American Slang Words of Irish Origin


Driven by the Famine, many Irish speakers came to America and settled. Their language – known as the conversation of the streets – made a huge impact on American English.

Irish-speaking Immigrants in America

The exact proportion of Irish (Gaelic) speaking immigrants during the famine in the 1800s is unknown but it could be as high as thirty-five per cent, according to estimates. The fact is that the breac-Ghaeltacht, or Irish-English speaking district, seeded itself in various cities and towns all across the U.S. Nathaniel Hawthorn once observed in Augusta, Maine, “the board-built and turf-buttressed hovels of these wild Irish, scattered about as if they had sprung up like mushrooms in the dells and gorges and along the banks of the river.”

Gradually Assimilated Irish Words

The evolution of Irish into American vernacular was rather gradual. The Irish words or language, known as the conversation of the streets as they were not used in the classrooms nor drawing rooms of the “respectable classes,” became such “familiar parts of everyday speech that many seemed simply to belong to the way American talked,” according to How the Irish Invented Slang. Here is a list of some notable words.

Dude (Dude – another version)- Dúd was a moniker Irish-Americans slapped on slumming, wealthy, young swells out on a spree in the concert halls and theaters of old New York. On February 25, 1883, the Brooklyn Eagle reported: “A new word has been coined. It is d-u-d-e or d-o-o-d. The spelling does not seem to be distinctly settled yet…Just where the word came from nobody knows, but it has sprung into popularity in the last two weeks, so that now everybody is using it…The dude is from 19 to 28 years of age, wears trousers of extreme tightness, is hollow chested, effeminate in his ways, apes the English and distinguishes himself among his fellowmen as a lover of actresses.”

Geek – A hairy, bushy, animalistic performer whose show consisted of grotesque acts like biting the head off a live chicken. Any hairy, unkempt and odd-looking person.

Gibberish – Geab ar aish means back talk or backward chat.

Giggle – Gíog gheal is a happy squeak or a merry squeal.

Knack – Gnách means custom, manner, practice, habit, experience or familiar.

Quirky – Corraiceach is unsteady, odd, shifty or the odd one.

Rookie – Rúca means a raw, inexperienced person or a novice.

Scam – ‘S cam é is a trick, deception, a fraud or dishonesty.

Shanty – sean tí is an old house, poor, uncommon or unrefined.

Slum – ‘S lom é means not just poor but it is bare-naked poverty and distress, stripped and laid open to the elements.


  1. Cassidy, D, 2007, How the Irish Invented Slang, Oakland, CounterPunch