Och Aye

This interview with Seamus Heaney was as interesting as an interview with Seamus Heaney can get. I was struck by this bit:

Heaney, who has always felt at home with Scots vernacular takes a
different line. “I always said that when I met MacDiarmid, I had met a great
poet who said ‘Och’. I felt confirmed. You can draw a line from maybe Dundalk
across England, north of which you say ‘Och’, south of which you say ‘Well,
dearie me’. In that monosyllable, there’s a world view, nearly.”

Och, he’s right, you know. Och is one of these words that if you didn’t grow up using it, it can be very hard to use idiomatically (assuming, of course, that you’d actually want to use it). You’ll sound funny doing it. Like when English people try to talk about crack/craic.

Och would you look at the cut of thon crater there with the shoes on back to front. Och, I dunno, I’d say about 25 stone. Och I’ve just gone and cut the top of my finger off. Och I’d say another clean shirt will do him. Och, I’m running out of examples.

Where an ‘Och’ appears, you can be sure that an ‘Aye’ will soon follow.

‘Aye’ is another word whose everyday use only takes place above Heaney’s imaginary line. Sometimes I say ‘aye’ in Dublin, because it is another way of saying ‘yes’, and people smile and repeat it back to me, lustily – ‘Ayyygghhe!’- as if they too had been complicit in some pre-modern act of rapine and barbarism.

North of the line, ‘aye’ is not entirely acceptable. If you respond ‘aye, miss’ to your schoolteacher, you may receive a reprimand. People who say it are aware that there are some situations where it is not entirely appropriate. I remember a friend of mine telling me how his sleep was disrupted one night by grunting of ‘aye!’ in the next room, in what seemed to be a crude homage to Je T’Aime (Moi non plus).

I quite like using it, especially in polite conversation with yes-men. It can serve as a bludgeoning retort to some Enlightenment-inspired flight of fancy. Aye right = it’s all very well for you to say that here in your nicely carpeted Hampstead apartment, but back in the tooth-and-claw rough-and-tumble of The Real World, things are somewhat different.


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May 2006
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