Irish people love adjectives. This may seem absurd at first, but I believe Irish people’s love of descriptors runs far deeper than others’ appreciation of these little words.
Over my twenty-something years in America I have come to realize I have an affinity for adjectives many Americans do not understand. My first inkling of this cultural difference came within a few months of my arrival in Elmira, New York in 1988.
Describing A Good Meal:
Two of my Irish-born friends and I met some co-workers at an Irish pub for dinner one evening.
I ordered a “County Cork,” the biggest door-step Reuben sandwich I had ever laid eyes upon. In fact it was the first Reuben I had ever seen, the like of which has never been seen or served in County Cork.
I tucked into my “County Cork,” like any good Cork woman might, and as I experienced the new taste explosions of mingling corned beef, sauerkraut, cheese and Thousand Island dressing, I had to pause to exclaim …
“This sandwich is fabulous.”
My Irish friend, who was tucking into another sandwich never-before-seen in its namesake county, also declare…
“Mine is scrumptious.”
A string of adjectives flowed from the pair of us between each mouth-watering bite. We described our delicious meals as delectable, fantastic, flavorful, luscious. We may have even gone so far as to call them heavenly and divine.
One of our American companions piped up and asked…
“How many ways can you describe that sandwich?
“It’s really just a sandwich.”
And so I asked her what she would say when she is truly enjoying a meal, to which she replied…
“I would just say it’s ‘good’.”
And in that moment I realized that my flourishing descriptive words might not be needed on this side of the Atlantic.
A Lesson In Descriptive Writing:
Now as you know, I love to write. At night I type, creating picture book manuscripts, blog posts, and a historical Irish novel.
To help improve my writing I joined a critique group. Each member emails a chapter or a picture book to the other members of the group to receive feedback for improvement.
I am deeply indebted to my fellow critique group members. Their input is invaluable.
However, there is one theme that runs through all of my writing, and it’s this. I use too many adjectives for American editors’ liking.
I string them together using assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. I describe charming, adorable picture book characters with adjectives, rather than letting their actions reveal how cute they truly are.
And as for villains, mine are despicable, vicious and vindictive. But my adjective use is way over-the-top for American readers, and slows down the pace of my writing.
I’m not being critical of my critics. I fully accept my adjective overuse must be curbed to move my stories along. However, upon discovering my adjective addiction I asked myself why do I love these words so much?
And here’s the theory I came up with…
The Geary Theory On The Irish Love Of Adjectives:
First, let me explain the ‘Geary Theory’. This is the name my other half applies to all unscientifically proven theories that flow from the depths of my thought processes (my last name is Geary and it conveniently rhymes with ‘theory’).
Unsubstantiated my little theories may be, but that’s no reason not to share them. They’re often great conversation starters, so here’s my Geary theory on the Irish love of adjectives.
In the Irish language (Gaeilge or Gaelic) many adjectives end in -ach which is pronounced -ock, like in clock.
This little ending makes Irish adjectives very satisfying to utter.
Blastach (pronounced bloss-thock) = tasty
Salach (pronounced sol-ock) = dirty
Callánach (cal-awn-ock) = noisy
Cumhachtach (coo-ock-thock) = powerful
Amadach (ahm-ah-dhock) = foolish
I could add to this list for hours and hours, adding these gloriously expressive words we use to describe our nouns in Irish.
My theory is that when we Irish speakers transferred over to the English tongue we took with us a desire to express descriptions with the same guttural satisfaction we derived from our old Irish adjectives. That ending -ock sound brings us fulfillment.
When English adjectives fail to quench our desire for these strong descriptive sounds we just string more adjectives together in a hope to get our point across.
Proof of this last little theory of mine may lie in our Irish affinity for adding intensifying adjectives to sentences.
We use words such as ‘awful’ and ‘fierce’ in a manner a natural speaker of the Queen’s English would never even consider. In fact, to a non-Irish person the use of these words makes no sense at all.
When using ‘fierce’ as an intensifying adjective we might say something such as:
“That bag there will hold a fierce heavy load.”
‘Heavy’ alone is not adequate to satisfy our need for description. To solve this we add extra little words of emphasis.
We have even been known to use the word ‘fierce’ right beside the word ‘good’, which seems like a total contradiction to a non-Irish person.
For example: “We had a fierce good night last night, awful craic altogether.”
‘Awful’ in this instance actually carries a positive intensifying meaning for the word ‘craic’. I should be making seriously good sense to everyone by now.
Up in Donegal everything is ‘class’ or ‘deadly’ which, believe it or not, actually means excellent. Other favorite intensifying adjectives are some beauties like ‘mighty’.
Like the well-worn phrase, “The craic was mighty the other night.”
Or how about our Irish love of the word ‘savage’ or ‘massive’ meaning fantastic. ‘Massive’ is an intensifying adjective frequently used in Cork.
Many years ago a girl I knew worked in a department store in Cork. An American paraded out of the fitting room in a beautiful dress. When she asked my friend how the dress looked, the Cork girl replied…“It’s massive on you.”
The American customer totally misunderstood this Cork compliment, bolted back into the dressing room to change, and dashed away without purchasing her beautiful dress.
A true example of a linguistic culture clash.
The Irish Love Of Some Not So Acceptable Adjectives:
And so onto my last theory of the night, and it concerns the Irish love of the not-so-nice F-bomb.
The prolific use of the F-word in Ireland, can really come as quite a surprise to the unsuspecting tourist. After living in America for many years my ears are in shock for a few weeks upon first returning to Ireland.
My family does not use the word, but it is used extensively throughout our little island, with no regard for how offensive others may find this word.
And here is my rationale for excessive use of this curse word in Ireland.
The problem lies in the fact the objectionable word ends in Irish people’s beloved hard -ck sound, that rings like descriptive music in our ears.
Unfortunately the utterance of the F-word satisfies our inherent, genetic desire to hear this guttural, harsh sound. It’s simply a Celtic thing, and rather than searching for other satisfying English adjectives, some Irish people have unwittingly replaced all adjectives with this not-so-nice -ck word.
So when you hear this word flying from the lips of my countrymen, please forgive, for perhaps, they know not what they do.
And so I hope you enjoyed my whimsical, amusing, and hopefully entertaining ramble about the Irish love of adjectives.
Do you think our Irish affinity for adjectives may have roots within our cultural psyche?
Slán agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
* Mairead Geary came to America for one year 20 years ago. She now lives with her husband and children in Kentucky and is proud to be an American citizen. Read more on her blog here.