Opinion

Have yourself a cracking St. Patrick's Day

How an English word snuck into Ireland and made itself at home

"You're missing the crack, boys!"

That could mean a lot of things, depending on context. But in this case, it's being shouted by a boisterous youth named Doalty in a small town in Donegal, northwestern Ireland, in the year 1833. Doalty is a character in the 1980 play Translations, by Brian Friel. And what he's saying is a thing you might equally hear outside an Irish pub today, though, true to the title of the play, he's actually talking in Irish — it's just translated into English for the audience.

So what does this word crack mean here? What would he have been saying in Irish? Doalty's not talking about a fissure in some surface (the Irish for that is scoilt), nor about a sharp, loud noise (pléascadh), and certainly not about a form of cocaine. He's talking about craic, which you will often see in Irish English as crack. That — as Americans are most likely to learn around St. Patrick's Day, March 17 — is the emblematically Irish kind of merriment that you get amid the drink, music, mischief, and lively wisecracking conversation of a pub.

In its strictest sense, the word refers to catching up on the latest happenings and gossip. If you say "What's the crack?" it means "What's the latest?" And it may be "latest happenings" that Friel's Doalty means. He's not talking about a céilí (an evening of dancing), nor even anything involving the pouring of pints. There's mischief, yes, but not merriment: The local English army detachment is missing its lieutenant; it's going on a tear and making a lot of mess trying to find him; and the locals are responding in their turn. Doalty's description of it is riotous, but in truth it's a very serious scene.

And there's a British invader that has slipped in unnoticed, there into the very room with them, not only out of place but out of time, and in Irish costume at that.

Oh, I'm not talking about a character in the play. I'm talking about the word crack itself.

The popularity of the word crack in Ireland — and its Irish spelling craic — might quite sensibly make you think that it's a grand old Irish word, and that Doalty would surely have been shouting "Tá an craic in easnamh oraibh!" But he wouldn't have. You won't even find the word craic in dictionaries of Irish from before the 1970s (go look if you want; I already have).

It's not that no one in Ireland used the word crack before then. Bernard Share's Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang records a 1925 instance of it meaning "chat" from Louise McKay's book Mourne Folk: "Then she axed me to sit down, so we sut an' cracked for long enough about wan thing an' another." But McKay's Mourne folk had something in common with just about all Irish users of the word before 1970: They were in Ulster — that northeastern corner of Ireland that is now Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.

There's a stronger British, and especially Scottish, influence in that part of Ireland. And that's where they got the crack. It's used in Scots and Northern English, where the phrase "What's the crack?" also means "What's the latest?" It's been around those parts for a fair while; Walter Scott used cracks in Waverly (1814) to mean "boasts," and when Robert Burns wrote "They're a' in famous tune For crack that day" in "The Holy Fair" in 1786, he meant gossip and chat.

So where did they get it from? Couldn't it have come from Gaelic? It could not and it did not. It came from the English crack, meaning brisk chat, conversation, gossip — and boast, taunts, and smart talk. It's the same crack that you see in wisecrack. And, in origin, it's the crack that means "loud, sharp noise," as in, what a whip does, or the sound a barstool makes as it cracks in two.

Sometime after it came from Scotland and England to Ulster, crack made its way into the rest of Ireland, most likely in the later 1960s, and then it was taken into the Irish language itself. Irish does not use the letter K (that's an English invader, too), but it does use silent vowels galore to indicate things about the consonants (things that are far too much trouble to explain here to English speakers). So the obvious Irish spelling was craic.

When Irish radio personality Seán Bán Breathnach hosted a popular Irish-language radio show on the RTÉ network from 1976 to 1982, his tagline was "Beidh ceol, caint agus craic againn" ("We'll have music, chat, and crack" — pronounced sort of like "bay k'yol, conch oggus crack a-ging," but not exactly). So it was a current term at the time Brian Friel was writing Translations.

Yet the spelling, even then, was mainly crack in the English style. In a 2013 article in The Irish Times, Donald Clarke recalls quite clearly that the ascendancy of the Irish craic spelling came on the heels of Ireland's good run in the 1990 World Cup — and the global smash hit Riverdance. And now, he moans, there is "the deranged implication that it always has been spelt that way."

Well, what can we say? It's been naturalized — just like Friel's missing lieutenant. Translations focuses on the translation or adaptation of Irish place names to English: Machaire Ban to Whiteplains, Cnoc na Rí to Kings Head, Druim Dubh to Dromduff, and the setting of the play, Baile Beag (which really just means "small town"), to Ballybeg. But the English lieutenant who is writing down these translations falls in love with an Irish girl, starts to learn Irish, and slips away into Ireland.

And so it goes with craic: It came from England, but it stayed, and it belongs to Ireland now. And wasn't it meant to be? Sure, that's a grand story — as Doalty says, "You never saw crack like it in your life."

More From...

Picture of James HarbeckJames Harbeck
Read All
A succinct examination of our pronunciation
Speech.
Opinion

A succinct examination of our pronunciation

A word to the Y's on Ukrainian and Russian
Volodymr Zelensky.
Opinion

A word to the Y's on Ukrainian and Russian

There's no vacation from the quirks of English
A postcard.
Opinion

There's no vacation from the quirks of English

The trials and travails of 'travel'
The devil.
Opinion

The trials and travails of 'travel'

Recommended

Don't Worry Darling has a decent opening weekend
Nick Kroll, Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Sydney Chandler, Harry Styles and Gemma Chan
victory?

Don't Worry Darling has a decent opening weekend

Biden surprises Elton John with National Humanities Medal
Jill Biden, Elton John, Joe Biden
'Flabbergasted'

Biden surprises Elton John with National Humanities Medal

The daily gossip: September 23, 2022
Taylor Swift
Daily gossip

The daily gossip: September 23, 2022

The week's best photojournalism
Dancing.
Photos

The week's best photojournalism

Most Popular

7 toons about DeSantis and Abbott's migrant relocation
Political Cartoon.
Feature

7 toons about DeSantis and Abbott's migrant relocation

Arizona judge bans abortion statewide by reinstating 1864 law
Pro-choice rally in Tucson
Abortion Fights

Arizona judge bans abortion statewide by reinstating 1864 law

Biden surprises Elton John with National Humanities Medal
Jill Biden, Elton John, Joe Biden
'Flabbergasted'

Biden surprises Elton John with National Humanities Medal