When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

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With St. Patrick’s Day fast upon us, it’s worth noting that no one has been the subject of greater disdain than the Irish. Verbally, they have been the brunt of many a joke. The English especially have enjoyed mocking them—primarily through the coining of derisive phrases. Examples include an Irish bouquet, a “pile of stones;” Irish caviar, a “meat stew;” an Irish chariot, a “wheelbarrow;” and an Irish clubhouse, a “jail or police station.”

Certainly, that’s enough to get your Irish up, an illusion to their reputedly hot-headed nature. They weren’t the only ones so described.  The British also gave us “getting one’s Dutch up;” though early linguists distinguished it from the Irish, noting how Dutch wrath was “stubborn but more yielding to reason.” Both phrases, of course, were rooted in English disdain and enmity towards both countries.

“Get a life!”  (c.1983), you might suggest to the British, also a somewhat derisive comment, urging one  to start living a more gregarious, secure, or rewarding existence; a none too subtle way of encouraging one to improve his lot in some unspecified way, and stop obsessing about things the commentator considers petty or inconsequential.

When it comes to an ideal life, it’s the Irish carefree approach we tend to favor. It’s often associated with The Life of Riley (Reilly), “a prosperous or luxurious existence.”  Many believe it to be the poet, James Whitcomb Riley who gave us idyllic images of the good life in form of barefoot boys, fishing holes, and lazy, hazy summer days.

The phrase, however, more likely derives from a comic song written in the 1880s by a vaudevillian, Pat Rooney, “Is that Mr. Riley?” describing what he would do if he suddenly came into money.

The Luck of the Irish speaks to extraordinary good fortune. It is based on superstition, but the Irish are indeed a special people. Ireland incidentally comes from er or yr, “noble.” added to” land.”  It’s a sentiment we can all surely drink to.

How to Do Take-out Properly

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Got a yen (c.1906) for some Chinese? The Chinese have a yen for you, deriving as it does from yinyan (c.1876), an intense desire for opium from the Cantonese yan, “craving.” As to the chow (c.1856) you so crave, it’s just so much slang for “food,” from the Pidgin English chow-chow, “food,” a reduplication of Chinese cha or tsa, “mixed,” referring to the variety of foodstuffs peasants scraped and mixed together in order to create a meal.

As to the particular chow you dig most, it could only be the Chow mein, whose primary ingredient is the noodles made from wheat from ch’ao mien, “fried flour.”

Still confused? Well, what’s really mixed up is an American creation of Oriental immigrants in California. Constrained by the lack of Asian vegetables but wanting to produce a Chinese dish that was palatable to Westerners, they stir-fried whatever vegetables were available, threw in some scraps of meat or chicken and served the finished product on a plate of steamed rice. All that remained was to name the dish. They appropriately called it chop suey (c.1888) from Cantonese dialect tsap sui, “odds and ends.”

You then sat down to eat it using chopsticks (c.1699), from the Pidgin English chop, “quick,” a free translation of Chinese k’wai tse, “quick or nimble ones.”

This is no fancy sit-down feast we’re talking about. It’s all eaten on the go. So chop-chop ! (c.1836),” Hurry Up!” Get your typical fast-food — all mixed up and served PDQ.