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Be kelly with envy over Irish surnames

March, 2010

’Tis said that on March 17, we all wish we were Irish, but what happens the rest of the year, when non-Celtic folks aren’t as concerned with keeping up with the Murphys?

The Oxford English Dictionary pays homage to Irish sensibilities by having many a famous Irish surname immortalized in its pages. Take the quintessential Irish surname Murphy, of which the OED lists five senses. It can mean asleep, as “in the arms of Murphy”; a potato; a foldaway bed; a term used for a device consisting of two short telescopic metal tubes, each with a button-like end, used to perform surgery on the intestine (also known as “Murphy’s button”); and a con game in which someone is tricked into handing over money for something that is promised but not given, also known as “Murphy’s game.” And of course, we also have Murphy’s Law, named for American engineer Edward A. Murphy, which postulates that if anything can go wrong, it invariably will.

Other Irish surnames are listed as words in the OED, but none are as prolific as the Murphy clan. According to a 1934 citation, “kelly,” is “a variety of 15-ball pool in which each player draws a number and, while playing on the object balls in numerical order, aims to pocket the ball of the number corresponding to his own, thereby winning the game.” In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, two other senses of “kelly” are given: a man’s stiff hat and a particular shade of the colour green. “Kennedy” is listed as obsolete slang for a poker; the term apparently derived from the name of a man who was killed by being struck on the head with a poker. “Collins” refers not only to an iced drink consisting of whisky and gin, but also to a letter of thanks for entertainment or hospitality, sent by a departed guest. The term derives from the name of a character, William Collins, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The word “hooligan” appears to have a provenance from an Irish family, but etymologists are divided on the progenitor.

Perhaps the most infamous Irish surname enshrined in our language is Lynch. Many men have been suggested as the progenitor for this term that refers to extrajudicial hanging. The first person on whose behalf claims have been made was James Lynch Fitzstephen, a 15th-century mayor of Galway, Ireland. According to legend, Lynch was forced to hang his own son, a convicted murderer. Adherents to this tale are at pains to explain why Lynch and not Fitzstephen survived as the eponym, and why it took several more centuries until the word “lynch” permeated our language. Most etymologists credit Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) who served with the Virginia militia and presided over a tribunal whose mandate was to rid his county of undesirables who had heretofore eluded the authorities. Lynch and his vigilantes became known as lynch-men and their methods were dubbed lynch’s law. By 1836, the verb “lynch” had acquired its current meaning of hanging by mob action without legal sanction.

Although not the most prolific clan, the Boycotts enjoy the distinction of providing a word for the refusal to deal with a person or a business firm not only in the English language, but also in Dutch, French, German, Russian and Indonesian. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was the land agent for the estates of the earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. When Boycott raised the rents in 1880, the tenants raised hell. Local stores refused to sell to him and militant protesters destroyed his property and cut off his food supply. Eventually Boycott was forced to flee to England, but as a small consolation his name was on its way to being immortalized.

Two other Irish surnames that have found a place in our language are Mulligan, which can refer to a potpourri stew or an illegal shot in golf, and Mullarkey, which appears to have been corrupted into the word “malarkey.” The word “hooligan” appears to have a provenance from an Irish family, but etymologists are divided on the progenitor. The OED says the word “first appears in print in daily newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898. Several accounts of the rise of the word, purporting to be based on first-hand evidence, attribute it to a misunderstanding or perversion of Hooley or Hooley’s gang, but no positive confirmation of this has been discovered. The name Hooligan figured in a music-hall song of the 1890s, which described the doings of a rowdy Irish family, and a comic Irish character of the name appeared in a series of adventures in Funny Folks, a British comic book. Another source credits as the word’s inspiration a ruffian named Patrick Hooligan, or Patrick Houlihan, who worked as a bouncer in the 1890s at a pub in the Southwark section of London. In any case, whether you’re a Murphy or a Houlihan, or just an Irish wannabe, enjoy St. Patrick’s Day.

Howard Richler’s latest book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Life of Words, is published this month by Ronsdale Press.



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