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Why craic gets up my nose

Fintan Vallely writes: I grew up in Co Armagh with a great appreciation of “crack”. Seeing it, hearing about it, longing for it, planning it and having it. But when I came to Dublin to study among farmers’ sons from all counties in 1968 “crack” was scarce. They did have alternatives though, depending on where they were from. “It” was the dominant thing, usually described in the past tense, and qualified by superlatives as in “It was mighty”, “It was brilliant”, or, occasionally, “It was terrible”. The other buzzword then was “gas”, meaning idle, boastful, or casual chat – like a vapour uncontainable, volatile, heady, ephemeral, if not the dentists’ nitrous oxide, “laughing gas”. Anyway, “it”, “gas” and “crack” were all the same thing.

The term “crack”, however, has taken over, and is now used in conversation in all aspects of Irish social life. Originally meaning “chat” or “gossip”, it has expanded to indicate, variously, “fun”, “witty remark”, or “exuberant conversation”, then “happening” and “occasion”, and even “getting on well with”, among other dimensions of sociability and communication, including the sexual. It is used a lot with regard to music, so much so that it was necessary to give it space in both the 1999 and 2011 editions of the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music, for it is traditional music’s society, promoters, and reviewers who need to know about it. “Crack” was known in all parts of the island of Ireland as a word that, like the ballad, came in with the English language. But by the 1960s it was ‑ arguably ‑ relatively dormant in the Southern provinces, being more prevalent in Ulster counties. It was revived in southern Irish vernacular by several means at the same time: via Belfast political refugees after 1968, Northern fleadh-goers after 1970, and on the lips of education- and job-seekers who came on the heels of both. Used widely also in Scotland and in peripheral England for aeons, it originates in Old English, it is pronounced with a broad “A”, and it is written as “crack”. But since the 1980s it has been appearing in print spelt as “craic”.

Where the “craic” spelling comes from is not complicated. New words are needed in all languages, and so they are borrowed by everyday speakers or are invented by linguists. So it was that the Irish language, in response to popular usage of “crack” in English in the 1970s, needed to add a translation of that term to its lexicon, and this is officially spelt “craic”. The word was added in the same way that concepts which had never before existed – such as in technology and science – could be expressed in Irish. Ideally, such a new word should relate to the function of the one which it is translated from (as ríomhaire, meaning “computer”, is related to ríomh, to “count”, “compute”, et cetera). But sometimes this is not the case, as with “craic”, which appears to be a phonetic copy of the English “crack”. Yet in that spelling it also can be construed as having a connection with a Gaelic word, “craiceáil”, which deals with “craziness”. Since this is not what “crack” as such is generally about, it might be deduced that the “craic” spelling was not created by linguists but arose out of popular advertising use. Supporting this rationale is the fact that “craic” does not appear at all in dictionaries until 1977. More on that presently, but the major issue with “craic” is not its origins, but that, in so many cases, people, when writing in English, address the concept of “crack” by using the Gaelic spelling “craic” ‑ often put it in italics ‑ implying that it is a word that originates in Irish.

For a long time I thought that it was only myself who got nauseous at such sightings of ‘craic’ when it appeared in English-language contexts. But an exchange on the IRTRAD web-chat site in 1997 showed that there were many sensitive souls who cared about such vital pedantry. Practically, I had to face “craic” several times a week when I was writing for The Irish Times and Sunday Tribune from 1994 to 2002, as any time I mentioned “crack” in articles, to avoid its being changed by a well-intentioned sub-editor to “craic” (they just assumed that it was an Irish word) I had to include a stipulation in my copy: “the word c-r-a-c-k is spelt deliberately so”. Misapplication of the “craic” spelling has continued, however, and has spread, largely due to careless journalism and unthinking traditional music PR. So much so that the issue had to be taken up furiously again by Donald Clarke in The Irish Times in 2013 (June 22nd) under the headline: “Who will set us free of the bogus Irishness of craic?” He quoted the vehement opinion of linguist Diarmaid Ó Muirithe: “The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word ‘crack’ as ‘craic’ sets my teeth on edge … The word first appeared in English, was translated into Irish and then reintroduced to its parent language as a bogus conduit to Celtic authenticity.” In this regard Clarke noted that a song listed on a 1981 Christy Moore album had used the proper spelling – “The Crack was Ninety in the Isle of Man”. He goes on to criticise the fashion for spelling “crack” as “craic”, and “ ... worse, the deranged implication that it always has been spelt that way. We can forgive people under 40 for believing this. But the older generations that have allowed themselves to be brainwashed have no decent excuse.”

The online edition of the paper was flooded with comments, including:

Craic is a definitely a toe-curler … a faux-Gaelicisation …
I should rather be accused of misusing craic/crack (or in fact be beheaded) than be the perpetrator of this awful pretentiousness …
Craic makes my craiceann [skin] crawl.
I always figured the “craic” spelling was to make it clear that the pubs weren’t offering booze, music, and crack cocaine …

One correspondent saw it as an appropriation of an Ulster concept, notably in predominantly unionist north Co Down: “There are parts of Newtownards where you would get a hammering for replacing the ‘k’ with a ‘c’!”

But among the respondents to Clarke’s article, one was actually able to breathe easier on account of the denouement of craic, as he confessed: “I spelled it ‘crack’ in my father’s Irish Times obituary back in 1993 and felt guilty for years.”

I myself had been having arguments about “the crack” (it is generally used with the definite article) over the years outside of journalism with perfectly intelligent Irish speakers who simply assumed that “craic” was native Irish in both origin and context. Checking their old dictionaries, however (something I myself had had to do as a journalist) they found no “craic”. Not in Dinneen’s Irish-English tomes of 1904, 1927 or 1934, and not in the 1925 MacLennan Scottish Gaelic dictionary. Nor was there “crack” in either Lane’s 1904 or De Bhaldraithe’s 1959 English-Irish volumes (apart from its meaning as “fissure” and such). By 1977, Niall Ó Dónaill’s major Irish-English Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla had “craic” and translated it as “1. Crack. 2. Conversation, chat. 3. Cracked, crazy, person”, two quite contradictory sets of meanings. It must be assumed from the “craic” spelling that the dictionary people had decided to connect the word “crack” with the Irish word “craiceáil”, which indicates craziness, since they could have used the similar-sounding word “cracaire”, meaning a “talker” or “boaster”, which was established, and had already been in both Dinneen’s 1934 Irish-English, and, as “cracaireachd” – meaning “conversation” – in the 1900 MacAlpine Scottish Gaelic dictionary. It is this meaning, and its spelling “cracaire”, which leads one to expect that “crac” might more properly have been the eventual conversion into Irish of “crack”. But there are options – if not arbitrariness – in creating spellings of new words, something underlined by the fact that Ó Dónaill in 1977 also had another new word which was not in earlier dictionaries: cráic (with a fada on the “a”), translated as “buttock; anus”. The insertion of the fada was wise perhaps, and no doubt Ó Dónaill’s team of foclóirí got a bit of crack out of where to put it. But one of the Times’s contributors spotted misuse of this too in 2013: “Even worse, on blackboards outside watering holes and eateries, is cráic. And as if cráic wasn’t bad enough, when on earth did we start ‘having the cráic’?”

Like it or not, the new word that was coined was “craic”, and according to one online reply to Clarke’s article, that spelling appeared first in journalism in 1986 in The Connacht Sentinel newspaper in an advertisement headed “Teach Furbo Ag Oscailt Anocht – Ceol Agus Craic”. This usage was fine – the advertising spiel being in Irish – for the problem is not so much with the spelling as about the use of the word as if it were originally an Irish word. That is, in writing in English, just as journalists write “bicycle” and not “rothar”, wouldn't “crack” be expected rather than “craic”? Standards and taste are the issue, not invention. But there are exceptions regarding the inclusion of Gaelic words in English-language speech and writing, and certain terms or words have become de rigueur in many circles: friendly clichés such as cúpla focal [a few words/a short speech], deoch [drink], or even ceol [music] which – for some – denotes traditional music. Aside from the possibility or implication of cultural arrogance in the usage of Irish-language words when speaking or writing in English, it must be said that each of these examples does denote a very particular thing, and each has a long-established meaning in Irish. In music, there are other examples, notably in instrument names – such as cairdín [accordion], consairtín [concertina] – both of which are phonetic constructions created some time between 1937 and 1959, but they are not used in English-language writing. However, one major term like craic is seisiún, which is commonly used in advertising to indicate a traditional music session. An abbreviation for seisiún ceoil, it can be as galling as craic to musicians who know well that the session in Irish music is an industrial-society, twentieth-century-revival creation, a concept originating most likely in the USA, borrowed from jazz. The dictionary meaning of seisiún in Irish indicated a “court session” until 1977, and it doesn’t exist in a music or social context in any earlier dictionaries. The aforementioned term “gas” has also appeared in music-related, English-language print, italicised in the wrong spelling as geas ‑ as if it is an Irish word. But gas is the actual Irish spelling of “gas”, while geas means “taboo” or “injunction”, something quite different.

The misdeployment of both craic and seisiún weakens language. It undermines the appreciation of what words subliminally and seminally indicate, and frustrates the intellectual comfort that is required of terminology used to define and validate the traditional music art form. It may seem perverse that a country which failed to reinstate its own language to everyday usage should witness such a success in misapplication of the craic word, for it is by now as epidemic as the grocery-shop deployment of the apostrophe in plurals (tomato’s, potato’s).

Yes, of course, craic “up my nose” is not going to damage any brain cells or social life: it’s just an absurdity. But the compilation of this polemic is justified by the words of one of the Times’s correspondents:

You can’t put craic back in the box now that it’s out. When I was growing up the Irish for “zoo” was gairdín ainmhithe … Now it’s just .”

For surely no one would write “zú” in an English-language article about Dublin Zoo? A quip by Donegal fiddle-music researcher Caoimhín Mac Aoidh might be a good conclusion, since the craic word is most commonly seen in pub signs: “Craic is a word linked by agus to ceol as a device to sell ól [drink].”

26/2/2017

Fintan Vallely is a musician, writer, and lecturer on Irish traditional music. An adjunct professor with UCD’s School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics, among his numerous publications is the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music.