The English chattering classes love to talk Celtic. Trouble is, says Michele Kirsch, Celts don't understand a word of it
The English chattering classes have been wrapping their ironic air quote marks around Celtic colloquialisms of late. Craic abuse abounds, particularly in literary and media circles, and for once the evidence is more substantial than word of Irish-accented mouth.

Ramesh Krishnamurthy, senior lexicographer at the Collins Bank of English, makes it his business to find out these things, and has been running words peculiar to Scottish and Irish dialect through his computerised word bank, which measures the frequency of words across the written and spoken media. Words like stramash, gobshite, hoolie and craic abound. This from the Guardian's golfing correspondent: "It was, in a word, dreick". This from the Times' review of Alladin: "It's gallus, it's glamorous and it's Glasgow to the core."

So, is this a case of media trend-setting? Erm, not quite. Though Irish words like craic (good fun) hoolie (party) and gobshite (work it out) are used by young hipsters who can claim stronger ties to Ireland than having purchased mail order linen sheets through the back pages of the Sunday supplements, the Scots slang crabbit (grumpy) stramash (a noisy to-do) dreich (dreary) and hochmagandy (sex for purposes other than procreation) might provoke a reaction of "What are you on about?" from a genuine Scottish person under 50. "Most of these words are out of date," says Krishnamurthy "it's the old folks who use them."

Stuart Cosgrove, Scots-born controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4, cites a large scale example of this with the current Scottish Conservative Party poster campaign. The posters say "Scots wha pay", which is a pun on the 18th Century Robert Burns folk song 'Scots wha' hae'. "I don't think I've heard anyone use that phrase since my Grannie died," he says.

This, in part, explains the safety valve of quotation marks, either literal ones or the kinds suggested by a speaker who does a glottal stop, followed by a bad imitation of a Scots or Irish accent, before lapsing back into his own accent.

"They can't bring themselves to use the phrases genuinely," explains Krishnamurthy, "but by using them at all, they are trying to invoke a special relationship with Ireland or Scotland."

Harry Doherty, honorary secretary of the Irish Club, has noticed the trend. "Probably in half the cases people don't know what they're talking about. I think there's an element of people trying to endear themselves because it's so hip to be Irish at the moment."

Where colloquial language is concerned, imitation is less a form of flattery than an incitement to battery, often preceded by an accusation of "are you taking the piss?"

Krishnamurthy, a self confessed "natural imitator", recalls a close shave. ''I was sitting in a pub with some Scottish people I didn't know very well, and after a few drinks my speech tended toward theirs. I was nearly beaten up."

Any received pronunciation speaker who's moved their lips while reading James Kelman and Irvine Welsh should know better than to try and casually inject Scots street talk into their everyday language. Scottish comedian Arnold Brown says the languages' specific attraction to the literati might be more to do with the legendary gift of the gab than anything else. "The Irish and Scots are story tellers, so perhaps their phrases would appeal to the people who go to the Groucho Club."

It is doubtful that the odd insertion of craic or dreich will transport the drinkers' anecdote into the realm of great rural literature. In their attempt to impress with the local lingo, RP speakers are actually sliding down market. They should take heed of non-Irish Americans, who get their cod-Celtic connections out of their systems one day a year during the St Patrick's Day parade when they wear badges that say "If you're not Irish, fake it".

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