A glossary for the poems of John O’Brien

This glossary has been compiled as an aid to readers of the poetry of John O’Brien. There are many older words and phrases in his poems, including quite a few of Irish origin, which may be unfamiliar to many readers. Some explanations have been taken from the books of John O’Brien [these are given in square brackets, preceded by “John O’Brien’s notation:”].

acushla = darling; pulse of my heart (cushlamochree); pulse, vein, heart [see: P. W. Joyce. English As We Speak It in Ireland, Longman, Green & Co., London, 1910, pages 209, 245]

ad lib = ad libitum, Latin for “at one’s pleasure”; to speak without notes or without restraint, to improvise

adoremus = Latin for “let us adore” (in this context, to worship God)

ain = own (Scottish word)

à la mode = fashionable, stylish (from the French, “according to the fashion”)

alannah = my child; also spelt as “alanna”, from the Irish “leanbh” (lannav) for child [see: Joyce. Op. cit., page 210]

alb = (from the Latin “albus” for “white”), a white linen tunic (also known as “tunica linea”) used by clergy, being of an ample and simple design, which comes down to the ankles, and is usually girdled with a cincture (a long rope-like cord with tassled or knotted ends, tied around the waist outside of the alb)

angashore = [John O’Brien’s notation: a miserable little creature]

antediluvian = before the Flood, from the Latin words “ante” (before) and “diluvium” (flood); something belonging to the Biblical pre-flood period

argyfyin’ = arguing (presumably related to “argy-bargy”, as a heated argument or fight)

at the Office = [John O’Brien’s notation: reciting the priest’s daily Office]

bad cess = a phrase used as a curse meaning “bad luck” (from the meaning of “cess” as a local tax of the late 15th century, as a contraction of “assessment’”)

baldachin = a cloth canopy emplaced or carried over an important person or a sacred object

bedad = an Irish exclamatory oath, a euphemism for “By God”; from the tradition of avoiding blasphemy and the misuse of sacred words, by substituting words with the same initial letter (exclamatory oaths that use such a substitution for “God” include “by George”, “good golly”, “oh my gosh”, “good gracious me”, and “good grief”)

bedizen = to dress, decorate, or adorn in gaudy or showy manner

begob = an Irish exclamatory oath, a euphemism for “By God”

bell-bot pants = bell-bottom pants, pants with legs that flare (widen out in the lower leg area)

bonzer = excellent

boogathiel = [John O’Brien’s notation: uncomfortable]

Boree = [John O’Brien’s notation: (sometimes accented on the last syllable) is the aboriginal name for the Weeping Myall — the best firewood in Australia except Gidgee.]

boreen = a narrow country lane; from the Irish word bóithrín, meaning “a little road”

bouhal = [John O’Brien’s notation: boy; also spelt bouchal]; also spelt as “boochal”, from the Irish “buachaill” for boy [see: Joyce, op. cit., page 222]

’bus = an omnibus

cafoodling = (unknown; possibly to wander aimlessly)

cockies = farmers (used to refer to poor bush farmers, from having land so poor that they were jokingly said to only be able to farm cockies, i.e. cockatoos, a type of bird; however, it is was then used to refer to farmers in general)

colleen = girl (from the Irish “cailín”)

cozen = to persuade or induce to do something by cajoling or wheedling; or to mislead or deceive

crabbed = irritable and perverse in disposition, ill-tempered, surly (can also refer to something difficult to understand or read; complicated, cramped)

Craven A = a brand of cigarette

crozier = (also spelt as “crosier”) a staff with a hooked end, resembling a shepherd’s crook, or with a cross at the end, carried by abbots, bishops and archbishops as a symbol of office

cruke = presumably “crook”, being unwell or not good (such as in the Australian colloquialism “Things are crook in Tallarook”)

cushat = wood pigeon (Scottish word)

dead marines = empty bottles

deil = the devil

delf = earthenware with an opaque white glaze and an overglaze decoration, usually in blue, or pottery that is similar (also may refer to an excavation, usually referring to a mine or quarry; or to a square heraldic bearing used as an abatement and supposed to represent a square sod)

dowered = in this context, a natural endowment or gift (re. “Old Sister Paul” by John O’Brien)

dree = to endure

fag = in this context, it refers to hard work (hence “fagged” for exhausted) (possibly from the archaic meaning of “fag”, meaning to droop; which, incidentally, can refer to the ash end of a cigarette, or “fag”) (re. “The Day th’ Inspector Comes” by John O’Brien)

faith = in this context, an old exclamation, dating back to 1420, meaning “By my faith!”; although, according to Shane Walshe, it has been overused in later times in literary, stage, and television productions to convey Irishness, especially in the “stage Irish” phrase of “Faith and begorrah” (begorrah being rarely used in modern Irish speech) — Walshe says that “stage Irish” phrases like “begorrah”, “Faith and begorrah”, and “Top of the morning to you” are more the province of television stereotypes and tourism promoters, whilst Terry Eagleton has wittily remarked that “if you hear anyone saying ‘Begorrah’ during your stay in Ireland, you can be sure he’s an undercover agent for the Irish Tourist Board pandering to your false expectations” [see: Shane Walshe. Irish English As Represented in Film, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 2009, pages 260-262] (re. “The Carey’s” by John O’Brien)

flivver = a dilapidated automobile; a cheap or battered car, usually an old one

flowerets = florets, small flowers

frowsy = slovenly or unkempt; can also refer to having an unpleasant or musty smell

Gath = see “tell it not in Gath”

genuflects = to touch the knee to the floor in an act of reverence or worship (to genuflect can also refer to just a bending of the knee in homage or respect, or being deferential in a servile manner, or obedient or respectful)

Gog and Magog = an historical reference to Bible times, where (in the Book of Ezekiel) Gog is a ruler from the land of Magog; not to be confused with the Biblical prophecy in the Book of Revelation, where Gog and Magog are nations under the rule of Satan

gom = (Irish, shortened version of “gommul” or “gommel”) fool, idiot [possibly the word is of mixed Irish-English origin; see Edgar W. Schneider. Englishes around the World, Volume 1: General Studies, British Isles, North America: Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach , John Benjamins Publishing, 1997, pages 145-146]

gossoons = boys (also spelt gorsoons); “gossoon” is sometimes more specifically used for a servant boy, but is also used for “boy” in general

ha-esh / haesh = (unknown; presumably an exclamation) (re. “The Durkins” and “Sittin’ be the Wall” by John O’Brien)

Happy Jacks and Twelve Apostles = [John O’Brien’s notation: These names are often applied to the same bird; but Happy Jacks (alias Gray-crowned Babblers) are brown with white markings; Twelve Apostles (alias Apostle-Birds) are gray with brown wings. Peewees, in the next line, are of course Magpie Larks.]

Hedwig, Queen = Saint Hedwig, Queen of Poland (1373-1399); although in Poland she was known as Jadwiga (where she ruled as King, as Polish law had made no allowance for a Queen as monarch-ruler, however the law did not technically state that the King had to be a male)

in codicet = [John O’Brien’s notation: In the official Code of Canon Law]

in his cups = a phrase referring to someone being drunk

instanter = immediately, without delay, urgently, at once, instantly (from the Latin “instans”)

kanats = [John O’Brien’s notation: The essential kanat (possibly a corruption of gnat) is undersized, mischievous, useless and perky.]; not to be confused with kanats as canvas enclosures (India) or kanats as underground canals (Middle East)

keershuch = [John O’Brien’s notation: much the same as sthreel]; an unkempt or untidy woman

keownrawning = [John O’Brien’s notation: grumbling, “grousing.”]; an Irish word, possibly related to cnáimhseáiling (Anglicised as “knawvshawling”) meaning grumbling or complaining

ketchin’ = (ketching) catching

kurrajong = several species of Australian trees in the genus Brachychiton

lay = in this context, a song or tune (may also refer to ballads or narrative poems, as sung by medieval minstrels or bards); not to be confused with the many other definitions of “lay” (re. “Come, Sing Australian Songs to Me!” by John O’Brien)

leal = faithful and true

meaw = [John O’Brien’s notation: ill luck]

mitre = headdress worn by abbots and bishops

mogalore = [John O’Brien’s notation: half tipsy]

mopy = to be gloomy or apathetic

moryah = [John O’Brien’s notation: fiddlesticks (from “When the “Sut” Drops Down” by John O’Brien)]; [John O’Brien’s notation: moryah is the Celtic equivalent of “I don’t think!” (from “Moryah” by John O’Brien)]; P.W. Joyce defined “moryah” as follows: “Mor-yah; a derisive expression of dissent to drive home the untruthfulness of some assertion or supposition or pretence, something like the English ‘forsooth,’ but infinitely stronger:— A notorious schemer and cheat puts on airs of piety in the chapel and thumps his breast in great style; and a spectator says:— Oh how pious and holy Joe is growing — mar-yah! ‘Mick is a great patriot, mor-yah! — He’d sell his country for half a crown.’ Irish mar-sheadh [same sound], ‘as it were.’” [see: Joyce. Op. cit., page 296]

mug = fool

niggard = a mean, ungenerous, miserly, stingy person

nonce = (in the context of the phrase “for the nonce”) the one occasion, a particular occasion, the present occasion, the one purpose (from the Middle English “nanes”)

O Salutaris Hostia = Latin for “O Saving Host”; “O Salutaris Hostia” is a section of one of the Eucharistic hymns written by St Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi

ouisha = presumably the same as “wisha”, an Irish exclamation; like the English exclamation “well, indeed”

pelf = wealth or riches, especially when dishonestly acquired; from the Old French term “pelfre” for booty (related to “pilfer”) [see: Walter W. Skeat (editor). The Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, 1993, page 340]

pernickety = fastidious, fussy, characterized by excessive precision and attention to trivial details

pittosporum = flowering plants, of the botanical family Pittosporaceae

poddy calf = a hand-fed calf; can also refer to an unbranded calf

P.P. = [John O’Brien’s notation: Parish Priest]

prad = horse

presbytery = in this context, the priest’s residence; a presbytery can also be the eastern part of a church in which the high-altar is placed; or the space in the eastern end of a church reserved for higher clergy; in Presbyterian churches the presbytery is the court composed of ministers and representative elders of a district

Presbyt’ry dog = in this context, a dog that comes from the presbytery (the priest’s residence) (re. “The Presbyt’ry Dog” by John O’Brien)

pshaw = an expression of contempt or derision

quare = queer or strange (in its Irish usage it can also mean “very” or “extremely”) [see: Joyce, op. cit., page 309]

raddle = red ore, mark or paint with raddle, to paint (the face) with rouge

ramaysh = [John O’Brien’s notation: nonsense]

rowing = arguing

rubrics = (from the Latin “rubrica” for “red ochre”) directions in books for the conduct of church services, where the general text is printed in black, whilst instructions for clergy are commonly printed in red (from the red ochre or red chalk used by carpenters to mark lines on wood to show where to cut)

serang = the skipper of a small boat; a native Indian boatswain (petty officer)

sere = dried up or withered

Shandhra-dhan = [John O’Brien’s notation: A rickety old vehicle. This spelling of the word was preferred by the author. (from “The One-Ton Truck” by John O’Brien)]

shandrydan = a rickety vehicle; see the poem “Old Mass Shandrydan” by John O’Brien

shoneen = [John O’Brien’s notation: An over-smart would-be gentleman; a term of contempt]; a gentleman in a small way, a would-be gentleman who puts on superior airs; always used contemptuously [see: Joyce. Op. cit., page 321]

shoon = shoes

skedaddle = to run away, to flee hastily

smoodged = kissed; a variation of the word “smooched”

spink = [John O’Brien’s notation: No apology is needed for using this name to replace White-shouldered Caterpillar-eater]; a small European songbird, also known as a chaffinch

splather = to spread about; in this context, a widely spread-out large tie (not to be confused with “splathering”, when someone is speaking confusedly; nor with its meaning as a foamy lather of spit that may form in the corners of the mouth during speaking) (re. “St. Patrick’s Day” by John O’Brien)

sthreel = [John O’Brien’s notation: slattern; also spelt streel]; an unkempt or untidy woman (in another context, can also refer to a “slut”)

stonked = defeated decisively (also can mean: hit hard, knocked unconscious; baffled; bombarded with artillery)

swithers = to be in a state of agitation (alternatively, to be perplexed or hesitant)

taffrail = the rail around the stern of a vessel; presumably, in this context it refers to the rail of a cart (re. “St. Patrick’s Day” by John O’Brien)

tarry = to stay longer than intended

tell it not in Gath = a phrase which means “don’t let your enemies hear it”, originating from a passage in the Bible, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice” (Samuel 1:20); Gath was one of the five city-kingdoms of Palestine in biblical times and the home of Goliath

thiggim-thu = [John O’Brien’s notation: “Don’t you understand?”]

thrun = (unknown, presumably “threw”) (re. “Cooney’s Daughter” by John O’Brien)

thuckeen = [John O’Brien’s notation: Celtic for “flapper”]; a young girl (Irish word)

tours de force = plural of “tour de force” (French for “feat of strength”), an impressive performance or achievement that has been accomplished with great strength, skill, or ingenuity

tousle-head = a child; from the often tousled (rumpled, disheveled, in disarray) state of a child’s hair, or from the affectionate tousling of a child’s hair by an adult

trapesin’ = (trapesing) traipsing, to gad about without care or concern (similar to “gallivanting”)

vale = Latin for farewell; used as a heading for death notices in many instances

vamping = in musical terms, to improvise (such as for an accompaniment)

voteen = [John O’Brien’s notation: A person who exaggerates his or her religious devotion]; voteen = a person who is a devotee in religion; nearly always applied in derision to one who is excessively and ostentatiously devotional [see: Joyce. English As We Speak It in Ireland, Longman, Green & Co., London, 1910, page 345]

ween = believe (Middle English word)

wiree = [John O’Brien’s notation: Also known as the Chocolate Wiree (pronounced “wiry”): a very fine songster, called by ornithologists “Rufous-breasted Whistler.”]

wisha = an Irish exclamation; P. W. Joyce says that wisha is “a softening down of mossa” and defines “mossa” as “a sort of assertive particle used at the opening of a sentence, like the English well, indeed: carrying little or no meaning. ‘Do you like your new house?’ — ‘Mossa I don’t like it much.’ Another form of wisha, and both anglicised from the Irish má’seadh, used in Irish in much the same sense.” [see: Joyce. Op. cit., pages 296, 351]

wrastling = wrestling

yerra = yerra or arrah is an exclamation, a phonetic representation of the Irish airĕ, meaning take care, look out, look you — ‘Yerra Bill why are you in such a hurry?’ [see: Joyce. Op. cit., page 62]

yoke-mate = associate, companion, or partner, especially at work (yokefellow)


  1. michaeldwyer says:

    I, too, have prepared a johnobrien dictionary, but much larger (over 400 entries)

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