Encoding Ireland: Dictionaries and Politics in Irish History

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English (Scripps)

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English Language and Literature


In the foreword to Terry Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English (1999), Tom Paulin uses Heaney's "North" to illustrate the "movement and formation of language" which he characterizes as a matter of historical struggle, "heavy with violence, atavism, the memory of later invasions, and pitched battles." In contrast to this fraught, difficult, unceasing process, the texts which attempt to record its results are optimistic and eirenic: dictionaries "represent peace and plenty, and a delighted unaggressive confidence in the words, phrases, usages, and grammatical structures they catalogue." For Paulin dictionaries celebrate in an uncomplicated way the bounty of a language, marking the felicitous self-belief of those who use a particular vocabulary by means of uncontentious transcripts of lexical usage. It is an appealing account, and anyone who has enjoyed the pleasures of looking up a word in a major work of lexicography must feel its attraction. Among the recognizable delights of large dictionaries are finding the hidden histories of a word (its origins, past uses, the changes which it has undergone, words related to it); or coming across previously unknown, remarkable words. The entry for "loiter" in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, tells us that the verb derives from the Middle Dutch "loteren," "to wag about (like a loose tooth)"; and on the same page we find "logodaedalus," "one who is cunning with words." Dinneen's Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla: Irish-English Dictionary informs us that "béarlach," "talking English," also means, by extension, "voluble." And a little down the page there is "bearadóir," "a prober, one who probes for bog-wood by means of an iron bar or spike with a wooden handle; the prober, having stuck the bar into the bog, applies his teeth to the timber handle to detect the bog-wood. . . ."

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© 2005 Irish American Cultural Institute

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