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The Irish For: Let's settle the 'crack' versus 'craic' debate by looking at the evidence

The word appears to originate before 1900 in parts of Ireland where spoken Irish was high and literacy was low, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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.

DO YOU HAVE a least favourite word?

Chances are that you, like me, have a hard time just picking one.

For example, abbreviating the word body to ‘bod’ annoys me so much that my hand unconsciously forms a fist when I hear it.

How much time are you saving by dropping the ‘y’ and what are you using that time for? Press ups? I doubt it.

I could spend the rest of my days without hearing ‘hubby’ (or worse ‘hubs’) and not miss it once.

I do not care for the notiony ‘methinks’ either and cannot recall it appearing in a sentence whose meaning would’ve been changed without it.

It is in this context that I want to discuss the ‘craic’ vs ‘crack’ debate which resurfaced on Twitter this week.

I am resigned to the fact that it will resurface again in a few months time with the same old arguments thrown about again, but will still quixotically attempt to settle it forever.

Some people dislike the word craic (particularly the spelling) and they are perfectly entitled to do so, just as I dislike hubby.

However, what really grinds my gears is when they attempt to justify this dislike by claiming the word is inauthentic, coined recently and cynically and that it isn’t even Irish.

A distant Middle English origin is occasionally suggested yet no evidence of a direct connection between the two cracks is ever attempted.

They insist on spelling it crack – which is fine, if you must- but are weirdly proud of themselves for doing so, as though they are little Dutch boys bravely fingering the holes in a dam, stopping a deluge of slang, tautologies, Americanisms, split infinitives, grocer’s apostrophes and other linguistic floodwater.

My reservations about ‘crack’ are no less valid than their disdain for ‘craic’.

I don’t call craic crack for the same reason I don’t call cigarettes fags or cats pussies, even though I accept that others do so in good faith. There’s a double meaning there which doesn’t serve my purposes and I’m taking precautions against it.

But does craic have an authenticity problem, you ask?

Even if we were to accept that the spelling was coined in English in the late 1980s as some crackers suggest, this would still make it no less authentic than English terms such as Eurosceptic, single malt and meta, all of which formally entered dictionaries during Ian Dempsey’s tenure on The Den.

Craic would be an ancient word compared to the use of text as a verb. Do you consider these word formations too recent to be fit for use?

Besides, the Irish word craic is in Ó Donaill’s 1977 foclóir and there are plenty of examples of it in the preceding years in Irish language journalism and other writing, frequently as part of an alliterative three word run with ceol and céilí.

Its meaning is poetically enriched by its similarities to craiceáilte (to be crazy) and ag bualadh craicinn (having sex), states of being which might be attained while having the craic.

Even if it had never appeared in English before, I’d happily bring it in as a loanword in 2019.

And what about the legitimacy of the crack spelling? I did a trawl through Irish Newspaper Archives for the phrases ‘good crack’, ‘having the crack’ and some other variations.

It seems that people weren’t ‘having the crack’ until 1966, at which point ‘craic’ had already appeared in print. As for ‘good crack’, this phrase occurred (in the right context) in court reports of regional papers as far back as 1900.

However, two things must be noted about these earlier incidences: that they are transcriptions by a journalist of defendants’ testimony (the verbatim quotations were frequently presented for stage Irish comic effect) and that these defendants were from rural Ulster or Connacht locations – where spoken Irish was high but literacy was low.

I’d like to give those illiterate rustic criminals the last word in this discussion – they could not spell and would find this whole discussion to be hare-brained nonsense and a distraction from what really matters – taking the time to make mirth with friends, have a few drinks, dance to some good music and laugh so hard that no sound comes out.

If only there was a word for that. 

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha

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