I’m obsessed with words. Some words because they sound beautiful or roll off the tongue but others for no reason other than their peculiarity. Growing up in Ireland and in Dublin to be more precise, I have an even more important connection with the English language. Every place has its own special claim to uniqueness, but I have yet to hear the twisted, masterful lyricism and wit of Dublinese bettered, no matter where I go.
“I’ll be dug owa ya,” C’mere ‘till I tell ya,” or “I’ve a pain in me hoop,” are singular and simple common expressions, that come to life with a giggle and a hint of affectionate sarcasm behind the lips of a Dub. We were all of course discouraged from cursing as kids. My mother would have reddened me arse if I’d used that very expression and I’d be left waiting for my father to get home for round two, which seldom if ever came. Giz for give, me for my, yisser for your, mot for girlfriend, fag for cigarette, the language and sound flows and dances to its own unique rhythm.
“Giz one a yisser fags, me mot’s gaspin’.” Pure class.
But it’s more about the accent and the cadence than anything else, more about the attached quick wit that falls from a Dub’s lips so effortlessly, which is hard to match. Curses abound but without offence, and sure the word feck. could only have been an Irish invention, to soften the blow of the F-word, and make it palatable for common usage.
But of course there are some words that are still always unpretty, even to my hardened ears. The local equivalent to the C word, is the equally unpalatable G word in this neck of the woods. For the non-inducted, it is pronounced exactly the same way as Indian Clarified butter is pronounced, but spelt without the h. The reason it comes to mind, is that it is a word that caused much anticipation when I was a young lad when it suddenly popped up, quite unexpectedly in one of our text books.
We were studying the wonderful Silas Marner and while most boys read only what they had to, my fascination for the book, meant I trolloped ahead instead of reading Shakespeare in class. Out of the blue, the word appeared, shocking in the delight that it was in a school book, innocent in its context, I was nonetheless flabbergasted. George Elliot had never thought when she wrote her wonderful book, that a tool of an Irish teenage schoolboy, would someday nearly choke on the word when he saw it.
I literally sniggered in my pubescent stupidity. I knew instantly what it meant, not the word but the consequences of it appearing in a text book. Every day our brutish English teacher who we all feared, asked one boy or other to read a section of text and that meant only one thing. Some poor innocent gombeen, would have to say that shocking word out loud. It didn’t matter the context or meaning within the book, it just mattered that by the time that day came, every last one of us would be praying it wouldn’t be us and delighting in the moment that some other poor beggar would have to read the worst word in the world – out loud.
My desk neighbour whispered to me, desperate to know what I was sniggering at and I pointed to the text. He almost choked.
“O’ Connor! Unless you want my foot up your arse, zip it!”
Like I say the teacher was not a man to mess with. He sat there, for the most part picking his nose with his finger or rooting out wax from his rather large ears with a blue plastic pen top. He was uncouth, unpleasant and under an illusion that all one had to do to teach, was make boys afraid of you and occasionally get them to read a passage from a text book aloud. In between, rummaging through his orifices and reading the Irish Independent were pretty much the only other things he did in class.
By the end of class that day, the word had spread as if by osmosis and we stifled our mirth until ‘Barney’ as our teacher was known behind his back, had left the classroom. Of course the word in question was in a passage a good three chapters ahead and Barney only forced a few pages per class out of us. It was torture, drip feeding that book, counting the pages left to the deathly day, counting the words almost. I’m sure I recall Brendan working it out precisely on more than one occasion. Imagine that pique of interest for a lad who could barely count without using his fingers, to go to all that trouble. One thousand two hundred and forty three words to go he told us! Jesus it was one of the most anticipated events that we had known since starting in that God awful place.
English class which was much hated because of the imposing figure that bestrode the lanes between the desks, though only occasionally when he wanted to stretch his long legs, became a veritable hotbed of anticipation. Ten pages to go, eight, three, one… Tomorrow! Oh yes it finally came. We sweated for so long waiting for that moment. It was like a lottery. No one knew just who Barney would pick. I seldom got picked to read, as I had a strong ,clear reading voice and Barney liked to pick boys that he could correct and shout things at like, “Its Trrrrott…TING boy – not Trotten! What are you an imbecile? Speak English boy! You are not in whatever pigsty you were dragged up in now!”
I felt safe but there was always the chance. We all had our favourites for the task. I fancied Seamus to do it. He was a world class messer and would surely swing out of the word when it came. Marko had a stutter…Jesus…if he came to the G sound it would be criminal! So we waited. On Thursday morning, first class of the day, the moment finally came. I looked at the book. There it was. I checked to make sure and there was no doubt. Two more paragraphs and whoever was the victim, would hit it and there was no doubting it was going to be that very day. I was to witness history in the making, no… more… a legend could be born that day.
There was an air of camaraderie that we seldom felt so strongly. In a way we knew that one of us would be sacrificed for the pleasure of the rest of us and each one of us took it on the chin. We all went to school that day like World War Two pilots climbing into their Spitfires, knowing that at least one of us was going to be shot down.
Barney entered the room. There was a strangled hush and he did a slight double-take as if he sensed something was wrong. We couldn’t laugh too soon. I went red and I thought for sure Barney would see my shamed face and work out what was coming. He looked directly at me and for a moment, I felt sure he could read my mind. Dear God what if he actually did pick me? For the love of Christ…I began to pray. I couldn’t face it; all my bravery deserted me in that moment. I felt sick.
I looked around and I saw the same look on the faces of my comrades. We weren’t battle hardened as we thought. This was Barney. He would hear the word and wait for the giggle and then we were in for it. For the love of God, I thought, why hadn’t we seen this coming? He would crucify the first boy who even sniffled and how could we not sniffle when the word came. We had built this moment up and there would be an explosion, an outpouring of titterment – an uncontrolled release of all that pressure. I had a sudden urge to go to the toilet but Thomas Walsh put his hand up and beat me to the punch.
Barney simply nodded assent and Tommy looked back at us with a smirk. He had forsaken the opportunity to hear the word being read aloud, to escape the absolute certainty of Barney’s ire. Why hadn’t I thought of it before him? Baxtard!
Barney opened the book…”Where were we?” Three boys volunteered the page number in unison, trying desperately not to be too obvious in their enthusiasm and he turned to the page in question. We were already way ahead of him, waiting with a desperate terrified need to witness this moment we would never forget and yet none of us wanting to be there. Not one of us turned a page in the book. For once we were already there ahead of the teacher. He opened his mouth and his voice boomed across the room.
“Right… read on through the next two chapters by yourselves…Quietly! I’m going in next door. If I hear a sound by Christ I’ll tear a strip off the first boy that catches my eye.”
In the next moment Barney was gone and with him our moment of triumph and defeat. All and nothing, won and lost. Our hearts sank as a collective and though we didn’t know it then, we had just been outfoxed by a man of experience, a man who had seen it all, been there and done that, a man who had also it seemed…read the book. Life lesson #212, never underestimate your enemy…
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