Vernacular never meant much to me in midwest America where my parochial upbringing led me to believe everyone used English as I did. Despite Easter holidays in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas or Kentucky, I noticed only the accents and any subtleties of different vernacular escaped my bourgeois upbringing.
It wasn’t until I moved to the inner city of Milwaukee to live and work that I became aware of the richness of the English language, creatively used by African- and Hispanic Americans. My favourite word was ‘crib’, an African-American word for home. I daren’t use the word here in Dublin for fear that if I said I was headed for my ‘crib’ some evening the listener might think my nocturnal habits required four sides of parallel bars to keep me from sleepwalking through Ringsend village—a harmless enough habit, but far short of the mature dignity of middle age to which I adhere.
Moving to Dublin, I was ill-prepared for numerous phrases and words, all English but strangely—to me at least—of foreign meaning.
The first I came across at the NRB where, in the course of assessments, I learned to substitute mild mental handicap for ‘educable’ and moderate mental handicap for ‘trainable’. Not liking labels any more than anyone else, I learned their necessary function of allowing for a common understanding of a specific ability level. I was also pleased to drop the ‘trainable’ term for my Mary Kate—I had found it highly offensive in Americanese.
I quickly learned not to ask for a ride but rather ‘a lift’, which I in turn learned to place ‘the’ in front of when searching for an elevator. That was an easy one.
Hearing my colleagues complain of ‘ladders’ in their tights took ages to figure out, as I hadn’t a clue what they meant. As they were discussing a personal item of clothing and this comment was heard first thing in the morning, I decided not to make enquiries like ‘Were you out on a date with a fireman last night?’
Even more distressing were words I thought I understood, when the vernacular differed and I remained totally unaware of such differences for months and even years. In the seventies there were a number of To Let signs on St Stephen’s Green, at second-floor level. I though some smart a— had painted out the ‘I’ in toilet. Having no knowledge of the term ‘to let’ for rental property, I thought these were public toilets on the second floor to discourage frequent usage by passersby.
I passed by many tempting offers to collect my ‘free’ range chicken or eggs, which I took to be a promotional offer to attract customers. My resistance was based solely on the impression I would make upon customers. If they heard me ask for my free range eggs, I was convinced they would regard me as a greedy presumptuous Yank who had the cheek to move to Dublin and avail of an offer reserved for regular customers.
It didn’t take too long to learn that ‘going to get my messages’ didn’t mean someone was going to a friend’s flat, one who had a telephone naturally, who kindly sat at home all day taking phonecalls for the less fortunate (and there were many such folk back then) who didn’t have a phone!
I kept pennies handy in the seventies for visits to the loo, but found that only Bewleys cafés required a deposit of copper, and still do!
Driving down the country at Easter, I was fascinated to see pumps by the roadside decoratively covered in straw. Surely this was a remnant of pre-Christian times, usurped by the Catholic church when it covered church statues in purple during Holy Week.
The potency of cider came as another shock—one night I stumbled legless out of the pub, not yet knowing that clever breweries had secretly fermented the apples before serving them in unmarked glasses.
My most convoluted and long-lasting misinterpretation was of the ‘Royal Liver Assurance’ sign prominently displayed on the south side of O’Connell Bridge. I thought it must be close to going out of business, but it never did, and as far as I know it is still thriving. I never enquired about its relevance in modern Ireland, as I thought it might be insensitive, politically speaking, that is. Taking it literally, an apparent weakness of mine, it meant that if by chance any leftover royals were in need of an organ transplant, they would be assured of a liver—at the very least!