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Irish bulls might be pregnant with truths

March, 2011

Not everyone loves a parade, so on St. Patrick’s Day we pay homage to the Irish without parading, you can indulge in Irish bulls.

An Irish bull refers to a statement that defies logic or syntax in some manner yet manages to be communicative. The word “Irish” was not always attached to utterances with apparent inconsistencies and paradoxes, but by the time Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth wrote her Essay on Irish Bulls in 1802, the practice of declaring the bulls Irish was well established. One assumes the Irish were targeted with prefixing bull because of their penchant to use colourful metaphors. The meaning of “bull” here is a “self-contradictory proposition,” and the word may derive from the Old French boule or bole that referred to “deceit” or “fraud.”

The Oxford Companion to the English Language provides the following classic example of the genre: “Childishness is hereditary in their family.”

Alternate names for this phenomenon are “Goldwynism” and “Berraism” because of the penchant of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and former baseball player Yogi Berra for this type of declaration. Goldwyn “allegedly” made these statements: A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Anyone who would go to a psychoanalyst should have his head examined.

If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.

A hospital is no place to be sick.

I can give you a definite perhaps.

We’re overpaying him, but he’s worth it.

Don’t talk to me while I’m interrupting.

The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying.

If you fall and break your legs, don’t come running to me.

I never put on a pair of shoes until I’ve worn them five years.

It isn’t an optical illusion. It just looks like one. Our comedies are not to be laughed at.

Berra learned his métier under New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, whose observations included such comments as: “A lot of people my age are dead at the present time,” and “Good hitting always stops good pitching and vice-versa.”

Berra is credited with the following:

Referring to a N.Y. nightclub: Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.

Sometimes you can observe a lot by watching. Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.

99% of the game is half mental.

When you get to a fork in the road, take it.

It’s like déjà vu all over again.

It ain’t over till it’s over.

Many people think that Berra would have never said the word déjà vu, as it wasn’t the kind of language he would employ. But Yogi himself claims he said this in reference to regular home-run hitters Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

Although Irish bulls are structured grammatically to appear devoid of logic, their effect on many listeners is to suggest an oxymoronic truth, such as “thundering silence.” This is why John Pentland Mahaffy, the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, observed a century ago that “an Irish bull is always pregnant.” Enjoy St Pattie’s Day.



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