Monday, April 15, 2013

Lost In Translation: Words & sayings; What did Mammy say to the milkman?

With Dad's help, a very early attempt at
cursive writing to Mammy.
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 Mam was taught when she was growing up in Ireland. Birthday cards addressed to my brother or to me were always signed from Mammy and Daddy, and we addressed cards to our Mam and Dad in kind.

The Irish word for mother is Máthair (pronounced MAW her), but usually Irish children call their mothers Mamaí (pronounced Mah-mee). 'Mam' is the shorthand of the word Mamaí, which basically translates to 'Mommy'. It was only when we started elementary 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, a somewhat benign 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 are certain words and phrases which do not translate in quite the same way they do in Ireland.

"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 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 is purely a figure of speech, with no physical manifestation, and is usually expressed to someone who is being annoying.

"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, sometimes it meant that they were in big trouble, and other times it was just an expression of annoyance.

"He'll leave you in a ha'penny place.": 'Ha'penny' is a contraction of the word half-penny, the smallest denomination of Irish coin when the Irish punt was the currency in use. In this instance ha'penny is used to denote the idea of something which is second rate or makes you 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 a curl of hair on the forehead. In Canada 'quiff' is a slang term which has been used since the 1920s to describe a promiscuous woman, and these days the term has yet another offensive meaning. Apparently when my mother travelled on the city bus with my brother when he was a child, there were always raised eyebrows when she referred to his hair in this way. Mom used the term until a Canadian friend told her what quiff meant in Canada; she explained 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.

 photo a-milkman.jpg
Not a Silverwood milkman, but the same sort.
When my parents first lived in Canada, they had milk delivered to their home. The milkman from Silverwood Dairy would arrive in his truck around 5 a.m., and leave the milk bottles on the veranda (porch) just outside the front door. My mom would leave payment for him in an envelope which she left either 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 also occasionally from 'carters'. A carter is a man or woman who would bring a large horse-drawn or donkey-drawn cart or wagon into the neighbourhood, loaded up with such items as farm-fresh milk and eggs, fresh vegetables, bread, and potatoes, all for sale.

After they were married my parents moved to a home on Belgrave Square in Rathmines, Dublin. The carters would come into the square and set up on the green to sell their wares. In Dublin, from Monday to Saturday you can still see carters bringing their goods to the market stalls in Moore Street.

A carter with milk leaving TradFest 2013, Dublin.
My mother recalled that, when she was a child, quite a number of carters would venture into their neighbourhood of Ringsend very early in the morning. Mom's father Patrick, my grandfather, set off for work on his bicycle between five-thirty and six o'clock in the morning. Since he was on his way so early in the morning, his neighbours would count on him to knock on their doors to ensure they were awake 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, albeit without the horse-drawn or the donkey-drawn cart, she was very happy. Although he drove a truck, and did not bring farm-fresh milk and eggs, 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 baked goods, 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 dear mother bought her baked goods only from the local grocer or the bakery, never again made eye contact with that milkman, and was very relieved when they moved to new neighbourhood.

Click on images to view larger versions.
Milkman image from Suzanne57 on PhotoBucket.


  1. This is lovely - I hopped over from another person who joined my blog, and am delighted to find such a treasure.

    1. Hello Lizy,

      Thanks very much for your lovely comments! It's nice to hear from you.


  2. Jenn, I love the story of your mom and the milkman. It made me smile. The translations remind me of travelling with our parents when it seemed like my mom had a long list of things we weren't supposed to say depending on where we were.

    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks very much for your comments! I'm glad the story brings a smile to your face. It does to mine too. Such a good idea that your mom had, since you just never know what might not quite translate.


  3. Oh my gosh, the story about your mom and the milkman is so funny. It made me laugh out loud -- and now I will go to bed with a smile on my face. Thanks for sharing, Jenn.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thanks very much for your comments! It makes me laugh out loud too. Glad to be sending you to bed with a smile on your face. You've given me one too, thank you. Sweet dreams!



Comments on this blog are always deeply appreciated; however, in the spirit of true collegiality, I ask that you do not write something you would not say to me in person.

This blog is CAPTCHA free, but because of spammers, comments moderation is in operation for posts older than two days.

Any comments that are mean-spirited, include URLs which are not connected to the post topic, contain misinformation, or in any way resemble advertising, will be removed.

Cheers, Jennifer

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...