Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lost in Translation: Words & Sayings, and what did Mammy say to the milkman?

When we were small children, my brother and I called our mother 'Mam' or 'Mammy', as Irish children do, or we referred to her as 'my mam', when speaking about her to someone else. It was the form of address taught to us by our mam, because it was the form of address she was taught. 'Mam' is the shorthand of the Irish word 'Mamai', which translates to 'Mommy'. It was only when we started school that our use of this word was 'corrected' by the nuns, who failed to recognize it for what it was, and told us it sounded wrong. Therefore, we were to address our mam 'properly', as they termed it, and call her Mom, Mommy, or Mother.

This particular change, which was impressed upon us in a somewhat benign manner, was a way of assimilating us into the Canadian classroom. Thinking about our use of the term mam reminded me of those words and phrases used by members of my family, some of which have their origins in the Irish language. After my parents and brother immigrated to Canada, they learned very quickly that there were certain words and phrases that did not translate in quite the same way they did in Ireland. Some had more significant implications than others.

"Will you ring me?": Translation: "will you phone me?"

"We're going to run out for some messages":This involves little running and no messages, but instead is what Mom and Dad would say when they were going shopping for the groceries.

"Ah, hold your whisht": My mom used to say this when she doubted the veracity of what she was hearing. Basically it translates to: "Say no more; I've heard enough".

"I'll give you a puck in the gob": Translation: "a smack in the mouth". This was always said in jest. Basically it means "Don't be a smart aleck".

"I'll break your face": An Irish friend of my mom's used to say this to her daughters. While she would never physically touch them, the implication was they were in big trouble.

"He'll leave you in a ha'penny place.": In this case 'ha'penny', an contraction of the word half-penny, is used to denote second rate or worse off.

'Come here to me and I'll fix your quiff': Translation: 'Come here and I'll fix your hair". In both Ireland and the UK, from the 19th century, 'quiff' has meant hair on the forehead. In North America, 'quiff' is a slang term which has been used since the 1920s to describe a woman of loose morals such as a prostitute. Apparently when my mother travelled on the city bus with my brother, there were always raised eyebrows when she referred to his hair in this way. Mom used the term until a Canadian friend set her straight and told her that hair on the forehead should be called 'bangs'.

'What did Mammy say to the milkman?'

The incident which best illustrates the idea of being 'lost in translation' is that of an interaction my mother had with the milkman not long after she immigrated to Canada. When my mother shared it with me, she described it as the time she learned the importance of speaking 'Canadian', so to speak. With the perspective given by time, eventually my mother was able to laugh about this.

When my parents first lived in Canada, they had milk delivered to their home. Apparently, the milkman would arrive around 5 a.m., and leave the milk bottles on the veranda just outside the front door. My mom would leave payment for him in an envelope which she either left in the letter box or tucked into the top of an empty milk bottle. Mom would usually rise at around 6 a.m. to make breakfast for my dad, and see him off to work.

In Ireland, my mom had been accustomed to purchasing groceries from local shops, and occasionally from 'carters'. A carter was a man or woman who would bring a large horse-drawn cart or wagon into the neighbourhood. It would be loaded up with such items as fresh vegetables, bread, potatoes, and eggs, all for sale. My mother recalled, that when she was a child, quite a number of carters would venture into their neighbourhood very early in the morning. Her father, who set off for work on his bicycle around six o'clock, could often be seen knocking on the doors of his neighbours' homes so that they wouldn't miss the carters. When my mom learned that in Canada she could deal with a version of a 'carter', in the person of the milkman, she was very happy. It would be almost like having a little bit of Dublin on this side of the world.

My mother learned from one of her neighbours that the milkman also delivered baked goods. He would bring a large basket filled with fresh baked goods and you could choose whatever appealed to you. One morning she got up extra early in order to speak with him about buying fresh bread and pastries. Since it was the milkman's usual practice to deliver at around five in the morning, Mom was worried that she might miss him when she wanted to buy bread, and so she made the following request:

"Can you knock me up in the morning? Me Da' used do it for the neighbours."

Mom found it strange that the milkman's face blushed bright red, and he didn't answer her question. She thought that he might not have understood her, given her Irish accent and tendency to speak very quickly. Perhaps it was that he simply didn't want to be knocking on a customer's door at five in the morning. Later on that day she went to her next door neighbour Louise, and told Louise that she thought the milkman may not have understood her request. Mom told Louise what she had asked for...

And then...Louise explained to my mom what she had actually asked for.

After that day, my poor mother bought her baked goods only in the local grocery, never again made eye contact with that milkman, and was very relieved when they moved to new neighbourhood.


Copyright© J.Geraghty-Gorman 2011.


  1. Oh my gosh, that's hilarious. Well, not for your mom, of course, but to the rest of us, reading it from the sidelines, it is! Thank you so much for a Sunday evening laugh. Best wishes to you.

  2. Ah, yes...a similar tale runs the rounds in my mom reports that she was MORTIFIED as a first-generation American child of two immigrant Irish parents and hearing her beloved, modest father cheerfully tell people about he'd knocked up this, that or the other neighbor. Sometimes again and again! She never had the heart to tell him what that meant here.

    Phrases that, off the top of my head, I can recall becoming part of our everyday chat that came from my grandparents included the use of the word "flahoolick" (not the right spelling, but it's the basic pronunciation) for being careless with money; "coughing up your toenails" for having a bad cough; "if the wind changes direction your face will stay that way" (said when one was making an angry or pouting face), "enjoying a good chin-wag" (for conversation).

    Oh, and my grandmother's exclamation when one came abruptly around a corner and ran into someone unexpectedly: "Ah, the things you meet when you haven't got a gun!"

    And if someone was stirring up trouble or resurrecting old arguments or looking for problems, it was usually said--typically behind their back--that they "always had to have a pot boiling."

    I'm sure there's more but my mind's suddenly blank...and I'll bet there's a saying for that :)

  3. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks so much for your comments; they are much appreciated.
    I'm glad this story made you smile.


  4. Hi Christina,

    Thanks so much for your comments, and for sharing some of the words and sayings you've come across in your family.

    Oh my goodness, some of them are familiar to me too, such as the "chin wag" and the one about the wind, but not the one about "coughing up toenails". Yuck, that one gives me kind of an uncomfortable visual image. Talk about indigestion.


  5. Oh, how funny. Although I'm sure it was not funny to your mom at all...

  6. Hi dee,

    Thanks so much for your comment; it is much appreciated. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. Just want to let you know that my mom, who just celebrated her 80th birthday a couple of weeks ago, has gained great perspective with the passage of time, and now laughs about the story, and about how young and innocent she was then.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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