Sunday, June 28, 2009


As students of literature and linguistics know, you can tell a lot about a culture by its language. In the case of the Irish culture, I am unable in one week to learn Gaelic and assess it that way, but I can at least make some observations about how they use the English language.

From what I can tell, this is the Irish equivalent of the French “parfait,” the British “brilliant,” and the American “fine.” It does not imply grandeur anymore than “parfait” implies perfection, or “brilliant” implies luster or intelligence, or “fine” implies refinement (English nerd note: the OED records the first usage of the word “fine” to mean “satisfactory, acceptable” in 1917... very different than a “fine wine” or a “fine work,” or even telling someone “you’re so fine you blow my mind”).
“I’m grand.”
“That’ll be grand.”
“Come on; you’ll be grand!”
What a happy way to express contentment!

Regard yourself
This seems to be the equivalent of “take care,” and I like it better. The Irish are constantly exhorting me to take regard of myself, which, if they only knew, is a fitting exhortation for me.

They call many things lovely—people, days, places—but I am most intrigued by the usage of the term to describe people. Americans only seem to use it to describe one’s aesthetic appeal, mostly only a woman’s, but for the Irish it is a trait that applies to the ugly or beautiful, male or female. I’d venture to guess (I’m not curious enough to check the OED right now) that their usage is closer to the root, either being “lovable” or “loving,” perhaps. Whatever the actual definition, I am experiencing it here in Ireland through a particularly charming attention to strangers that they show me, somewhat akin to Southern hospitality but with an Irish flavor.
  • My host’s neighbor who exhorted me to call her so she could show me the best beer gardens in Cork for study locations on nice days.
  • The bar staff in a random town who made it their personal mission to hunt down a pleasant and affordable place for me to stay that night.
  • The farm woman who rewarded my purchase at her son’s roadside craft stand by inviting me in for tea, sandwich, salad, and live music.
  • The priest who invited me into the abbey’s visitor center after hours when he needed to leave, trusting me to turn off the lights and close the door on my way out.
  • My host’s landlady who urges me to make good use of her garden and yard whenever I want to over the summer.
Lovely people, all of them.

Why not?
(Musical guide: the first word gets one beat and is sung at a high note, and the second gets two beats, the first significantly low and the second almost as high as the first.)

Whereas we normally use the phrase to imply indifference, they seem to use it to agree to delightful things, as if to say if there is nothing preventing you from having another beer or a brief vacation or a goodnight’s rest at a B&B, then you should enjoy what is before you. I am accustomed to seeing virtue in abstaining from pleasurable indulgences unless given a specific reason for it; they seem to require a specific reason not to.

Beyond describing smallness, the term is somewhat affectionate. A boy who is still a wee lad may be unable to do some things, but you sort of love him for it. It may not be necessarily diminutive at all; I used it to describe my mother the other day:
“Aw, you should see her: she’s a wee little woman in overalls, probably doesn’t weigh more than 110 pounds, and she’s out there directing large men on construction sites and felling huge trees with her chainsaw...”
The lads
I’m picking up that this requires some degree of fraternity, a little more intense than the American “the guys.” It may be closer to “the gang” where the gang can only include male members. It implies loyalty; he may be a terrible person, but if he is one of the lads you will look out for him anyway.

These are very common pronouns that require no excuse for the suffix. I may even suspect that adding “self” actually makes it more formal or polite, though not necessarily. It is just fuller somehow, I suppose.
“I’m grand, and yourself?”
“When Finbar and myself were wee lads on the north side of town...”

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