Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 69 – Balagan – 'What are ye like?'

Balagan – a travelling puppet show, or a mess!

Here’s an interesting word for ye – balagan. It means a mess, but it could be the name of a town somewhere in Ireland, couldn’t it? Actually, it’s a Hebrew slang word that I first heard on a visit to Israel. It can refer to many situations – a traffic meltdown, the state of your kid’s room, Irish politics, Israeli politics, your complicated relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend – and so forth.


It has interesting origins, too. It seems to have come to Israel from Russia in the late nineteenth century. It meant the same thing in Russia, especially referring to the wagons used by travelling puppet shows. The word apparently originated in Persia – as balakhaana (from which comes our word, balcony) – and travelled via Turkey to Russia, Poland and Lithuania – and eventually, Israel.

When I first heard it in Israel and had the meaning explained to me, I thought, ‘This really ought to have been an Irish word!’  What we might say instead is that something is a ‘Horlicks’ – as in, ‘Ye’ve made a right horlicks of that, haven’t ye?’  We might also say, ‘Yer makin’ a right pig’s lug a’ that.’ 


If yer referring to someone mixing their food all up together ye might say, ‘Yer making a right stour of it.’  Stour is an Ulster Scots, or Scottish, word that can also apply to a cloud of dust – if you stir up a whole lot of dust yer ‘making a stour’. Stoor might possibly have originated with the Vikings, because it is also a Scandinavian word for dust.

I spent a hour or two wandering around Krakow, in Poland, with a Polish couple who used to live here in Northern Ireland. Camilla, the wife, kept finding opportunities to repeat the Ulster phrase, ‘What are ye like?’ – which usually means there’s something odd, or amiss, about the person referred to. We might also encourage this person to ‘Wise up!’ or to ‘Catch yerself on’.

Of course, I’m sure everyone is familiar with the Irish word – eedjit – a different way of pronouncing, idiot – for instance, ‘Ye eedjit, ye – what did ye go and do that for?’ or, ‘Yer man’s all right, like, but he can be a bit of an eedjit at times!’  

Another way of saying that would be, ‘Yer man’s not the full shillin’, or ‘He’s a couple a stories short of a bungalow!’ – calling into question someone’s mental capacity. You could also say, ‘Ye haven’t a titter of wit, have ye?’ 

In this part of the world we tend to excel at this sort of derogatory banter – we call it slaggin’. Strangers can be a bit taken aback when apparent friends start to ‘slag each other off’ – saying things like, ‘Ach, ye haven’t the wit ye were born with,’  or, ‘Aye, yer head’s a marley!’ (referring to a marble); ‘Sure he’s as thick as champ,’  or, ‘I think there’s air gettin in!’ or, ‘Quit actin’ the maggot, you.’

If we want to make fun of someone’s lack of height we might say, ‘Stand up, Jimmy – oh, ye are standin’ up!’  The opposite would be, ‘What’s the weather like up there?’ Or we might say, ‘If he was chocolate he’d be some eatin’!’

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