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Let's Look At The Language

March 12, 2011

The language of St. Patrick's Day

Every month evokes a certain characteristic (e.g., January is cold and May brings flowers), but no month is more connected to a single color than March. That color, of course, is green. The onset of spring obviously plays into that, but as anyone in Central New York could point out, the "spring greenness" of March is often more a matter of optimism than reality.

The month's greater affiliation with green actually occurs on one of the latest days of winter. On the calendars of various Christian churches, March 17 is widely recognized as the death date of St. Patrick, a 5th-century missionary most commonly known as the patron saint of Ireland. There are several discrepancies in the histories written on St. Patrick -- in fact, modern hagiographers (those who study saints) have exposed more than just a few uncertainties.

In secular America, concern over these uncertainties is negligible. Whereas most of us know that March 17 is St. Patrick's Day, very few are concerned with who Patrick was. The day instead has come to mean "all things Irish" -- and at its most commercial level, it is an invitation for all of us to be Irish. For one day, we adopt the "wearin' o' the green" with remarkable enthusiasm. As children, we decorate our classrooms to look like boxes of Lucky Charms, and we amp up our Irishness by eating cupcakes with green icing. When we grow up, we go to bars with the exact same decor, and we amp up our Irishness by drinking green beer.

From taverns to church suppers, March 17 means corned beef and cabbage, and performers of Celtic music are the apex of entertainment. St. Patrick's Day apparel is worn freely by anyone -- a Lithuanian-American in a green T-shirt sporting "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" is as much a part of the celebration as an Ethiopian exchange student wearing a green hat emblazoned with "Erin Go Bragh" ("Ireland Forever"). This is a peculiarly American thing! A nationally popular day dedicated to one ethnicity seems odd for a melting-pot society. And much of March 17's secular observance (with paper leprechauns, rowdy drinking, and so forth) is based on the sort of politically incorrect stereotypes we've been told to avoid. Besides that, St. Patrick is all but lost from his own day (the three-leaf shamrocks are said to have been used by him to explain the Trinity, but in most celebratory contexts, this connection is a faint one at best).

I can't be entirely objective about the idea of "being Irish" for a day (half my blood is of the Emerald Isle), but despite all the potentially Irish-offending stereotypes associated with our secularized St. Patrick's Day, I thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, I'd like to see more Irish language promoted on March 17 -- especially the words we use all year, unaware of their Irish origins. There could be a St. Patrick's Day event with "Prizes Galore!" (galore is from the Irish for "sufficiently"). The event could end with a bang by stuffing all the decorations into a cannon and "blowing them to smithereens" (also of Irish origin). If someone should start "screaming like a banshee," we'll applaud her fine imitation of a wailing Irish spirit. We hope no one will call her an old "biddy" (which, as a familiar nickname for Bridget, was used in the 1800s as a U.S. term for an Irish maid before segueing into a chiefly derogatory term for a woman).

If all this talk of the Irish is making you think you "don't give a rap," you may be more Irish than you know (this use of rap refers to a virtually worthless coin in 18th-century Ireland). Maybe you're just naturally "cantankerous" (sorry, that probably has Irish roots as well), and you think anyone who rambles on about St. Patrick's Day is an idiot. Well, you're entitled to your opinion, but would you mind using the word "eejit"? If I'm going to be called an idiot so close to March 17, I'd prefer to hear it in Irish. Thanks (or should I say "go raibh maith agat"?).

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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