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Column: 10 ways my American English is fighting Hiberno English for survival

‘Craic’, ‘hoover’, ‘press’ – just some unique words Irish people have made their own. But if you are not a native to Ireland do these words make any sense and would you use them? Larry Donnelly compares his American English to Hiberno English in a word-off.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

I GET A kick out of hearing Irish people take their US-based relatives and friends to task for acquiring a more American accent. It’s especially entertaining for me in that I am one of a relatively small number of people having the opposite experience on this side of the Atlantic.

Although my Boston accent remains undiminished – I just can’t pronounce the letter “r” – my speech pattern and the expressions I use regularly have changed after more than a decade of living here. This leaves me in something of a no-win situation. In Ireland, I’ll always be the Yank with the Boston accent. When I go home to Boston, however, both American and Irish friends tell me I’m picking up “Irishisms” and an Irish twang.

With this as context, I thought I’d compile my own top ten list of areas where my American (or Boston) English is fighting Hiberno English for survival and assess which is winning.

1. Footwear: While Americans would never call them anything but sneakers, in Ireland, depending on where you are and who you’re talking to, they’re either runners or trainers. Moreover, the athletic shoes with spikes for extra traction are known as cleats in the US, but as boots in Ireland. My American English wins on footwear. The use of sneakers is too deeply engrained. And referring to footwear that doesn’t rise above the ankles as a boot is, quite frankly, bizarre.

2. Household appliances: Many things we use in the house on a day-to-day basis are called the same on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet there are two big differences in Ireland.  First is that what we in the US know as a vacuum cleaner is called nothing other than a Hoover here. Hoover would certainly kill for such brand loyalty in the US market!

(Michael Probst/Press Association Images)

What do you mean this is a vacuum cleaner? Surely it’s called a Hoover?

Second is that what’s used to keep food cool or frozen is never, ever called a refrigerator in Ireland; it is always and only a fridge. Anytime I say the word refrigerator, as I nearly always would in Boston, I can count on it being repeated back to me in a drawn out, exaggerated American accent. When it comes to household appliances, therefore, Hiberno English has won out.

3. Furniture: Most items are labelled the same in Ireland. The one term that left me totally blank, and which I still cannot fathom, is the press. When I first moved to Galway in 2001, a housemate asked me if I would retrieve something from the “hot press.” I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Again, to this day, I’m puzzled by the use of the term. To me it will always be a closet or a cabinet, depending on whether it holds clothes or cookware. My American English is a clear winner here.

4. Pants vs Trousers: Only the haughtiest of Americans would regularly use the term trousers to describe what we wear to cover our legs. But it remains common parlance here. While I mostly say it mockingly to my wife and son, I do now use trousers more and more when talking with relatives, friends and colleagues. I’m afraid Hiberno English is slowly winning out.

5. Soft drinks: This is more of a Boston English, than an American English, battle. Growing up just outside Boston, whether it was Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew or Ginger Ale, it was all tonic. Now, that word provoked strange looks from Americans from outside the Boston area, for whom it was all soda. Here in Ireland, any time I ask someone if they’d like a tonic, I get the same reaction. So despite being a proud Bostonian, my references to tonic are getting fewer and farther between. Hiberno English wins.

6. Brilliant vs Awesome: Because I know how most Hiberno people react to the use of the word, both directly to the person who says it and in murmured disparaging comments to one another afterward, ‘awesome’ has been wiped from my vocabulary and ‘brilliant’ has taken its place. Full stop. Hiberno English wins.

7. Alcoholic drinks: While we Americans would commonly say to one another that we’re going for a few beers, in Ireland, it is always for a few pints. Indeed, the use of beers is probably more appropriate in the US because many drinkers do not go out to drink pints (the quality of which varies widely in bars). Here in Ireland, however, it is pints, and I now say pints wherever I am. Hiberno English wins again.

8. Greetings: My standard means of greeting anyone for the first 25 years of my life was quintessentially Bostonian “Howahya?” In Ireland though, I’m usually asked to repeat it when I do say it, so that the recipient(s) can have another chuckle at my accent. As such, I’m afraid, I’ve started to greet people here with “How’s things?” or “Any craic?”. I still revert to “Howahya?” and always say it when I’m back in Boston. I’d only jokingly use Hiberno greetings on Hiberno friends there. My American English is hanging tough.

9. Sandwiches: Something I will never get used to in Ireland are the miserable, always underwhelming sandwiches with one slice of meat on them, a grossly disproportionate amount of starch and a vile combination of butter and mayonnaise. They compare horribly with the wide array of delicious, heaping, hot and cold sandwiches I grew up eating and stuff myself with every time I’m back in Boston. The big distinction here would be that what we call a sub is called a roll. To make myself understood and, if nothing else, to not dishonour American subs by likening them to Irish rolls, Hiberno English is winning out.

Now that’s a sandwich.

(Shutterstock)

10. Baby: My wife recently had a baby and our lives are now dominated by the needs, wants and bodily functions of Baby Larry. This new reality has precipitated some epic linguistic conflicts between my wife and me when we are scrambling to attend to him. Pacifier vs soother; crib vs cot; cradle vs Moses basket; diaper vs nappy; nozzle vs teat; baby carriage vs pram or buggy; and so on. While I admit to using Hiberno English at times in this context, I am claiming this as a victory for American English because my wife often uses US terminology to deny me the chance to feign ignorance and evade my responsibilities!

That makes for a tally of 6-4 in favour of Hiberno English. Professionally and personally, Ireland has been my land of opportunity and I love this country at least as much as I love the country of my birth. The tally does make me sad in one way though. I’ll always consider myself a Bostonian on the inside, yet I’m beginning to wonder what those who see me from the outside will think in future as that which makes me American slowly but inevitably fades from earshot and view.

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Larry Donnelly is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway.  A slightly different version of this piece first appeared here on IrishCentral.com in his regular “Boston Irishman in Ireland” column. For more articles by Larry for TheJournal.ie please click here.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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