Words, words, words....and more words

WHEN MY granduncle Paddy, a farmer with a small holding about five miles outside of Mohill, County Leitrim, on the Ballinamore Road, heard something he thought was extraordinary or unusual, he would slap his knee simultaneously stamping his foot on the ground with great glee and exclaim “By the hokey, that bates Banagher!”

For years, I thought the Banagher in question was the Offaly town on the banks of the Shannon and wondered how anything could possibly “bate” that pleasant but somewhat sleepy town. However, in his newly published book The Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words And Their Origins, Phil Cousineau throws a whole new light on the origins of Uncle Paddy’s expression.

In the entry for ‘Carrytale’, he writes: “Across the Irish Sea the poets called him or her (a carrytale ) a banaghan ‘a marvellous taleteller’. As Francis Grose writes in his 1811 book on slang: “He beats Banaghan: an Irish saying of one who tells wonderful stories. Perhaps Banaghan was a minstrel famous for dealing in the marvellous. A seanachaí is one who carries tales from town to town.”

Even if this explanation is somewhat dubious – I have never come across the term “Banagahan” before, certainly never in reference to a seanachaí, and was always of the opinion that the same seanachaí was as much the resident storyteller of a village or community as he was a traveller – it is no great leap of the imagination from Banaghan to Banagher.

In his introduction, Cousineau describes how, when growing up outside Detroit, the dictionary had pride of place in the family home and was always placed in the back of the car when they travelled. If his father caught him, or anyone else in the house, stumbling over a word they did not know, they were immediately ordered to “march over to the dictionary, and look it up and down, inside and out, until we knew the mystery word’s meaning, origin, even pronunciation. That’s when my manic list making began. Ever since then I’ve been one of those incorrigible collectors of names, making languid lists out of the constellations in the night sky, baseball averages and cars.....You name it and I’ve named it.”

The author of more than 30 books, not to mention myriad documentaries, and other not insignificant television work, The Painted Word is Cousineau’s second book dealing with words, their meanings, origins, and companions. The first, Word Catcher was named one of the best books of 2012 by NPR.

The book is a veritable melting pot of words and phrases drawn from the myriad of traditions that make up American society. Perhaps its greatest charm is that outside of the strict alphabetical order of the word or terms explained themselves, there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the explanations which can bring the reader down several disjointed paths but always full of delicious nuggets of unnecessary information.

A highly entertaining book there is something here for everyone. We are told ‘aberration’ is related to travel as revealed by its Latin roots in aberrare, to wander from a given path or to deviate from the normal. Somewhat tongue in cheek, Cousineau finishes the entry with the quotation from French philosopher Anatole France: “Of all the sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest.”

Again the word ‘Ignoramus’ is perhaps better explained by its Latin translation: “We do not know”, the response of mediaeval juries when there was not enough evidence to convict someone on trial. Then as an aside we are told that the Talmud tells us “When a scholar goes to seek a bride, he should take an ignoramus as an expert.”

The Painted Word is a fun book and leads the reader into all sorts of unknown byways and laneways of knowledge and useless information. It is an invaluable tool for the conversationalist and is immensely entertaining. Maybe in the next volume, Cousineau will come up with some sort of an explanation for the first part of Uncle Paddy’s exclamation, “By the hokey.” Then all will be revealed!


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