Jan. 30, 2013




I have a horrible confession to make, one which is particularly embarrassing for a writer. I am a word killer.

The words I have eliminated from my own vocabulary, and which, not by coincidence, have also been abandoned by the population at large, were commonplace in my childhood. They were part of my mother’s vocabulary, and of mine when I was a child – definitely when I was a pre-schooler, and probably until I was eight or nine, and becoming very literate and very self conscious and very snobbish, all at the same time, all probably related in some subtle or perhaps quite obvious way.

I’m not talking about terms of endearment like ‘Alanna’, and ‘Shegoshga’, which my mother, in those far off days, used all the time – the second perhaps with a trace of irony.  I don’t expect miracles of myself – even though when you think about it, there’s no particularly good reason to replace ‘Alanna’ with ‘Sweetie Pie’ or ‘Angel’, which were my terms of endearment par preference when my children were little, and couldn’t object to them.  ‘Top o’ the morning to you!’: she never said that. Now it seems nobody ever could have. It sounds so absurd, an invention of the ‘Apes and Angels’ school of paddywhackery.  But it’s most likely that it was used, since it’s fairly clearly derived from ‘Móra duit ar maidin’, which friends of mine to this day.  But ‘Alanna’ falls into ‘Top o’ the Morning’ territory: it sounds closer to that, and the 19th century stage Irish, than  it is, in the other direction, to ‘Sweetie Pie.’  So it was never going to be a runner, for a Dubliner of the mid twentieth century. Nor were phrases like ‘e’er a penny’, or ‘a haporth worth of something or other,’ which smacked of another century.

            Nor am I regretting my lost Dublin accent. I must have had one, when I was three or four, and living in Rathmines. Everyone spoke a  kind of Dublinese – unless they came from ‘down the country’ – in the little enclave of artisan houses where my grandparents lived, and where I spent a year or two at that exciting period of my life. Three to four. And in the slightly bigger houses in Ranelagh, to which we moved before I was five, most people would have spoken in a similar way. School, and the middle class people I met there, wrought the change.   So now I don’t know how I sounded when I was four.

            My mother ‘washed the delph’.  She sent us up to the shop for ‘the messages’.  She served ‘sweet’ after dinner. She ‘wet the tea.’ She went ‘to the chapel’, never the church.  She was ‘perished’ when the weather was cold, never freezing. And it was often ‘spilling rain’, not pouring and bucketing down – though perhaps it was sometimes ‘lashing’. Weather in the summer could be ‘heavy’ or ‘sultry’: humidity was unknown, as a term. When it was sultry or heavy, we were often at the strand, not the beach, and we wore bathing suits, or bathing togs, not swimsuits.  Overweight people were ‘stout’, never fat and obviously never ‘obese’ a term which has come in very recently.  Children grew ‘as big as a house’.   We ate rashers, not bacon, and fairy cakes, not cup cakes or queen cakes or muffins.

            Rashers haven’t gone away – they might have, but the word has made a come-back, made it into the more tolerant, less post-colonial, vocabulary of 21st century youth.  Occasionally ‘fairy cake’ is heard: it’s such a cute word. (‘Cute’ meant ‘sly’, in my mother’s vocabulary, and it was an adjective that found expression fairly regularly.) 

            The words I regret not using are words like ‘strand’ and  ‘delph’ (and I hate the hyper correct spelling ‘delft’: nobody ever said that, in Ireland, and we don’t need to be reminded that you are able to consult an etymological dictionary, thanks very much).  Why say ‘wash the dishes’ when we have a perfectly good word in lieu of the colourless and not very accurate ‘dishes’?   Why eat ‘dessert’, or, even worse, ‘pudding’, when we had a much nicer, more descriptive, and less class ridden one, ‘sweet’?  And what's wrong with 'strand' or 'bathing suit'? 

            You have to ask, why do certain words go out of fashion, to be replaced by others?  And why do they go out of fashion in some places and some countries more than in others?

            OK. Languages are always changing.  Wizard and marvellous get pushed out by wonderful and super and cool and brilliant and awesome.  Slang grows old and passes its sell-by date very quickly. But delph? Sweet? The English upper classes cling to some of their words – those which Nancy Mitford (I think it was she, expert on fashion) described as ‘U’.  Napkin for serviette. Looking glass for mirror. But in Ireland, in my class, we couldn’t wait to get rid of our old words and replace them with whatever seemed more English, more American, more upper class, less Irish, than the ones we had. At least I couldn’t.

            And the funny thing is, it’s hard to reverse, and to start calling ‘dishes’ delph, or dessert, sweet. Partly because the in-terms are so ubiquitous. You might decide on delph, in the privacy of your own kitchen, but you’re unlikely to put those plates, cups, saucers and, finally, dishes,  in the delph washer. Sweet, maybe, is another story. I'm planning to revive that.