It’s that most wonderful time of the year with the usual outpourings of peace and goodwill to all (wo)men – no more so than those noble elected representatives of the Irish houses of parliament. Yesterday saw some choice usage of the terms ‘harpies’ and ‘hemorrhoids’ within the Irish Senate, something which met with an uproarious reception. The Irish houses of parliament are no stranger to ‘unparliamentary language’, but the real juicy stuff is perhaps not that well known. And so, for the season that’s in it, I hereby present: Unparliamentary Language (Irish Style) – Part One: Sweet Fuck All – a whistle stop tour of the use of strong language(s) within the official records of the Houses of the Oireachtas – i.e Dáil Éireann (Lower Parliament) and Seanad Éireann (The Senate).
Note: Ceann Comhairle, Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Cathaoirleach are official Irish titles for ‘speaker/deputy speaker’ i.e. the chairperson.
First up, a wonderful and gingerly tentative use of the mild term ‘feck’, which was not uttered as an insult, but rather within a particularly interesting report to a committee concerning the extent to which the people behind a new postcode system were going to in order to avoid any rude words:
A retired lecturer in medieval history has found what appears to be the earliest use of fuck. It’sin a 1310 court record, and it’s a surname: Roger Fuckebythenavele. “Experts say name refers to lack of sexual prowess, or gross stupidity.” – Daily Mail. “I’m sort of speechless.” – Language Log’s Geoffrey Pullum. “The Middle English dictionary needs a fucking update.” – medievalist Piotr Gąsiorowski.
For the day that’s in it, here’s a little something on a ‘verbal ejaculation’ attributed to St. Patrick – the fifth century Romano-British* missionary who was later elevated to the rank of patron saint of Ireland. It is to be found in several early medieval hagiographical texts concerning the saint’s activities, and is, allegedly, a corrupted version of a sweary expression he used. Intriguingly, it may actually represent a kernel of truth as the ‘ejaculation’ would appear to be an original Brittonic phrase that was subsequently passed down/corrupted through the medium of Old Irish (Brittonic would have been Patrick’s native language). If so, then there is something refreshingly subversive and endearing in the idea that Old Irish tradition would be interested in, let alone preserve, an ancient earthy expression from the very mouth of its patron saint.
Patrick is said to have uttered the expression at people who were seriously pissing him off. Its earliest appearance is in a 7th century hagiographical text:
O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end? (James Joyce, letter, 1920)
Just as different countries develop distinct dialects, so too do they produce their own conventions of swearing. Ireland has an enthusiastic culture of verbal irreverence, among whose characteristic features are the words feck and shite. Feck is a minced oath whose uses, meanings and origins I’ve explored on my own language blog, Sentence first. Shite is a slightly coarser swear, more at home here on Strong Language.
Shite is often but not always a direct variant of shit in the Hiberno-English profanilect.* It’s also used in Scotland, Australia, and other regional dialects, but my focus here is on usage in Ireland. All the main senses of shit are shared by shite. Like its global relative, shite commonly means nonsense, something rubbish or useless, or plain old excrement. We may talk shit or shite, be full of shit or shite, not give a shit or a shite, do a shit or a shite.
Tom didn’t realise what a nasty wee shite Jason has become. (Niamh Ní Bhaoill, Ros na Rún)
Shite carries a long history, intertwined somewhat with that of shit on account of the older phonetic forms of the latter. The Oxford English Dictionary, which has citations from Larkin, Enright, Hemingway, Amis, and (inevitably and repeatedly) Joyce, says shite: