What’s in an Irish surname?
’Tis said that on March 17th every lad or lass wishes he/she were Irish, but what happens the rest of the year? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) pays homage to the Irish the other 364 days by having many a famous Irish surname enshrined. Take the quintessential Irish surname, Murphy, of which the OED lists five senses. It can mean a)asleep, as “in the arms of Murphy”; b)a potato; c)a foldaway bed ; d)a term used for a device consisting of two short telescopic metal tubes each with a button-like end, used to perform surgery on the intestine ; and e)a con game in which someone is tricked into handling over money for something that is promised but not given, also known as (“Murphy’s game”). And of course, we also have Murphy’s Law, named after American engineer, Edward A. Murphy,that postulates that if anything can go wrong, it invariably will.
Other Irish surnames are listed as words in the OED, but none are as prolific as the Murphy clan. According to a 1934 citation, “kelly,” is “a variety of fifteen-ball pool in which each player draws a number and, while playing on the object balls in numerical order, aims to pocket the ball of the number corresponding to his own, thereby winning the game. ” “Kennedy” is listed as obsolete slang for a poker; the term apparently derives from the name of a man who was killed by being struck on the head with a poker. “Collins” refers not only to an iced drink consisting of whisky and gin but also to a letter of thanks for entertainment or hospitality, sent by a departed guest. The term derives from the name of a character, William Collins, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Perhaps the most infamous Irish surname entombed in our language is Lynch. Many men have been suggested as the progenitor for this term that refers to extrajudicial hanging. The first person on whose behalf claims have been made was James Lynch Fitzstephen, a 15th century mayor of Galway, Ireland. According to legend, Lynch was forced to hang his own son, a convicted murderer. Adherents to this tale are at pains to explain why Lynch and not Fitzstephen survived as the eponym, and why it took several more centuries until the word “lynch” permeated our language. Most etymologists credit a Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) who served with the Virginia militia and presided over a tribunal whose mandate was to rid his county of undesirables that had heretofore eluded the authorities. Lynch and his vigilantes became known as lynch-men and their methods were dubbed lynch’s law. By 1836, the verb “lynch” had acquired its current meaning of hanging by mob action without legal sanction.
Although not the most fecund family, the Boycotts enjoy the distinction of providing a word for the refusal to deal with a person or a business firm not only in English but also in Dutch, French, German, Russian and Indonesian. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was the land agent for the estates of the Earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. When Boycott raised the rents in 1880, the tenants raised the roof. Local stores refused to sell to him and militant protestors destroyed his property and cut off his food supply. Eventually Boycott was forced to flee to England, but as a small consolation his name was on its way to being immortalized.
Two other Irish surnames that have found a place in our language are Mulligan which can refer to a potpourri stew or an illegal shot in golf, and Mullarkey which appears to have been corrupted into the word “malarkey.” The word “hooligan” appears to have a provenance from an Irish family, but etymologists are divided on the original progenitor. The OED says that the word “first appears in print in daily newspaper police- court reports in the summer of 1898. Several accounts of the rise of the word, purporting to be based on first-hand evidence, attribute it to a misunderstanding or perversion of Hooley or Hooley's gang, but no positive confirmation of this has been discovered. The name Hooligan figured in a music-hall song of the eighteen-nineties, which described the doings of a rowdy Irish family, and a comic Irish character of the name appeared in a series of adventures in Funny Folks, a British comic book.
In any case, whether you’re a Murphy or a Hooligan, or just an Irish wannabe, enjoy St. Patrick’s Day.
Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.