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From ‘trousers’ to ‘Tories’: unexpected Irish words in English

Most English speakers would not be surprised to hear that words like banshee or shamrock have their origins in Irish, the Celtic language (also known as Gaelic) which is still spoken in the parts of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht. After all, most recognizable Irish words encountered in English have obvious connections to Ireland, like camogie (a women’s sport similar to hurling) or bodhran (a type of drum). Naturally, the greatest variety of Irish loanwords is found in Irish English, where they pepper the vocabulary and leave relics in the syntax (as discussed in a recent OxfordWords post). But the history of Irish borrowings in English is longer and more complex than an acquaintance with these obvious Irishisms would suggest.

According to OED, the oldest borrowing from Irish into English is mind (from Irish mionn), an obsolete term for a type of ornament attested in Old English. The most recent imports are craic, punt, and fleadh, which entered English in the late 20th century. There was a steady trickle of Irish loanwords into English from the 15th through 18th centuries, but this increased to a flood during the 1800s. Oddly enough, this apex of Irish imports in English coincided with a period of steep and decisive decline for the Irish language itself. The 19th century was also a period of mass emigration, during which Irish immigrants streamed to the rest of the United Kingdom and to North America, taking their distinctive vocabularies with them. After a millennium of linguistic coexistence, Irish origins lurk in some unexpected corners of the English lexicon, where the connection to Ireland itself has been obscured:

puck n. Ireland isn’t known for ice hockey (it first fielded a national team in 2004), so it may come as a surprise that the word for the hard rubber disk used in the sport, puck, may owe its origins to the Irish language. In the Irish sport of hurling, which resembles field hockey, the noun puck (from Irish poc) means ‘a stroke or shot at the ball’; there is also a verbal puck meaning ‘to strike or hit’. It is easy to imagine how this might have influenced the name for the hockey puck, which OED shows as first attested in a Boston newspaper in 1886.

trousers n. The immediate origin of trousers is the English trowse, which it has now displaced. However, that word is a borrowing of Irish (and Scottish Gaelic) triubhas. OED records a 1630 example of trowse which showcases the word’s Irish origins, as well as some 17th century wit: “A jellous wife was like an Irish trouze, alwayes close to a mans tayle.”

Tory n. It is a very roundabout story that leads from a band of Irish outlaws to the nickname of one of Britain’s foremost political parties. Tory (apparently a respelling of Irish tóraidhe) first arose in English during the mid 17th century, referring to an Irish bandit or rapparee. Soon the word was being used of outlaws as far afield as Scotland and even India. Then, during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, those who wished to disinherit the Catholic heir presumptive to the British throne (known as Exclusionists or Whigs) used Tory as a disparaging nickname for their opponents. When that Anti-Exclusionist faction eventually coalesced into a political party, it kept the Tory name. The present-day Conservative Party in the UK is a descendant of that original party, though it no longer wholeheartedly embraces the Tory nickname.

slob n. Although there are similar Germanic words, related to English slobber, slob appears to derive from Irish slab. The earliest meaning of the word was ‘mud’, but by the mid-19th century it had developed the more familiar current sense of ‘a lazy and slovenly person’.

galore adj. comes from the Irish phrase go leor, which means literally “to sufficiency, enough”. In English, it has taken on a more effusive meaning, implying not merely sufficiency but abundance. The Oxford English Corpus shows that although galore is now widespread throughout the English-speaking world, it is most common by far in its Irish homeland.

slew n., meaning a large number or quantity of something, comes originally from Irish sluagh (crowd, multitude), but it entered the English language in the United States. That a word should enter English from Irish by way of America is a testament to the influence of the Irish diaspora in the New World. In contrast to galore, slew is much less common in Ireland than it is in North America.

puss n. This word—not the synonym for cat, but the term for face or mouth—comes from Irish pus, but is first attested in English from the United States, where it became known as a slang term. It is to that slang development that we owe the later (and now probably more familiar) compounds sourpuss and glamour puss.