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.