blood)

    As for craic, I remember hearing an argument (can’t remember where) that the Irish craic / crack may be derived from an old Irish word which referred to cattle rustling.

  • Thank you, Nevin @ 12:09 for raising the tone. Now explain why Norfolkmen may suffer from the squits, which must be as onomatopoeic as it gets.

    Shebeen must be one of the more disreputable words here which actually appear in an Act of Parliament — as I recall, it’s the the Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1902 (or perhaps ’03), large chunks of which may persist (in Irish and NI statutes) to the present day. The more usual etymology is “little shop” — seapa + ín.

  • Alasdair Stephen

    Cracaireachd is a Scots Gaelic word for chat. But in Scotland the common use is ‘What’s the crack? Gaelic translation would be ‘De tha dol?’ In other words ‘what’s going on?’ Irish craic is different word I think.

  • Malcolm, we used to have spirit grocers in the towns as well as a wee shop about every mile out in the countryside. A new pair of boots or shoes could also be had within the mile whereas small towns no longer have shoe-shops.

    The dictionaries seem to point to a relationship between squit and squirt whereas I’d look to a qu > c/k letter shift. In Scots you also have a qu > w letter shift. eg quhich > which.

  • Nevin @ 11:07 am:

    I remember it well. Somewhere out in the wild is a jacket made for me in West Cork (circa 1956) from a bolt of armour-plated thorn-proof Donegal tweed. Go for a dander on a moist day and get the heavy whiff of the original-owning sheep.

    Now I also suppose you want me to take time out from my self-cuddle (Chipping Norton, Labour gain!) to recite the old saw about the oh-so-naice lady who consulted the turf accountant about the state of her lawn.

    On which note, it would be good to have a parallel thread about Ulsterisms and Hibernicisms which don’t translate into English English. That would have to include “spirit grocer”, “turf accountant” — but the jury is out on “commissioner of oaths” (which I have seen in England). That last one used to worry my younger self:

    “Can I commission an oath?”
    “Well, try this one: ¡#¶%&¿!”

  • Malcolm. we have Ulster Irish, Ulster Scots and Ulster English but for some peculiar reason Ulster English is largely being ignored by politicos who mine local culture for political advantage 🙂

  • “commissioner of oaths”

    Malcolm, the oath seems to be a shared experience as well as a shared word – more or less – and twas fairly economical with the syllables 🙂

    oath (n.)

    O.E. að “oath, judicial swearing, solemn appeal to deity in witness of truth or a promise,” from P.Gmc. *aithaz (cf. O.N. eiðr, Swed. ed, O.Fris. eth, Du. eed, Ger. eid, Goth. aiþs “oath”), from PIE *oi-to- “an oath” (cf. O.Ir. oeth “oath”). In reference to careless invocations of divinity, from late 12c.

  • tuatha

    A ruined pile of stone was, within the last 50yrs, a “wee shop” in my townland. The widow would sell twists of tea, sugar, baccy and cups of flour to the neighbours from her slightly larger stock, acquired from the far off village, two miles away over a bog road.
    Even 20yrs ago a minibus carried the mountainy men into said village for bru day – now they all have their own cars, though how much longer that will continue is debatable.

  • tuatha @ 11:23 am:

    Fifty years on, most towns have arcades of shops, now all abandoned and unused as “tin town”, fly-posted and graffiti-tagged. The out-of-town hypermarkets and retail-parks which destroyed them don’t look too happy, either.

    On the wider language issue, I was leafing through Reg Hindley’s The Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary. I suffered a severe miscue with a reference to “DEDs and part-DEDs” in the Donegal gaeltacht. Somehow the book’s title confused me in intuitively decoding “District Electoral Division”.