What’s in a word – say, a word like ‘craic’?

by Craig Evans

What’s the craic? The craic is good. That was some mighty craic.

 

The word craic immediately makes you want to use it in a sentence before attempting a definition. That’s because it is one of those jargon words that is not easy to pin down: it means a lot of different things, whilst also meaning something quite specific to those who use it.

 

Reach for the dictionary, and it may tell you that craic is ‘fun, amusement; entertaining company or conversation’. It may also say something about it being an Irish colloquialism, not that you would need telling if you’ve ever been to an Irish-themed pub, which are most pubs come St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Inscribed on beer mats, banners, and t-shirts, and often accompanied by the image of a shamrock, the craic is supposed to be the epitome of Irishness.

 

It’s curious to think, then, that as recently as the 1960s people like the musician Fintan Vallely, familiar with the word in the North, did not hear it used in places like Dublin in the South. What’s more, the word craic with its Gaelicised spelling c-r-a-i-c did not appear in Gaelic dictionaries until 1977, when it was first listed in O’Danaill’s Irish to English dictionary. Curiouser and curiouser still, this is nearly a whole ten years after it appeared in the OED in 1968.

 

So exactly how Irish is craic?

 

Well, if we sidestep the etymological fallacy of its original meaning being its truest, then the answer is that it’s as Irish as people want to believe it is. As for origins, the word itself has in fact been twice borrowed into Irish from English: first in the form ‘crack’, and then in the Gaelicised form ‘craic’.

 

The original English form, ‘crack’, according to the OED, is phonetically descended from the Old English verb ‘cracian’ which meant ‘to talk big, boast, brag; sometimes, to talk scornfully (of others)’. It is not known for sure when it first entered the Irish lexicon – perhaps during British colonisation in the 16th and 17th centuries.

 

As for the particular Irish connotation that has come to be closely associated with the word, Mark McGovern describes how it represented an authentic reminder of home for home-sick migrant Irish workers in sites of post-war reconstruction in the 1950s. In his book Irish Journal of Sociology, he quotes one such worker, Donall MacAhmlaigh:

 

We went into the Jolly Smokers and we had great crack for a while. Most of the Connemara people go there now you wouldn’t know but that you weren’t back home (McGovern, 2002, p. 92).

 

It is hard to say exactly when the faux-Gaelic spelling started to be used. Its appearance in the OED first indicates an English origin, and its inclusion in Irish dictionaries is usually attributed to it being popularised as part of the ‘catchphrase of the Irish-language television programme SBB ina Shui‘ in the 1970s.

 

The preference of the use of ‘craic’ instead of ‘crack’ was noticed by people living in Ireland at that time.

 

Writing to the Irish Times in 2008, reader Michael Hills expressed particular disdain for the new spelling, as he recalled living in Derry in the 1970s and referring to ‘crack as fun, an English word’ with ‘the same derivation as “to crack a joke” and “wisecrack”’. It was in the 1980s that he noticed Dublin-based newspapers had ‘started using the misbegotten term “craic”’.

 

But how did it come to pass that a word twice borrowed from English has become so synonymous with Irishness throughout the world?

 

Simple: pubs.

 

In the latter part of the 20th century, there has been ‘a proliferation of Irish bars’ as part of the rise of what McGovern terms the ‘Craic Market’ and the ‘commodification of Irishness’ (McGovern, 2002). Given this, it is easy to see why a word with as spurious an origin as ‘craic’ has now become disparagingly associated with the artificiality of Irish-themed pubs.

 

Perhaps, though, people shouldn’t feel too down about the evolution of words. Yes, there was a time when home-sick migrant workers would use ‘crack’ as a kind of shibboleth to establish a sense of shared cultural identity with their fellow country folk, but those were hard times for many people. The commercialisation of anything that holds a particular and personal meaning for a cultural group can leave a bad taste in the mouth. However, individual words themselves aren’t that important; it’s what they denote that matters.

 

Whether your crack is a particular mix of traditional folk music, chat and boisterous joviality or you’re more into the kind of craic that involves queuing in a bar in Barcelona wearing a giant green fluffy hat while trying to remember the Spanish for ‘four pints of Guinness’, it’s all good, right?

 

 

References:

‘Craic’ (n), Oxford English Dictionary, 28 May 2013.

‘Cracking up over “craic”’, Irish Times, 17th March 2008.

McGovern, M. (2002), The Craic’ Market’: Irish Theme Bars and the Commodification of Irishness in Contemporary Britain in Irish Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11 Issue 2, pp. 77-98.

Vallely, F. (1999), Companion to Irish Traditional Music, New York: New York University Press.

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2 comments

  1. I grew up in Inverness and didn’t see the spelling ‘craic’ or indeed encounter the Irish use of the word until relatively recently (in the last ten years or so). However, as a teenager in the 1980s, my friends and I frequently used the word ‘crack’ (as I would have spelt it then had I ever thought of writing it down). When I went to study at a well-known English university in 1984, other people (to my surprise) thought I was talking about cocaine when I talked about having, or something being, ‘a good crack’ – so clearly this wasn’t a universal English expression, and neither had the Irish (or pseudo-Irish) sense yet gained wide recognition. When the Irish ‘craic’ started to gain currency, I noticed that it was used differently from the word that I’d grown up with. We would never, for instance, have said that we did something ‘for the crack’. The word was only ever used, as far as I recall, in set phrases like ‘a good crack’ and possibly ‘a great crack’ etc.

    In my early twenties, I started learning (Scottish) Gaelic – and eventually became fairly fluent. Some time later, when I saw ‘craic’ written down, I thought: ‘Ah, yes, of course, it must be a Gaelic word (which I’ve been pronouncing wrongly all along). Thank goodness I didn’t make the mistake of writing it down as “crack”.’ But it seems I was jumping to unwarranted conclusions! (I do wonder, though, why the expression was used in Invernesian English in particular if it wasn’t a result of Gaelic influence.)

  2. Thanks for your comment Sandy, in particular the intriguing insight into how the word could be open to considerable misinterpretation when used outside of set phrases. I can’t help but wonder how many other words (in all languages) owe their orthographical, if not phonological, origin to market forces.

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