Word to the Wise: St. Patrick's Day Words

It is common knowledge that March 17 is the feast of St. Patrick, but fewer realize that the entire month of March is also irish-American Heritage Month, a time dedicated to remember the numerous Irish immigrants who came into the country and shaped it into what it is today. Approximately 33 million Americans - roughly 10 percent - have some sort of Irish heritage while Ireland itself only has about 6.7 million residents.

A further 3 million Americans identify as Ulster Scots or Scots-Irish, meaning their families were initially Scottish but settled in Ireland for a period of time before coming to the U.S. While John F. Kennedy might be the most famous president associated with Ireland, he is one of 22 presidents with Irish origins ranging from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama. Famous Americans with Irish ancestors range from Walt Disney to Henry Ford to Gene Kelly to L. Frank Baum to Soledad O'Brien to Muhammad Ali to Wyatt Earp to Kurt Cobain. Along the way, Irish influence has extended into our culture through food, arts, and even language. Here are some of the English words we can thank the Irish for.


From buses in Alabama to Gandhi's call to stop buying British cloth to protests over corporate statements, boycotts have become a powerful tool when it comes to protesting for moral, social, political, financial, and even economic reasons. By creating an economic loss to the focus of the protest, groups can effect change and show the power of a group of people coming together. The boycott is a central practice to both consumer activism, also known as moral purchasing, by citizens, and it got its start in Ireland.

Caricature of Charles Boycott

The term boycott comes from the surname of Captain Charles Boycott, a land agent working in Ireland on the behest of absent landlord Lord Erne. During the Irish Land War between the 1870s and 1890s, the Irish National Land League and others were agitating for improved tenants rights, feeling it was unfair that high-ranking English officials owned the majority of the land that they then rented to Irish nationals, often charging high rents for inferior properties. Without much money of their own, Irish tenants often paid their English landlords by giving them a portion of the crops they grew that year, but in 1880 the harvest was bad. Boycott had offered a ten percent reduction in rents, but that was still too much for the tenants to afford. They said a 25 percent reduction was needed at minimum, but when Lord Erne refused, Boycott was sent to evict those who couldn’t pay.

Locals rallied around the 11 families that Boycott announced he was evicted and swore to no do business and shun anyone who was given to replace them as well as Boycott himself. Soon, Boycott found his own workers weren’t coming to his fields or his house and local businessmen refused to do business with him. Even the local post office wouldn’t deliver his mail. Boycott asked Protestant volunteers known as Orangemen to come in and do the work the locals wouldn’t and had to finance their escort that counted 1,000 policemen and soldiers.

The protection needed for these workers ended up costing Boycott more than his harvest was worth. The story then began appearing in international newspapers, lampooning Boycott and drawing attention to the poor treatment Irish tenants were receiving at the hands of largely foreign landlords. By the end of the year, the term “boycott” had become synonymous with economic protest.

Similar to the term boycott, the term girlcott was coined by American track star Lacey O’Neal during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Male African-American athletes had recently been protesting racism as part of the events and had threatened to boycott the games in protest. O’Neal stated that black female athletes would not “girlcott” the Olympic Games because it was much more important for black female athletes to be recognized for their talents and strive for equal rights on the playing field. Tennis legend Billie Jean King again used the term in reference to the unequal pay between female and male athletes at events like Wimbledon.


A creature of terror and legend that has become synonymous with Irish lore, the banshee is a female spirit in the tradition of figures like La Llorona, the ancient Greek sirens, Scotland’s caoineag, the Scandinavian hulda, the English White Lady, American Bloody Mary, Slavic rusalka, Filipino manananggal, Bangladeshi pontianak, Venezuelan La Sayona, and Japanese kuchisake-onna. These terrifying female figures are known for their cries and associations with death, making them central figures in horror stories and cultural warnings. They also often have legends associated with them of women who have been wronged or made bad - or at least culturally incorrect - choices in their lives.

Bunworth Banshee" , "Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland", by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

The word banshee may have its origins in the Proto-Indo European root word sed meaning “to sit” and another PIE root word gwen meaning woman. The term banshee is an Anglicized version of the compound term bean sidhe meaning “female of the Elves” or “fairy woman.” The term bean is Irish for woman while sidhe means “fairy” and sid means “fairy mound.” Many famous banshees are associated with areas also associated with fairy mounds in Irish lore and legend.

While the term had appeared in the Irish language for years, it only first appeared in English around 1771, relating the tales of the female fairies believed to foretell deaths by singing in a mournful, unearthly sounding voice that some thought was a scream or shriek. Wails and laments known as bean chaointe or keening were long a traditional part of Irish funeral rites as well as some parts of Scotland. There were even keening women, professional women who were so good at performing this anguished wailing that they could be hired to boost a loved one’s funeral. Irish legends speaks of lamenting fairy women whose cry or wail often indicated the impending death of a person or informed family members that a loved one living far away had died.

Depiction of a professional keening woman

According to some lore, individual families are associated with indiviual banshees. The appearance of multiple banshees may indicate a great calamity or the death of an important figure. The most famous banshee of lore is Clíodhna, the Queen of the Banshees of the Tuatha Dé Danann in South Munster or Demond. She is also sometimes claimed to be an Irish goddess of love and beauty whose mortal lover was taken from her by the sea near County Cork. The name Clíodhna and its form Cleena have long been associated with families from Munster and she is also famously associated with the Blarney Stone, giving it its legendary gift of gab.


Located in County Cork, the town of Blarney is home to Blarney Castle, the residence of the famous Blarney Stone. Said to give the “gift of gab” to anyone who kisses it, the stone has become a popular tourist attraction bringing in visitors from all over the world. There are several stories about how this stone received its power, including stories that it was a gift from Robert the Bruce, a piece of the legendary Stone of Scorn, or a helpful present from a banshee who was asked to help a local lord win an upcoming court case.

The word blarney comes from the area name, which was originally Bhlarna, meaning “the little field.” It was here that the MacCarthys of Muskerry - a cadet branch of the kings of Desmond - settled and built themselves a medieval castle in 1446 to replace an earlier wooden structure that dated back to around 1200. The term Bhlarna became Blarnan and then Blarney over the years.

The legendary piece of limestone at the castle has been the source of local lore for years, but it wasn't until the late 1700s that the story started to circulate outside of Ireland. Some credit Oliver Goldsmith’s smooth-talking character Lady Blarney in his 1761 novel The Vicar of Wakefield with expanding the use of the term. By 1796, the term had come to be associated with any “exceedingly complimentary language” in English and by 1848 meant a person who was capable of telling tall tales. The noun blarney also began usage as a verb by 1803.

There are several theories about how the Blarney Stone came to the castle and earned its unique gift - beyond the one that it’s just a regular stone used to build the castle. One of the earliest stories involves the famed fairy queen and banshee Clíodhna being asked by the castle’s builder, Cormac Laidir McCarthy, to help him with an upcoming lawsuit he was facing.

She told him to kiss the first stone he saw on his way to court and he would win. He did so and pleaded his case with such eloquence that he won. He then took the stone back and affixed it to the parapet in his castle. Another legends have that the McCarthy family was given or at least given directions to the stone by a witch a family member saved from drowning. Others hold that it was brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah and was the stone that the biblical Jacob laid his head on when he received visions from God.

Others state that the stone is much more well-traveled, having begun life in Ireland and then found its way to Scotland before being returned in 1314. In one version of this tale, the stone came into the hands of Robert the Bruce who then gave it to the castle's then-owner Cormac McCarthy in 1314 to thank him for his support at the Battle of Bannockburn.

However, the part of the castle where the stone was placed dates to about 18 years before this battle. Others believe the stone was a piece of the Stone of Scorn, also known as the Stone of Destiny or Coronation Stone, that was used during the coronations of Scottish and then British monarchs. However, analysis has proved that the Stone of Scorn is red sandstone while the Blarney Stone is limestone, making this impossible as well. Whatever the true origins of the stone, its legend has become big enough that visitors from around the world come to Blarney Castle to kiss it as well as tour the area. The castle has been open to the public since 1874 and tourism has begun the town’s biggest industry as a result. While the town of Blarney only has a population of around 3,000 An estimated 400,000 people come to kiss the stone each year to get some help with their gab.


The term Irish brogue is often used to explain the lilting accent commonly associated with Irish people, though the Irish themselves will be quick to tell you there isn’t just one Irish accent. The term brogue itself as a term for Irish-accented English is an Irish word and while we associate it with Ireland, the term is sometimes applied to other accents in Great Britain, most notably certain Scottish accents and the accents of England’s West Country. The history of the Irish accent is deeply intertwined with the history of Irish itself and how the country’s English conquerors attempted to place Ireland’s native languages with their own.

The term brogue is of obscure origin and there are several etymological fights over how it came into the modern language. Long before the term brogue meaning “a Celtic accent” entered English around 1705, the term was applied to a “rough, stout shoe, often made of rawhide.” These shoes were typically worn by Irish and Scottish highlanders and the term brogue referencing the shoe dates back into English as far back as 1580s. Some later etymologists tried to equate the brogue shoe with the brogue accent, suggesting that the English thought people from these regions spoke like they had shoes in their mouth. This erroneous origin has since been completely disproved.

The modern day brogue is a far cry from the leathery shoe worn by peasants

A more likely candidate for the word’s origin in the Irish term barróg often meaning “to hold” and sometimes specifically “to hold one’s tongue.” It is possible that this term somehow morphed into a word that was interchangeable with terms like speech or accent. Whatever the case, it is important to know that the Irish brogue or accent isn’t the Irish language but rather what is officially termed Hiberno-English or Irish English. This is completely separate from the Irish language, also known as Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge by some.

Just like there is no one English accent in England - or any other English-speaking country for that matter - there is no one Irish English or Hiberno-English accent. There are four main Irish English dialects, most of which are regionally based and have their own subdialects adn accents. Ulster English, also sometimes known as Northern Irish English, refers to the type of English spoken predominantly in Northern Ireland. It can be further divided into Mid-Ulster English, South Ulster English, and Ulster Scots - a variety that has a heavy Scottish influence.

There are various broad varieties lumped into the West and South-West Irish English. These versions of English are often known by what specific county they originate from, such as Cork English, Kerry English, or Limerick English. Dublin English is one of the most diverse variants and can often be divided into various categories such as local Dublin English, non-local Dublin English as well as new Dublin English and Mainstream Dublin English.

The final group is the supraregional southern Irish English, an emerging accent among younger Irish residents whose accents are less localized and more connected to mainstream media accents. English became the more mainstream language of Ireland in the 1700s due to the fact that Anglo-British government administrations did not understand or would not accept documentation or testimony in Irish, the Catholic church supporting the use of English over Irish, and a language shift in the 1750s that began to change the nature of the Irish language itself.

Road sign in Irish

Just like English, Irish has gone through an Old, Middle, and Modern phases. Eventually, the Irish language became associated with the Irish independence movement and an important cultural symbol. At the end of the 1800s, a Gaelic revival encouraged Irish natives to relearn the language and teach it to their children through groups like the Gaelic League or Conradh na Gaelige.

Today, Ireland is classified as a diglossia, a community where two languages are used by members of the same community for social, political, and economic situations. However, there is still some concern that the Irish language will become lost as English becomes the increasingly favored language of the global community. Irish is not compulsory in schools and so many of those who want to learn the language have to find ways of doing it themselves. Services like DuoLingo and others have begun offering Irish lessons for those who want to learn the language in a more modern setting.


Often associated with violence at sporting events, hooligan is not one of the most positive terms associated with the Irish language, and technically began as a slang term used against the Irish rather than one created by the people themselves. The origin of the term shows how prejudice can creep into our common vernacular without us realizing and that the historic roots of well-known and widely used words don’t always come from positive places.

The term hooligan is believed to originate from an Irish surname often Anglicized as Hoolihan or O'Houlihan. The original name was Ó hUallachái for males and Ní Uallacháin for females, an Irish Gaelic term uallach meaning “proud.” However, the meaning of the term changed when English writers got their hands on it. The name Houlihan was often given to stereotypical Irish figures in British and American newspapers, often comic strips, who served as comic fodder in a time of prejudice against the Irish. The British versions often had their Houlihan and later Hooligan characters as drunks who sometimes served as bouncers and got into various fights. The American version was often set up against a stereotypical German figure known as Schneider who often overthought his machinations. In 1899, author Clarence Rook wrote the book Hooligan Nights about an Irish bouncer and thief named Patrick Hooligan and in the same decade, the Hooligan character was often found to describe rowdy Irish people in popular songs.

Fighting breaks out between England and Russia fans at the 2016 Euro Cup.

In the 1970s, the term hooligan and related term hooliganism began to be used to describe the antics of rowdy British sports fans known as football hooligans who seemed responsible for the rise in violent incidents at sporting events. Aggression between fans of rival teams as well as riots in stands had led to injuries, deaths, and property damage that led to a widespread crack down in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite being dubbed the “English disease” by some, sports hooliganism isn’t strictly relegated to English or even football fans for that matter. One of the first recorded incidents of sports related hooliganism happened at a chariot race in Constantinople in 532, setting off a chain of event known as the Nika Riots that burned nearly half a city and caused tends of thousands of deaths. In America, two common incidents from the 1970s include Cleveland Municipal Stadium’s Ten Cent Beer Night at the famed Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.


These legendary Irish creatures have become just as synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day as St. Patrick himself, though the saint whose name the holiday bears probably wouldn’t be keen to be associated with these figures from pagan lore. Once worshiped as gods in ancient Ireland, the leprechaun eventually was relegated to the role of folk superstition and how has become a cartoonish figure that is symbolic of the fight between Ireland's desire to promote its culture abroad and fears that doing so has cheapened Irish traditions. These tiny bearded men responsible for great mischief are actually a part of Ireland’s larger fairy tradition and may be derived from older figures in Irish mythology that faded into more modern folklore as the area became Christianized.

The term leprechaun traces its origins back to two words from different languages. The first is the Old Irish lú meaning “small” and the Latin corp meaning “body.” This formed the Old Irish term luchorpán and shows us how the Latin spoken by the early Christian church was already having an impact on Irish language and culture. This came into Middle Irish as luchrupán and then the more modern Irish leipreachán, Anglicized as leprechaun but also often spelled as lubrican, leprehaun, and lepreehawn in earlier English texts.

Leprechauns themselves do not appear in Irish lore until the medieval period when the first story about them appears. In this story, Fergus mac Léti, King of Ulster, is awoken from napping on the beach by three leprechauns attempting to drag him into the sea. After capturing one, he is given three wishes in exchange for his release. The leprechaun may actually be descended from an older tradition of the Aos Sí or fairies, specifically the Tuatha Dé Danann who were a supernatural race in pre-Christian Irish tradition. Many of these old gods were shrunk down into the forms of good and vengeful fairies when the country was Christianized. Soon, the leprechaun became associated with fairies that made shoes in the night, kept gold hidden at the end of rainbows, caused general mischief, and could grant wishes or fortune if captured and then released. The concept of leprechauns and drunk and rowdy came later when the leprechaun was used by other countries as an Irish stereotype.

One of the most well-known figures from Irish lore, the leprechaun enjoys a mixed reputation in Ireland itself. Some believe the figure has become an Irish caricature used to emphasized the twee nature of the Irish tourism industry rather than promote Ireland as a serious country. There are concerns this figure from medieval folklore has been trivialized along with other aspects of Irish culture to make a quick buck. The modern incarnation is largely based on anti-irish stereotypes that now promote everything from breakfast cereal to sports teams.


A humorous and often crude five-lined poem that follows the AABBA rhyme scheme, the limerick began appearing as a new form of poetry in the English language in the 1700s but was popularized in the 1800s. Considered a folk form of literature and often used to tell dirty jokes, the limerick became popular because it violated Victorian taboo but also because its short length makes it easy to memorize. While the name of this poem may seem like a clue to the origin of the term, the history of the limerick and how it came to be is much more mysterious than meets the eye.

The term is often taken as a reference to the city or county of Limerick and Ireland, itself not a name of strictly Irish origin. The ancient Irish referred to this area of the country as Inis Sibhtonn or “king’s island” but later came to call it Inis an Ghaill Duibh meaning "the dark-(haired) foreigner's island.” This is because a new group was living in the area - the Vikings - and they called the area Hlymrekr. The Irish then took this term and made it Luimenach or Liminegh. As the Irish language evolved, the n was changed to an r and the ck was substituted for the ach at the end, creating the modern Limerick. However, there is very little proof that the poem and the city name are actually connected.

Some believe the form was created by the Maigue Poets who were active in County Limerick while others believe the term comes from a tradition of creating nonsense verse as a game. Some believe that this came often ended with a refrain “Will you come up to Limerick?” However, this hasn’t been substantiated.

What is known is that the first use of in English comes from 1880 in Canada with it coming to England in the 1890s. Englishman Edward Lear also had a hand popularizing the form though he never used the term limerick to describe his poetry. Traditionally, the first line of a limerick introduces a person or a place such as “there once was a man from Nantucket” with the second and fifth verse rhyming with the first while the third and fourth verse rhyme with each other. The end of the poem is usually a punchline to a dirty joke. Sometimes, the joke is to “explain” an origin of a place name. It is also not uncommon for limericks to have a humorous plot twist, elements of word play, and internal rhyme.


A term often used to describe something that is fake or has been misrepresented, the term phony is one of those words that has a different spelling based on where you are. In America, the proper spelling is phony but other English-speaking countries such as Canada and the UK spell the word as phoney. It might be surprising to learn the the term comes from Irish and an old game used by swindlers to get their money’s worth of unsuspecting marks.

The origin of the term is the Irish word fainne meaning “ring” and was Anglicized as fawney to mean a ring worn on the fingers around the late 1700s. The first appearance of the word fawney in English is from 1781. In the 1800s, swindlers would make rings that were either a cheaper metal painted to look like gold or silver or cheaper stones designed to look like real diamonds or other expensive gems. They would then have associates take these rings to pawnbrokers to sell them for much more than they were worth. These fawney rings were often brass overlaid with a thin layer of gold or fake diamonds and soon the spelling as phoney began to appear around 1899 to mean anything not genuine or that was faked, often in an attempt to swindle another person.

Other times, the ring would be dropped near a passerby who would then be accused of having stolen it and extorted for money so the swindler would not go to the police. Various methods of the swindle scheme also include dropping the ring and then bringing it to the attention of a passerby to extort money from them by some other means. Variations of this scam still go on today around the world. By 1902, the term was being used to describe people who weren’t what they presented themselves as in addition to items that were phony or fake.

During World War II, the British also coined the term phoney war to describe a period of inaction or a lack of fighting during an intense conflict between two groups. The lull in hostilities between England and Germany between September 1939 and April 1940 has often been referred to as the “phoney war” because there was a lot of posturing but no real action taken between the two sides. Instead of fighting, Britain and France waged economic warfare on the Germans and began focusing on large-scale plans for invading Germany and Europe, primarily to begin cutting off resources to Germany. The period ended when Germany attacked France and the Low Countries in May 1940 in what would become known as the Battle of France and the Fall of France, bringing France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands under Nazi control by June of that year.


Another well-known symbol of Irish culture and of St. Patrick, the shamrock is actually five specific species of three-leaved plants and almost always refers to clover of the three-leaved variety with four-leaf clovers not being a technical shamrock. The reason for this is the shamrock’s purpose in helping St. Patrick explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish people.

The word shamrock comes from the Irish word seamróg, a diminutive form of the word seamair. The term seamróg means “little plant” or “young plant” and may also be related to the Gaelic seamrag meaning "trefoil." The term shamrock was being used in English as far back as the 1570s, though there is still some debate over which plant the Irish were actually referring to. The two main candidates are the Trifolium dubium, known as the lesser clover or seamair bhuí and the Trifolium repens, also known as the white clover or seamair bhán. Other plants like the Medicago lupulina or hop clover, Trifolium pratense or red clover, and Oxalis acetosella or wood sorrel are also sometimes identified as shamrocks.

Early on, the Irish used the shamrock for medicinal purposes which Elizabethan authors may have interpreted as the Irish eating the shamrock during times of famine. The Irish may have actually eaten the associated plant wood sorrel rather than shamrocks at this time. Long before the shamrock was associated with Ireland’s St. Patrick, it was said to have been associated with St. Brigid who stayed in a field of them while visiting County Kildare. It wouldn’t be until 1675 that the first story of St. Patrick evangelizing with the shamrock would be told.

Often used in ancient medicine, it became more of a general, secular symbol of Ireland during the Victorian era. Today, it features heavily as a symbol for both Ireland and Northern Ireland. The shamrock has been a symbol of groups like the Irish Volunteers, who were raised to defend British Ireland from France and Spain, and Irish nationalist groups like the United Irishmen. Since 1800, the shamrock has been part of the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom along with the English rose, Welsh daffodil, and Scotch thistle. In the Victorian era, shamrocks were often incorporated into the architecture of Irish buildings and monuments as well as on decorative items like glass, china, jewelry, pottery, and lace. Both the Irish Guards and Royal Irish Regiment of the British Army still use shamrocks as emblems and frequently wear sprigs of them. Outside of Ireland, they are used to symbolize American organizations of Irish Catholics and first responders, the Royal Arms of Canada, the flag of the city of Montreal, a U.S-based motorcycle club, and the Boston Celtics basketball team.


From ancient heraldry to modern-day marketing and branding campaigns, slogans have been adopted by a variety of groups to make them easily identifiable. Advertising firms put millions of dollars into researching what slogans are the most effective and what it takes to make a slogan catch on among consumers. Rather than keeping products or companies in the minds of consumers, however, the original use of the slogan was to make sure an opposing force knew who was attacking


The term slogan comes to us from the ancient Celtic words slough meaning “army, host, slew” and the word gairm meaning “a cry.” This became the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, a term used by both Gaelic speakers in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands to mean “Battle cry.” The word first appeared in English spelled as slogorne and was defined as the battle cries of Irish and Scottish Highland Clans. By 1670s, the spelling had morphed into the modern spelling as slogan.

By 1704, the term in English was less associated with battle cries and more with a certain phrase or word that was commonly associated with a person, such as a catchphrase. It could also mean a secret term or phrase used to make sure a person seeking entrance in the night was a friend rather than foe. Soon, the term began associated with phrases and terms used by political factions as chanting phrases or political slogans was a great way to stir up campaign support. Seeing how well slogans worked for politicians, they were soon adopted to sell consumer goods.

Also known as taglines in the U.S. and straplines in the UK, slogans often convey a message about a product, company, or brand and often appear in musical form as jingles to make them easier to remember. These slogans can keep a product in a person’s mind and influence the way consumers behave and what they buy. Slogans even make their way into our common vernacular such as Wheatie’s 1930 slogan “breakfast of champions,” KFC’s 1952 slogan “finger lickin’ good,” United Airlines 1966 “fly the friendly skies,” the California Milk Processor Board’s 1993 “Got Milk?,” Nike’s “Just Do IT,” and Wendy’s 1984 “Where’s the Beef?”

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