Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

Irish In Our English, Why Do We Say That?

Even if you didn’t drink a Guinness yesterday, eat corn beef and cabbage, or dye your favorite cookie or beverage green, chances are you may have honored the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day without even realizing it!

Irish immigrants have been a part of the American story since its beginning and Gaelic, the ancient language of Ireland, can be found in many of the expressions we speak or read daily.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads, shows us the depth of Irish contribution to American English.  After flipping through a Gaelic dictionary, he began searching for the phonetic equivalents of words English dictionaries described as being “from unknown origins.” Phrases he grew up hearing as part of the Irish working-class vernacular in New York City.

A sketch of the residents of Five Points, a famously Irish neighborhood in New York, published in 1885.

A sketch of the residents of Five Points, a famously Irish neighborhood in New York, published in 1885.

Mr. Cassidy notes that “[Irish Gaelic] was a back-room language, whispered in kitchens and spoken in the saloons.” Keeping the language and expressions of the homeland alive became a way for often disciminated against Irish Catholics to communicate.

Did you ever tickle your children and tell them to “Cry Uncle?” If you did, you can thank an Irishman for that expression. It turns out the Gaelic word, anacal means mercy. So when a couple of Irishmen were fighting and one begged for mercy, to the uniformed American ear it sounded like “uncle.”

Even the word “dude” comes from the Irish word, dúid, or a foolish-looking fellow, a dolt. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, dudes were guys who came down to the Five Points section of Manhattan to chase the “colleens” or ladies and appraently made a fool of themselves doing so.

Full of BaloneyHow about the American phrase, “you’re full of balooney?”  The Gaelic words béal (mouth) and ónna (foolish) combined for this famous expression meaning “you made it up” or “you have no idea what your talking about.”

Even the hippies can thank the Irish for one of their favorite expressions from the 1970s, “You dig?” comes from the Irish, “tuig,” or understand.


Here’s a short list of Irish-influenced English words from Cassidy’s book:

Scram: scaraim (to get away)
Boogaloo : bogadh luath (moving fast; moving quickly; fast rocking)
Crony : comh-roghna (fellow favorites, mutual pals)
Phoney : fáinne (a ring, later a “fawney”, a fake gold ring)snazzy_banana
Slugger : slacaire (a mauler or bruiser)
Scam : ’s cam é (it is fraud, crooked, a trick)
Puss : pus (lip, a mouth, a sulky expression, a pouty mouth)
Gimmick: camag (trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick)

Snazzy : snasah (polished, glossy and elegant)
Swell : sóúil (luxurious, rich and prosperous)
Spiel : speal (cutting satiric words, scythe)
Slum : ’s lom (a bleak, bare, exposed place)
Fluke : fo-luach(rare reward or occurrence)

Overheard but often misunderstood, these Irish words and expressions seeped into American English and became mainstays of American slang. Words like “malarkey,” “doozy,” “humdinger,” “jerk,” “punk,” “swanky,” “grifter,” “bailiwick,” “sap,” “mug,” “wallop,” “helter-skelter,” “shack,” “shanty,” “slob,” “slacker” and “knack” all have their origins in Irish Gaelic.  Even expressions like “gee whiz.” “holy cow” and “holy mackerel” are Anglicized versions of Irish expressions according to Cassidy.

With all these phrases to choose from, surely you must see the Irish in your own every day speech.

Which Irish influenced words are part of your everyday jargon?





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  1. This is fantastic! Thanks for such great info. I am sharing with other Irish peeps.

    • romancinghistory

      Thanks Megan! Always appreciative of a “share” as well!

  2. What a terrific post. I am adding it to the WE ED.

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Tina, thanks for your kind words! So appreciated and thanks for sharing. Blessings!

  3. Michae Goshorn

    How about the fact that the Luck of the Irish was not really “Good Luck”

    The original expression from what I understand relates back to the fact that many unlucky things were happening to the Irish.
    Domination by Britain.
    Potato Plaque.
    Indoctrination in the Army when they arrive in the US (although many thought of this as good luck, because it earned them immediate citizenship, a practice that continues till today)

    • romancinghistory

      That is an interesting tidbit. So the luck of the Irish isn’t something to aspire to!

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