I went to the Guinness factory in Dublin when I studied abroad several hundred years ago. I was told it would be a fun way to “experience local culture.” For the amateur linguists who are reading, that expression in Irish Gaelic is interchangeable with the phrase for “get plastered and give a bunch of my parent’s money to a massive multinational corporation.” Language is so fascinating.
I went with a giggle of friends, which in American English is a quirky way to say “a gaggle of unhinged and annoying teens.” You go on a tour of the brewery and you learn about the local origins of the beer. You learn how often the feeling that you’ve consumed an entire loaf of bread when you drink Guinness was used as a substitute for food in early modern Ireland, and how many of its original workers were feudal English subjects. At the end, you get a free pint of beer. I’m exaggerating; they don’t tell you any of that stuff on the tour. They take more of the “hermetically sealed” approach to history.
“One pint” in the dialect of the American college student is synonymous with “six pints.” So, in an effort to partake in cultural exchange with the multinational corporation, I decided to drink twice that number. My friends, wanting to be good ambassadors of the college tradition of getting shitfaced inappropriately in public, joined me enthusiastically. Pretty soon, my friends and I were crowded around a standing table, gently swaying, overcome with the power of cultural diplomacy.
As inappropriately drunk young women often are, we were soon joined by inappropriately drunk men who were a little older. In the patois of young women whose frontal cortex’s haven’t fully developed (a condition that inhibits their ability to use logic even when they aren’t being ransacked by alcohol), “a little older” can and should be substituted for “at least twice our age.” The men asked if they could join us, which is internationally recognized as meaning “can we make you uncomfortable in a sort of enigmatic, bewildering way because looking at us will make you think of your fathers, but we are desperately trying to fuck you?”
“What’s your name?” asked the oldest member of this group of already ancient men.
“The Littlest Dick” I replied, giving him my actual name, like an idiot. An “idiot” is what women call girls who give strange men they’ll never see again their good Christian names.
“Ah,” he mumbled, “do you know what The Littlest Dick means in Gaelic?”
“No,” I said. This old man and I swayed at each other, yo-yoing back and forth in that special drunk way that is never perceptible to a drunk but alarming to the people around them. When drunk, I’m always trying to stack my spine so I can rest in a single position. But then it feels like the discs in my back slide out and tumble down like Jenga pieces, and that’s why I lilt from side to side.
“Your name means ‘a party,'” he sneered. The old man had looked at me and rightfully insinuated that my name was Irish for shitshow, but I didn’t appreciate the sneer. When I looked it up later, I found that the Irish Gaelic word that is a homophone of my name means “house party,” and is a derivation of another Gaelic word meaning “companion.” According to my mother, my name and the spelling she chose is Scottish Gaelic for “woman,” though I can’t find anything to back this up. So the etymology of my name indicates that I am both a woman, perhaps a companion, and a party. Did my name at one point mean prostitute?
Let’s imagine that we can get in a time machine and travel back roughly 1500 years, back to when the Gaels had been firmly established in Ireland as an ethnolinguistic group. We land just a few decades before they split geographically when a group travels to Scotland, thus forming the linguistic groups from which the Irish and Scottish languages will eventually emerge. We are observing a single soup of people stuck on an island, a population the rest of the world would come to know as “really fucking white.”
Perhaps there was a raucous house party, where lots of men who were just considered old instead of inappropriately so sought youthful female companionship. Maybe there was a very drunk young woman who was the belle of the ball. Possibly there were a few drunken missteps, she made a fool of herself once or twice. But she helped everyone have such a righteously good time that her name forever became synonymous with affable trainwrecks, and the whole affair was named after her. A detail or two about exactly what she did became twisted in a game of telephone that went on for at least a few generations. One man became two. Some sheep were added to the retelling for local flavor. The story of this girl and this party went through a re-write and a round of punch-ups. What had originated as several warm glasses of mead and some youthful indiscretions were transformed in the retelling into an orgy, and she became a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession. Her name became synonymous with a gluttonous glass, a good laugh, and a dick in the ass, even though the story was greatly exaggerated. Several thousand years later, I get to write a shitty blog post about the name where I demonstrate my very loose understanding of both history and linguistics, and punctuate my ignorance with wild speculation. Whatever, it’s okay that I’ll never know if my name once meant “the extra fun prostitute at the big kegger.” I guess I’m just happy my foremother fought for my right to party and be called one.