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The Irish For: The word 'dote' was used in Britain before it came to Ireland - and that's ok

Word usage is like a conga line at a wedding – nobody thinks the person at the front is an artistic visionary, but the second and third people to join in create the legitimacy for others to attach themselves

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THIS IS THE latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. 

Last year I was a guest at a wedding on the Devon coast, not far from where the Famous Five would’ve had their adventures. While chatting with guests at my table and at the bar, I was struck again by the little differences between the Béarla I spoke and the variety used by the English guests.

There is a world of difference between ‘oh, well’ and ‘ah, well’. English people have no equivalent phrase to ‘sure lookit’ even though the words it contains seem familiar to them.

But the one that really struck me on this recent visit was dote. On a previous visit, when my nephew from London was called a dote (or, more precisely, a wee dote) by his grandmother and adoring aunts, he asked what this meant. Mentioning this story to some of the English wedding guests, they confirmed that while the verb dote was known to them, using dote as a noun to refer to someone richly deserving of affection was not.

Having said that, dote is a Hiberno-English noun which shares an embarrassment with craic/crack – there is some documented evidence, back through the mists of time, of its use in Britain prior to the first documented Irish use. The twelfth century, to be precise.

Some people take a peculiar delight when a piece of Irish slang is subject to one of these etymological gotcha moments. It’s as though they expose a certain kind of self-satisfied Irishness – the kind that thinks we are the best fans in the world and the only people on the planet with manners enough to say thank you to a bus driver – as a sham.

But does this mean that all usages of a word emerge from its first recorded use? Are words like non-patent-protected chattels of one nation’s intellectual property, where later users owe some debt of gratitude to the word’s one true parent? Should coining a word be treated with the same esteem as composing a song? I don’t think so.

Readers over 25 will have witnessed in their own lifetimes how text evolved from a noun to a verb as text messaging became a phenomenon in the early 2000s in Ireland and the UK (it took longer to catch on in the States). If I tell you that text was used as a verb in the 1590s to refer to a lettering technique used by monks, would you accept that these two usages were directly connected? I suspect you would not. Where was the verb hiding in all those centuries in between? Similarly, where did the English dote go?

Word usage is like a conga line at a wedding – nobody thinks the person at the front is an artistic visionary, but the second and third people to join in create the legitimacy for others to attach themselves. It might change speed and direction as it gets longer or shorter, or depending on who or what is in its way. A guest who tried to start a conga line on his own hours earlier – at the ceremony, perhaps - cannot claim that his idea was stolen. And the conga line is a distinct entity from one led by the same person at a different wedding the previous week.

So while dote is not a noun in the wedding of mainstream English (Microsoft Word even stuck a wobbly little blue line under it as I write, warning me that I’m making a mistake), this linguistic conga-line did catch on in Ireland. In the 1959 foclóir, it is translated as peata (pah-tah).

It seems a little perverse to have to turn to a foclóir to demonstrate a local use of an English word in Ireland, but such measures will continue to be necessary until an Irish Dictionary of English is brought about. Until then, people might enjoy the Twitter account @hiberno_english, which examines and shares Irish usages of Béarla with wit and insight.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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