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The Irish For - Does Google Translate understand what 'A Cute Hoor' is?

By the 1990s, the phrase no longer appeared in inverted commas.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

IN NOVEMBER 1967, trail-blazing Education Minister Donogh O’Malley found himself in the unusual position of having to defend a nuance of Hiberno-English in the Dáil chamber.

The Intermediate and Leaving Cert English and Irish curriculums had been revised to include some more modern content (who could forget Peig and Soundings?) as well as some controversial choices.

When challenged in the chamber by Oliver Flanagan – the TD who had recently declared that “there was no sex in Ireland before RTÉ” – to defend the inclusion of stories featuring expressions such as “for Christ’s sake”, “bastard” and ‘hoor”, O’Malley gave the following reply:

It should also be said that the words concerned… do not carry, at least in Ireland, a connotation other than mild, vulgar, opprobrium. Curiously enough, if preceded by the adjective ‘poor’, they express sympathy. In the south of Ireland, if one said: ‘John fell down a cliff, and the poor hoor, was killed’… you would say ‘the poor hoor, Lord have mercy on him’”.

Flanagan rebutted that “if he is a poor bastard or a poor hoor, he is still a bastard or a hoor”, but fifty-three years of hindsight have shown that O’Malley’s point stands.

In particular, the word hoor – especially when preceded by “cute” – has an extremely specific meaning in Ireland that is entirely lost on translation software and visitors from Anglophone countries.

“Cute” and “hoor” represent two different categories of Hiberno-English: the first, a local usage of a global word (like “grand” or “sure”), the second a phonetic rendering of how a global word is spoken and used here (like “quare”). Combined they represent a third category – a specifically Irish phrase.

Cute: as an abbreviation of acute, cute meaning shrewd or cunning predates the adorableness meaning, the one more common globally today.

While you may still hear Americans saying “don’t get cute with me”, this usage is old-fashioned there and never caught on in Ireland where “don’t get smart with me” would be far more common.

The way cute in Ireland refers more precisely to self- preservation and sneakiness rather than giving backtalk would suggest that it caught on as a substitute for the Irish word glic, which succinctly describes that variety of intelligence without having an exact match in English.

Hoor: not to be confused with the town of the same name in Sweden, this is derived from the word whore, with its spelling altered to reflect how it is said in Ireland.

Just as eejit and divil are derived from idiot and devil, a softening of the original meaning accompanies the change in spelling – to refer to someone as an “awful hoor” implies tolerance of their tendency for opportunism, unsentimental decision-making and willingness to do business with anyone.

Cute Hoor: while clearly in use for decades earlier, this phrase first appeared in print in the Evening Herald in 1983 in a piece about Roscommon TD Terry Leyden, where it was identified as local parlance.

The context was that he and his Fianna Fáil running mate Sean Doherty had both held onto their seats in the previous year’s general election despite a national swing against their party, and that this was credited to their reputation for constituency work rather a higher than normal level of interest in that party’s manifesto in the area.

The idea that local interests can be in conflict with national ones implies that some areas benefit from the national interest more than others. It is this friction that starts the cute hoor flame.

By the 1990s the phrase no longer appeared in inverted commas.

Just as we rarely use the word merry outside the phrase “Merry Christmas” and never say fro outside the phrase “to and fro”, both cute and hoor are now primarily understood in the context of being components of cute hoor. But despite it being such a well-known phrase in the largest English-speaking member state in the EU, Google Translate mistakes it for Dutch.

Perhaps avoiding inclusion in the dictionary, with all the scrutiny that would surely follow, is the greatest cute hoor trick of all?

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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