Bertie, you big eejit

I regularly berate my dog for rank stupidity (losing his ball/taking fright at the shape of a chimney-pot/barking at high-vis road signs …) But what I call him is an “eejit”. At first glance, this might seem like just a phonetic Irish-accent version of “idiot”, but it’s completely different. It’s much softer, more like an affectionate poke than an attack. Affectionately insulting people (and dogs) plays quite a large part in Irish life.

Also sometimes a little bollix

What does this have to do with genealogy? Many (Gaelic) Irish surnames incorporate what appear to be tongue-in-cheek jibes. The Irish (Gaelic) for “bald” is maol, and this appears in many common surnames: Mullany, Mullally, Mulcahy, Muldoon, Mulgrew, Mullholland  …  I could go on. The standard explanation is that maol was a way of describing the distinctive horse-shoe tonsure of medieval Irish monks, so Mulcahy comes from Ó Maolchathaigh, “grandson of the [monk] devotee of St Cathach”. I’m sure that’s true, but referring to your local monastic devotee as “Baldie” seems a tad irreverent. And quite familiar (Cf. Father Ted).

Baldie writes a book

Other examples include suffixes that subtly alter the flavour of a name. Brosnan in the original is Ó Brosnacháin, meaning “grandson of the man from Brosna (in Kerry)”. But the Irish for “the man from Brosna” is Brosnach.  Adding that –áin (pronounced “awn”), changes it to “grandson of your man, the big fella from Brosna”. Other suffixes include –ón (-own), –ún (-oon) and the one still most widely used in general speech –ìn (-een), meaning small. So Dineen (Ó Duinnín), is literally “grandson of the little brown squirt”,  and Glasheen (Ó Glaisín), is “grandson of the little green squirt”.

The suffixes have come into Hiberno-English more generally as part of the glorious insults “Amadawn” (Super eejit), “Loothermawn” (Gangly eejit), “Bostoon” (Rude eejit). And the most cutting of them all: “Maneen”, as in “Sure, isn’t he a fine little maneen up there in the Dáil?”

Bertie is a very smart dog. But he’s a dog, so he’s still an eejit. And a dote.