English as we speak it in Ireland/III
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III. Asserting by Negative of Opposite
|IV. Idioms Derived from the Irish Language→|
CHAPTER III. 
ASSERTION BY NEGATIVE OF OPPOSITE. 
Assertions are often made by using the negative of the opposite assertion. 'You must be hungry now Tom, and this little rasher will do you no harm,' meaning it will do you good. An old man has tired himself dancing and says:—'A glass of whiskey will do us no harm after that.' (Carleton.) A lady occupying a furnished house at the seaside near Dublin said to the boy who had charge of the premises:—'There may be burglars about here; wouldn't it be well for you to come and close the basement shutters at night?' 'Why then begob ma'am 'twould be no har-um.' Here is a bit of rustic information (from Limerick) that might be useful to food experts:—
- 'Rye bread will do you good,
- Barley bread will do you no harm,
- Wheaten bread will sweeten your blood,
- Oaten bread will strengthen your arm.'
This curious way of speaking, which is very general among all classes of people in Ireland and in every part of the country, is often used in the Irish language, from which we have imported it into our English. Here are a few Irish examples; but they might be multiplied indefinitely, and some others will be found through this chapter. In the Irish tale called 'The Battle of Gavra,' the narrator says:—[The enemy slew a large company of our army] 'and that was no great help to us.' In 'The Colloquy,' a piece much older than 'The Battle of Gavra,' Kylta, wishing to tell his audience that when the circumstance he is relating occurred he was very young, expresses it by saying [at that time] 'I myself was not old.'
One night a poet was grossly insulted: 'On the morrow he rose and he was not thankful.' (From the very old Irish tale called 'The Second Battle of Moytura': Rev. Celt.)
Another old Irish writer, telling us that a certain company of soldiers is well out of view, expresses it in this way:—Ní fhuil in cuire gan chleith, literally, 'the company is not without concealment.'
How closely these and other old models are imitated in our English will be seen from the following examples from every part of Ireland:—
'I can tell you Paddy Walsh is no chicken now,' meaning he is very old. The same would be said of an old maid:—'She's no chicken,' meaning that she is old for a girl.
'How are your potato gardens going on this year?' 'Why then they're not too good'; i.e. only middling or bad.
A usual remark among us conveying mild approval is 'that's not bad.' A Dublin boy asked me one day:—'Maybe you wouldn't have e'er a penny that you'd give me, sir?' i.e., 'Have you a penny to give me?' 'You wouldn't like to have a cup of tea, would you?' An invitation, but not a cordial one. This is a case of 'will you was never a good fellow' (for which see Vocabulary).
'No joke' is often used in the sense of 'very serious.' 'It was no joke to be caught in our boat in such a storm as that.' 'The loss of £10 is no joke for that poor widow.'
- 'As for Sandy he worked like a downright demolisher—
- Bare as he is, yet his lick is no polisher.'
- (Thomas Moore in the early part of his career.)
You remark that a certain person has some fault, he is miserly, or extravagant, or dishonest, &c.: and a bystander replies, 'Yes indeed, and 'tisn't to-day or yesterday it happened him'—meaning that it is a fault of long standing.
A tyrannical or unpopular person goes away or dies:—'There's many a dry eye after him.' (Kildare.)
'Did Tom do your work as satisfactorily as Davy?' 'Oh, it isn't alike': to imply that Tom did the work very much better than Davy.
'Here is the newspaper; and 'tisn't much you'll find in it.'
'Is Mr. O'Mahony good to his people?' 'Oh, indeed he is no great things': or another way of saying it:—'He's no great shakes.' 'How do you like your new horse?' 'Oh then he's no great shakes'—or 'he's not much to boast of.' Lever has this in a song:—'You think the Blakes are no great shakes.' But I think it is also used in England.
A consequential man who carries his head rather higher than he ought:—'He thinks no small beer of himself.'
Mrs. Slattery gets a harmless fall off the form she is sitting on, and is so frightened that she asks of the person who helps her up, 'Am I killed?' To which he replies ironically—'Oh there's great fear of you.' ('Knocknagow.')
[Alice Ryan is a very purty girl] 'and she doesn't want to be reminded of that same either.' ('Knocknagow.')
A man has got a heavy cold from a wetting and says: 'That wetting did me no good,' meaning 'it did me great harm.'
'There's a man outside wants to see you, sir,' says Charlie, our office attendant, a typical southern Irishman. 'What kind is he Charlie? does he look like a fellow wanting money?' Instead of a direct affirmative, Charlie answers, 'Why then sir I don't think he'll give you much anyway.'
'Are people buried there now?' I asked of a man regarding an old graveyard near Blessington in Wicklow. Instead of answering 'very few,' he replied: 'Why then not too many sir.'
When the roads are dirty—deep in mire—'there's fine walking overhead.'
In the Irish Life of St. Brigit we are told of a certain chief:—'It was not his will to sell the bondmaid,' by which is meant, it was his will not to sell her.
So in our modern speech the father says to the son:—'It is not my wish that you should go to America at all,' by which he means the positive assertion:—'It is my wish that you should not go.'
Tommy says, 'Oh, mother, I forgot to bring you the sugar.' 'I wouldn't doubt you,' answers the mother, as much as to say, 'It is just what I'd expect from you.'
When a message came to Rory from absent friends, that they were true to Ireland:—
'"My sowl, I never doubted them" said Rory of the hill.' (Charles Kickham.)
'It wouldn't be wishing you a pound note to do so and so': i.e. 'it would be as bad as the loss of a pound,' or 'it might cost you a pound.' Often used as a sort of threat to deter a person from doing it.
'Where do you keep all your money?' 'Oh, indeed, it's not much I have': merely translated from the Gaelic, Ní mórán atâ agum.
To a silly foolish fellow:—'There's a great deal of sense outside your head.'
'The only sure way to conceal evil is not to do it.'
'I don't think very much of these horses,' meaning 'I have a low opinion of them.'
'I didn't pretend to understand what he said,' appears a negative statement; but it is really one of our ways of making a positive one:—'I pretended not to understand him.' To the same class belongs the common expression 'I don't think':—'I don't think you bought that horse too dear,' meaning 'I think you did not buy him too dear'; 'I don't think this day will be wet,' equivalent to 'I think it will not be wet.'
Lowry Looby is telling how a lot of fellows attacked Hardress Cregan, who defends himself successfully:—'Ah, it isn't a goose or a duck they had to do with when they came across Mr. Cregan.' (Gerald Griffin.) Another way of expressing the same idea often heard:—'He's no sop (wisp) in the road'; i.e. 'he's a strong brave fellow.'
'It was not too wise of you to buy those cows as the market stands at present,' i.e. it was rather foolish.
'I wouldn't be sorry to get a glass of wine, meaning, 'I would be glad.'
An unpopular person is going away:—
- 'Joy be with him and a bottle of moss,
- And if he don't return he's no great loss.'
'How are you to-day, James?'
'Indeed I can't say that I'm very well': meaning 'I am rather ill.'
'You had no right to take that book without my leave'; meaning 'You were wrong in taking it—it was wrong of you to take it.' A translation of the Irish ní cóir duit. 'A bad right' is stronger than 'no right.' 'You have no right to speak ill of my uncle' is simply negation:—'You are wrong, for you have no reason or occasion to speak so.' 'A bad right you have to speak ill of my uncle:' that is to say, 'You are doubly wrong' [for he once did you a great service]. 'A bad right anyone would have to call Ned a screw' [for he is well known for his generosity]. ('Knocknagow.') Another way of applying the word—in the sense of duty—is seen in the following:—A member at an Urban Council meeting makes an offensive remark and refuses to withdraw it: when another retorts:—'You have a right to withdraw it'—i.e. 'it is your duty.' So:—'You have a right to pay your debts.'
'Is your present farm as large as the one you left?' Reply:—'Well indeed it doesn't want much of it.' A common expression, and borrowed from the Irish, where it is still more usual. The Irish beagnach ('little but') and acht ma beag ('but only a little') are both used in the above sense ('doesn't want much'), equivalent to the English almost.
A person is asked did he ever see a ghost. If his reply is to be negative, the invariable way of expressing it is: 'I never saw anything worse than myself, thanks be to God.'
A person is grumbling without cause, making out that he is struggling in some difficulty—such as poverty—and the people will say to him ironically: 'Oh how bad you are.' A universal Irish phrase among high and low.
A person gives a really good present to a girl:—'He didn't affront her by that present.' (Patterson: Antrim and Down.)
How we cling to this form of expression—or rather how it clings to us—is seen in the following extract from the Dublin correspondence of one of the London newspapers of December, 1909:—'Mr. —— is not expected to be returned to parliament at the general election'; meaning it is expected that he will not be returned. So also:—'How is poor Jack Fox to-day?' 'Oh he's not expected'; i.e. not expected to live,—he is given over. This expression, not expected, is a very common Irish phrase in cases of death sickness.