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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 6 December, 2019
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The Irish For: Maura Higgins has brought the word 'shift' to a new audience - but where does it come from?

Shifting is a regional use of a global term, so you can’t just search for the first recorded incidence – you have to look at context.

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. Enjoy.

Seift: a shift, ruse, trick, resource or expediency
Síofadh: to swoop upon

This summer has been an auspicious one for weirdos obsessed with Hiberno-English such as meself. The reason for this is the breakout star of television’s most popular show is a young Irish woman who’s been introducing audiences in Britain to certain Irish colloquialisms. I am, of course, referring to Maura Higgins and her stint on Love Island. In keeping with the show’s promise of romantic encounters, one of the terms she has used, and the one which has garnered the most attention, has been ‘shift’, meaning to kiss.

But where did the expression come from and how did it become the term of choice for outgoing youngsters across the island? And how strong is the claim that it came from Irish? (The theory that snogging came from ‘snag’, the Irish word for jazz music or the persistent pecking of a bird, seems to be mostly based on wishful thinking).

Shifting presents linguists, philologists and etymological historians with many problems, and not just because nobody wants to shift them (although that is absolutely also the case). As with ‘crack/craic’ which we discussed a few weeks ago, shifting represents a regional use of a global term. This means you can’t just search for an earliest recorded incidence, call it a day and go home. You need to also check for context.

Then there is also the absence of relevant source material. If the expression ‘getting the shift’ didn’t appear in a newspaper or published book until the 21st century, how many decades of spoken use should be inferred prior to this date?

Fortunately the spread of shifting has happened within living memory and it is still possible to ask people when they first heard it, if it was the word of choice among their peers, or did they associate it with another town, school or county. My wife, who is from Antrim, was unfamiliar with the term until she had a housemate from Monaghan in the late 90s. In my own experience, I first heard it at the Gaeltacht in Ceathrú Rua in 1991 where it was unfamiliar to me and the other Dublin kids.

As with all teenage slang, there were other hyper-local expressions too, but shift stood out to me: mechanical, unsentimental and decidedly un-onomatopoeic. However, nearly thirty years later, shifting has gone from strength to strength while feeking, getting the wear, climming and courting either stayed local or died off completely.

The Kerry possibility

I approached social media and the listeners of Today FM’s Muireann O’Connell Show to ask where when people first heard the expression. Some patterns started emerging – it had reached Westmeath, Longford and Galway by the 80s, had a foothold in Louth, Donegal and parts of Dublin by the 90s, was in use in Cork, Waterford and Clare as early as the 70s. I got fewer responses for the 1960s, although some shifting was reported in Kerry and Tipperary then (and a single stray incident in Wexford, possibly with someone from one of those counties).

Language movement represents either a movement of people or of ideas. The possibility of a Kerry origin is satisfying and ties in nicely with an explanation for its spreading across the country: teenagers going to the Gaeltacht, meeting kids from other counties and shifting them.

Unlike fetch in Mean Girls, someone made shift happen. But there is more work to be done before this can be proven conclusively, and the Tipperary claim can’t be dismissed just because it doesn’t fit a theory. I can only hope that either half of the first couple to shift are reading this and can get in touch with me to tell their story.

One thing is for sure, however. In the years since the end of the Tiger when the economy became more and more Dublin-centric, rural and regional voices have marched forward to dominate our literature and pop culture – Derry Girls, Blindboy, the Aisling novels, Kevin Barry and Lisa McInerney – providing voices which refuse to be erased or spoken over by Dart-line accents. Our stories are told with words that tell other stories.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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