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Getting Pure Thick

"I don't care how thick he gets, I'm not inviting him!"

I overheard this in Galway recently, and it prompted me to write a few notes on the word thick as it is used in Ireland. As well as the familiar adjectival and adverbial senses, which need no elaboration, thick has common colloquial senses in Irish English that do not seem to be well known or widely used in other dialects.

In the line quoted above, thick means angry, argumentative, sullen, or belligerent. It's a versatile usage that often collocates with get and is typically associated with moody or petulant grumpiness, and sometimes with drunken antagonism. I heard the phrase regularly when I was growing up in the rural west of the country, and now in the urban west I still do, occasionally, in expressions such as:

She's fierce thick over it. [fierce = very]
Don't you be getting thick with me.
He got pure thick about it.
Thick out!

Short digression: "X out" is a common construction in Irish English speech, where X describes someone's general state or predominant characteristic at a given moment, e.g., happy out, busy out, tired out, sound out, hardy out, clever out, handy out, cute out, proud out, killed out. "Is he any trouble? Ah no, he's easy out." The out serves as a mild intensifier and colloquial marker. Anecdotal evidence suggests it's a culchie (rural) thing.

Thick is also used to mean stubborn, obstinate, or obstructive. This can overlap with the foolish or angry/sullen senses. When I asked about the word on Twitter, some ten people mentioned variations on this sense. Here's a sample:

obdurate with a good dash of dumb (@ciarasidine)
obstinately sullen (@tomlowe)
angry/difficult/stubborn/pain in the face (@eolai)
connote[s] stubbornness, belligerence (@frankmcgahon)
stubborn in an obstructive way (@fintan)
difficult/obstructive (@paraic).

It's not always bullish contrariness, though: @whyowhyvonne points out that "thick/stubborn is sometimes right leading to thick/told you so."

* * *

Thick has been used as a noun in a few ways: thick fog (military slang, mid-20C), thicket (Old English), most intense part ("in the thick of battle/traffic"), and thickest part (of a limb or liquid). In Irish English, there's an additional nominal sense: thick = thick person, i.e., fool.

This is not a usage I've adopted, nor am I the only one who doesn't care for it, but it's another idiom I've been hearing since childhood (not directed at me, mind). It's like thicko, thicky, and thick-a. The Shorter OED records it as "originally school slang", and quotes two Irish authors:

The thick made out the Will wrong. (Seán Ó Casey, Juno and the Paycock)
These awful country thicks wanted to take your stool. (Maeve Binchy, Circle of Friends)

Bernard Share's marvellous Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang has a fairly thick (bountiful) entry with a few more examples of the word's fool sense:

The dog was no thick. He could nearly talk... (Roddy Doyle, The Van)
"That fella is only a thick-a!" which implied that whatever little brains he had were in his backside (Críostóir Ó Flynn, There is an Isle)
What kind of thicko will make a nuisance call any more... (Maeve Binchy again, in the Irish Times)

Irish internet forum Boards.ie offers many recent examples, such as:

He is making an awful thick out of you.
Probably some thick with nothing better to do with his/her time.
put a thick in a ford modeo [sic], he is still a thick

* * *

Within a couple of hours of asking about these usages on Twitter, I had received responses from 50 or 60 people. Here are some selected examples of thick (adj.) meaning angry, argumentative, belligerent, or sullen:

he's got a thick head on him. (@sharonf, Down)
he was pure thick (@cardimarie, Dublin)
"Don't get thick with me," as in don't get argumentative (@Darcification)
don't be thick with me (@curlydena on behalf of a friend)
he got really thick with me (@CarlowWeather, Carlow)
My boyfriend stood me up, I was so thick=angry (@MisiJenkins, Edenderry [Offaly])
she's gone totally thick over it. (@wordhoarding, Cork)
pure thick with the drink (@Donal_OKeeffe, quoting D'Unbelievables)
Ah jesus Mary, he was getting pure thick with me (@Cat_OConnor)
Would you look at the thick head up on him! (also from @Cat_OConnor)
fine thick head up on him (@Carmeltw, south-west; she describes it as "very west cork in particular!!")
yer man got fierce thick when I spilt me pint down his neck (@CiaranCrotty, Limerick)
'he's getting a bit thick' meaning 'getting aggressive/argumentative' (@tillytoogood)
that thick fella was getting thick with me (@misterebby, Galway)
yer man started getting thick with me so I hit him (@paraic, Cork)

Examples of thick (n.) meaning thick person, idiot:

He's an awful thick. (@psneeze, Kildare)
... I'd exclaim 'ya big thick' at myself (@eolai, Dublin)
That feckin thick (noun) was thick (adj) with me (@jksbeard)
yer man, Cowan/Ahern/etc, the state of him, the big thick (@pkel, Dublin)
Of course it's potatoes for dinner, don't be such a thick. (@liamdunne, Dublin)
ah, yer man's A Thick (@kath_graham)

Thick is an old word, but I don't know how old these usages are. The OED dates the noun form to the mid-19C, but I'd like an Irish source for it. There's no mention of either usage in P. W. Joyce's English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), Loreto Todd's Green English (2000), or T. P. Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2006).

Nor can I say where the expressions might have originated. They occur all over the country, though their frequency presumably varies considerably. Some people in Dublin have never heard one or either, and I would guess that the usages didn't arise there. The south-west seems a good bet.

It would take a systematic survey (or a reference book I haven't checked) to tease out more detail; for now, it's enough to record these idioms and demonstrate their continuing popularity. A gracious comment by @Ariadnaquape echoes my thoughts on the matter: "it's the nuances of meaning that amazes and intrigues me."

Any additional thoughts, reports and examples would be very welcome.

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Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 10th 2011, 2:18 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Very nice collection!
The thick=fool/idiot nuance was also much used in Scotland when I was growing up there. Don't know if it's so prevalent now.
He's a right thick-o. (interesting variation on the Irish "thick-a"; "right" in the sense of "real" but somehow with more emphasis)
Thick as a brick / thick as two planks = an incredibly unintelligent/dense person.
As thick as you can get = You'd have to look far before finding someone else as stupid as that.
Friday June 10th 2011, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
"Thick As A Brick" was the title track of a 1972 album by London prog rockers Jethro Tull, whose front man Ian Anderson was born in Scotland but in childhood moved to Blackpool in the northwest of England (according to his bio at http://bit.ly/l7ZEeT). We American fans seemed to get the general drift of what Anderson was singing, even though the expression was unfamiliar. (Then again, we seemed to get "salvation à la mode and a cup of tea" when he sang that gibberish on "Aqualung"!)
Friday June 10th 2011, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Australian usage usually tends to reference lack of intelligence "thick as a brick" , "thick as two planks", & creative variations!
Then of course, there's "as thick as thieves" - which refers to a very close association.
Friday June 10th 2011, 10:19 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I love the sound and shape of the word. It slows down with the c and disintegrates into a formless lump when it hits the thick brick wall of the k.

Saying it with South African, New Zealand or Australian accents is great fun, but every accent from Alabama to Zimbabwe gives an interesting tilt.
Friday June 10th 2011, 11:28 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Alice: Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for sharing those other expressions. We have that intensifying usage of right as well. The noun thick meaning "thick person" might not have originated in a Gaelic tongue, but it doesn't seem to have much currency elsewhere.

Mark: Very interesting – thank you for the prog rock education! Song lyrics are easy to interpret liberally; yesterday I remembered how I used to think New Order's "I can and shall obey" (in Blue Monday) was "icon on shallow bay". It made no sense, but I couldn't decipher the original line. Maybe that was a bit thick of me.

Noel: Thanks for the report on Australian usage. These senses of the word – stupid and closely acquainted – seem common in most major varieties of English.

Graeme: I like its sound, too, the fricative falling down against the 'thick brick wall' of a plosive. You can do a lot with one syllable!
Friday June 10th 2011, 11:53 AM
Comment by: mac
i can say thick made the crossing because we've been using it in the Bronx seventy years i know of. in the meantime, we've had a cultural shift in the boroughs and thick has since migrated from the Bronx and Brooklyn to the sandy plains of Long Island. as for m'self, i've carried it back to the other isle, Manhattan where it is still spoken to this day however, it must have diluted in all this time and crossing because we lot, being linguistically impoverished, used it only in the sense of intractable or stubborn, if you will. "thick as a brick" here.
Friday June 10th 2011, 1:43 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
I just found:
on this site.
Unfortunately, it doesn't give a citation.
Friday June 10th 2011, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
For some reason the quote I copy-pasted didn't show.
It was: Meaning "stupid" is first recorded 1597.
Saturday June 11th 2011, 6:43 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
mac: The intractable/stubborn sense of thick came up frequently when I asked about it on Twitter. I had underestimated its popularity, being more used to connotations of belligerence and crankiness. The meanings overlap a bit in use, though.

Alice: Thank you. That site seems to have taken its information from Dictionary.com, which in turn got it from Etymonline (with a slight difference in specificity: 1597 vs. 1590s). I link to Etymonline's entry near the end of the article.
Saturday June 11th 2011, 3:22 PM
Comment by: mac
Stan: regards the sense of thick as intractable, the missus and i would hurl it back-and-forth when each of us was as sure as could be that his/her point-of-view was not only correct but was the one valid view (much like the church). plus, i notice one communicant mentioned "thick as thieves" and that jogged my memory. mac
Sunday June 12th 2011, 2:14 PM
Comment by: Moya G. (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
"They're very thick" meaning "they are in cahoots" was an expression I heard a lot when I lived in Ireland
Monday June 13th 2011, 5:08 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
mac: I remember hearing (or reading) thick as thieves as a child and presuming that it was an insult. Before long, I began to realise that it had to have some other meaning. It's still a strange expression, but many common ones are.

Moya: Yes, it's often used here. Sometimes it suggests that they're mutual confidants, and sometimes there's more of a sense of collusion or mischief-making.
Monday June 13th 2011, 1:00 PM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Grew up in American West. Dad American Indian from Pacific Northwest. Mom Fr. Canadian, German, Irish born Green Bay, Wisconsin. Grew up Minnesota. We used the word thick, but only in the two common senses of slow/unintelligent: "he was a bit thick," and close to: "thick as thieves."
Monday June 13th 2011, 3:40 PM
Comment by: mac
Stan:i won't try to define "thick as thieves" but rather, paint a small portrait. as is known, New York is a big city but what is less understood is N Y is a string of neighborhoods once you leave behind the commercial and entertainment and tourist attraction areas. now then, each neighborhood is a small town as alike and as different as small towns tend to be and you can be sure most of the townspeople know one another and the comings-and-goings and should a stranger pass through the residents gather a bit closer because they're practicing clan instinct and they're thick as thieves.
Tuesday June 14th 2011, 2:00 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kcecelia: Thank you. Slow is one of the kinder synonyms. A commenter at Language Hat reports the use of thick (n.) in southern England in the 1960s, so this form is not restricted to Ireland, but it doesn't appear to be very widespread.

mac: That's a fine short portrait of NY. I imagine that the clan instinct you describe occurs in various ways in most communities around the world. My own small city of Galway is still commonly known as the " City of the Tribes" in honour of fourteen significant merchant families from hundreds of years ago.

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