Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Crack and craic

Diarmaid O Muirithe is the emeritus senior lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin, and the author of a weekly column in the Irish Times in which he examines the origin and meaning of unusual words. 

In his book The Words We Use he explores the origin of the word ‘craic’, which appears frequently today, albeit with two somewhat different meanings. 
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; hence we find advertisements proclaiming ‘music, songs, dancing and craic’; the implication is that craic = boozing and high jinks, great fun as it used to be …
The English Dialect Dictionary (Wright’s) deals at length with crack, a word still in use from the English midlands to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It gives crack as ‘1. talk, conversation, gossip, chat’. In this context [Walter] Scott uses it in Rob Roy (1817), ‘I maun hai a crack wil an auld acquaintance here’. ‘The friendly crack, the cheerfulsang’, wrote a lesser Caledonian, Picken, in 1813. 2. A tale, a good story or joke; gossip, scandal.  'A' cracks are not tae be trow'd', is a Scots proverb.
The old Scots word crack crossed the sea to Ulster several hundred years ago and then very recently it was Gaelicised as craic, apparently since there is no ‘k’ in the Irish alphabet. Its meaning then altered somewhat to suggest ribaldry and devilment, particularly associated with public houses.  For example, many Irish pubs have the phrase 'ceol agus craic' in their advertising.

Crack is a fine word, found in both Ulster-Scots and Ulster dialect, in its traditional form and with its traditional meaning of conversation,  There is no justification at all for the introduction of craic into non-Irish sentences and no justification for the removal of the traditional crack.  This is particularly so when the intended meaning is the traditional meaning of conversation rather than the ribaldry of the public house.

I would not, for example, expect to find craic in a public library or as a regular feature on Radio Foyle but I have encountered craic in a booklet advertising talks in a library and it also appears on the stapline for Radio Foyle on Freeview.

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