This essay is courtesy of community member Karen McHugh, who is the sole international member of our community. She is a prize winning photographer (see more of her pictures here https://www.facebook.com/EthicsSquared), possesses a black belt in a martial art, takes daily swims in the Irish sea and is the sort of person who will drive to the other side of Ireland to spend time with a junior high school friend she hasn't seen in over 30 years. Enjoy her sense of humor!
A little more than 8 years ago, we packed up our house in Colorado and followed our hearts to the rolling green hills and ubiquitous sheep of far western reaches of Ireland. When we left, we said goodbye to our friends, family, and English as we knew it. Here on the westernmost peninsula of Ireland, we found ourselves fully in the grip of United Kingdom English, a similar, but totally different beast from American English. To add to the confusion, we live in a Gaelic Irish speaking area. Though English is commonplace and used freely, Irish would be spoken in most homes and taught in schools; therefore, common Irish words are interjected into daily conversation at will.
Additionally, I am a card-carrying member of the Association of the Spelling Impaired. Prior to our move spell check usually greeted me with uproarious laughter and a confused shrug. Now, as I try to figure out when “er” should be exchanged for “re” and who had the bright idea of dropping the letter “u” from words that typically end in “or” such as harbor as harbour, spell check now just breaks down in tears.
Add that to the local vernacular and good craic (fun) abounds. In our new world, a bedside table is a locker (even if it does not lock.) A crib is a cot. A cot is a fold-out bed even if it does not fold. A wrench is a spanner, I have trousers in my wardrobe, and if I want an eraser, I ask for a rubber. It did not take long for me to realize that I was not in Kansas anymore and if I was going to be successful here, I had to adapt.
Navigating this new world has forced me to re-examine my understanding of language, learn unfamiliar terms, and put them into action. I have become the proverbial old dog learning new tricks.
What is language? According to Collins Dictionary Online“Language is the use of a system of communication which consists of a set of sounds or written symbols.” (Collins Dictionary, 2021) It is a way of describing shared experiences. Because experiences are subject to the personal perception and changing conditions, language itself is very fluid. For example, in 2006, the word Google was included in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb, but a hundred years ago to say you were going to Google something would have been met with consternation.
Another interesting aspect of language is the way cultural appropriation has integrated words and terms into our everyday usage. As we interact, trade, and travel new expressions have found their way into our vernacular thus enhancing our shared communication. For instance, the American term “so long” is actually an adaptation of the Irish word slan, meaning goodbye.
The word boycott is another Irish creation that has found international acclaim. In the 1880’s Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, an English land agent became infamous for being ignored and ostracized by his local community as a form of protest against his persistent rent gouging of tenants. Everyone from local shop owners, labourers, and even house servants refused to do business with him. When it came time to bring in the harvest no one was willing to labour in the fields he oversaw forcing him to import more costly labour eating the profit he made by increasing the rents. The name Boycott became synonymous with this type of protest.
We can thank the Germans for kindergarten, meaning a child’s garden. Delicatessen is another German construct meaning small informal restaurant. The Malaysian/Indonesian word âmuk is to make a furious and desperate charge or as we sometimes refer to it as running amok.
The beauty of language is that it not only defines a culture but can become a vehicle to unite it through commonalities. So, the next time I find spellcheck curled up in a ball weeping, I will comfort the poor dear, and explain that I did not misspell the word - I am creating a new word for posterity. In the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw, “A life making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing at all.”
 Collins Dictionary. (2021). Language. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/language.