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The Irish word 'craic'... it sure isn't all that it's cracked up to be!


Caral Ni Chuilin

Caral Ni Chuilin

Caral Ni Chuilin

What's the crack about 'craic'? "The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word 'crack' as 'craic' sets my teeth on edge. It seems, indeed, that many people think that the word is an Irish one."

That was the opinion of the late Professor Diarmaid O Muirithe, a lecturer in Irish at University College Dublin, and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

He wrote that in The Irish Times and, in a follow-up article, he described craic as "a hideous neologism". Another linguist described it as "fake Irish", Kevin Myers criticised it as "pseudo-Gaelic" and a "bogus neologism", and the Irish journalist Donald Clarke called it "a linguistic lie".

The word 'crack' is found in Scotland and northern England. Walter Scott used it in Rob Roy and the Paisley poet Ebenezer Picken wrote of "the friendly crack, the cheerfu' sang". Robert Burns also used it, and his glossary defined it as "to chat, to talk", although most readers in Scotland and Ulster had no need of the glossary.

Indeed, the word 'crack' has been used very widely in Ulster for several hundred years. Folk often visited their neighbours for "a bit o crack" and, on other occasions, they would stop to speak to someone in the street and ask: "What's the crack?"

The word 'crack' was used by the Ulster-Scots weaver poets in the 18th century, and in his book about the Rhyming Weavers, John Hewitt included it in the glossary with the meaning "to talk, to banter".

James Fenton also includes it in The Hamely Tongue as meaning "fun, entertainment and conversation" and provides examples of its use, such as "He's guid crack".

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Brave Crack! An Anthology Of Ulster Wit And Humour was published in Belfast in 1951, and in 1980 the Ulster playwright Brian Friel wrote: "You never saw such crack in your life, boys." It's a word I heard used in my childhood and a word I have used all my life.

Eventually, however, the word was borrowed into the Irish language, with the Gaelicised spelling 'craic', although Irish writers such as Friel continued to use 'crack'.

The reason for the new spelling is probably that the basic Irish alphabet has just 18 letters, while the English alphabet has 26. One of the letters missing in the Irish alphabet is 'k', which is the final letter in 'crack', and, as a result, it was Gaelicised as 'craic'.

It has been used in this way since around 1968, and an Irish language advertisement in the Connacht Sentinel newspaper in July 1968 referred to "ceol agus craic" - a phrase now favoured outside 'Irish' pubs.

The use of the word 'craic' in Irish was then popularised in a catchphrase used on an RTE Irish language chatshow that was broadcast from 1976 to 1982.

More recently the word 'craic' has been borrowed back into English by some people. But why? We have the letter 'k' in our alphabet, so why not use it?

I suspect the use of the 'craic' spelling in English has been a by-product of the marketing of Irish pubs in the 1990s as tourist attractions with lots of "craic".

Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin entered the fray with a series of television advertisements as part of her Irish language Liofa project. These claimed that, when you say "craic", you are speaking Irish.

The problem is that, when you say "craic", you pronounce it "crack". The difference only comes when you spell it, for you can spell it the traditional way, as in Scots and Ulster-Scots, or you can use the bogus Gaelic word 'craic'.

Unfortunately for Caral, Newry and Mourne Sinn Fein didn't follow the party line when it was advertising its commemorative Strictly dance competition in Jonesborough.

It used the traditional Ulster spelling of 'crack'.

So, that's the "crack" about "craic", and it's a subject that certainly could produce a "bit o crack".

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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