You know how I can tell I have Irish ancestors? It's because of the idioms I heard as a child and youth. (Though that's not the only way I can tell. Genealogy gives me the information, too.)
I grew up in the non-Irish community of Mineral Ridge, Ohio. Until just a few months ago I didn't know the idioms I heard as a child were Irish. I recently found them in a glossary of Irish words and phrases at the back of Patrick Taylor's Irish Country books. As I read through the list I wondered to myself, "Irish? Is that really an Irish idiom?" My father always insisted there was no Irish blood -- absolutely none! -- on our Doyle side of the family.
Here are a few of the idioms from Taylor's glossary; idioms I heard as a child; idioms I didn't need the glossary to define for me because they were so familiar.
ants in your pants -- inability to sit still; constantly fidgeting
Mom to her 6-year-old daughter: "You must have ants in your pants. Go sit on the porch step until I'm ready to go."
bound and determined -- absolutely set on a course of action (sometimes unintentionally)
Mom, to me after the third spill while making something: "You are bound and determined to make a mess in the kitchen today, aren't you?"
Or: "She is bound and determined to get her driver's permit the day she turns 16."
hit the spot –- the very thing I needed, usually used with a beverage or food
Dad, after eating a favorite dessert prepared by my mom: "That pie and ice cream sure hit the spot."
hold your horses -- wait a minute
Mom: "You just hold your horses. We are not ready to make a decision about that today."
shank’s ponies -- your own two feet
Mom: Niles was 3 miles distant from Mineral Ridge. Mom used to talk about going to Niles when she was a girl. When we asked her how she got there she said, "We used shanks ponies."
bit my head off -- expressed anger by shouting or being very curt
Mom: "When I asked about ______ she just about bit my head off! It was just a question. "
fit to be tied - furious
Mom, when someone broke something: "I am fit to be tied that she broke the vacuum and I'm not done cleaning yet."
take a shine to - be attracted to
Dad: "I've taken a shine to that little car and the way it drives."
hard row to hoe - very difficult
Mom: "She'll have a hard row to hoe if she decides to marry him."
out of kilter -- out of alignment
Dad: Maybe because he fixed everything broken in our home, he noticed things that were out of kilter. He might have said of a picture hanging crooked, "That picture's out of kilter." Or if a chair wobbled, "That chair's out of kilter. One of the chair legs must be longer than the others."
raring to go -- eager and fully prepared
Mom, at 1:30 p.m.: "She is just raring to go and the interview isn't until 4 p.m."
And then there's the shillelagh.
My maternal grandmother had a "shillelagh club," as she called it, which she kept on the top of a high cabinet. It looked like a gnarled section of tree or tree root with knots and mounds in and on it. I don't know if she waxed it but it was smooth and shiny. She teasingly told us it was for protection. I never learned how she came to have it or from where it came. And I never saw her use it. She always pronounced it shuh-lay-lee with the accent on the middle syllable. Taylor gives the pronunciation as shi-lay-luh. (Both pronunciations are given in the dictionary.) He describes it as a blackthorn club used in stick-fighting sports or as a weapon.
As I remembered who said which phrases, I realized that the Irish idioms must come from both sides of my family (though I haven't researched far enough to find Irish ancestry on my mother's Bickerstaff side yet). When I searched for the origin of the above phrases, I was unable to trace them specifically to Ireland. I suppose many of these idioms are common across nationalities and boundaries. I just thought it was fun to see Taylor's list that correlated to my own childhood memories.
Happy Saint Patrick's Day, everyone!