I’ve been surprised when readers ask why I keep referring to my husband as ‘Himself’. I assumed this Irish expression was commonly known. I understood it as one of the mannerisms associated with stage-Irish brogues communicating a clichéd notion of ‘Irishness’.
Since I’ve been asked, I’ll explain as well as I can. Becoming less common, but still in use, ‘himself’ refers to the man of the house or the boss of the shop – the person in authority. (Its counterpart is 'herself', the woman of the house.) It’s a way of referring indirectly to someone all parties to the conversation know. It implies familiarity, even though its tone, while affectionate, is occasionally sardonic.
Himself – my Himself – suggests that asking whether Seamus is at home might cause the woman of the house to exclaim, ‘Why? What’s wrong!’, as though such formality boded bad news or ill will. Or, he theorises, it could be summed up as ‘I wouldn’t want to insult you by suggesting you don’t know your own husband’s name.’ Hence, ‘Is Himself about?’
I use the expression here to protect my husband’s privacy. I pulled ‘Himself’ out of the air one morning as I tried publish a post, mindful that too much thought over what to call him would cause me to stall for days, weeks, months.
But, now that it’s come up, where does the expression come from?
Like so many idiosyncrasies of Irish speech, it probably comes from the Irish – Gaeilge – as translated directly into English. The syntax of Gaeilge is very different from that of English, and these differences are sometimes reflected in common Irish idiom, making a distinctive pattern of speech. As Hugh Kenner writes in A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (which I am delighted to discover is still in print): ‘So an English comes to be spoken that has nothing grammatically wrong with it but still something strange about it.’
Exactly how this particular usage came from the Irish I haven’t been able to determine through my limited research. At a guess, it’s probably related to the fact that there isn’t a single pronoun in Irish for the first person. Instead, the pronoun is contained in the verb. So ‘myself’ may be added to a phrase as an intensifier. Similarly, the reflexive is used as an intensifier in the expression ‘Good man yourself’, also a translation from the Irish.
Himself – the man of this house – wonders if the usage arose when the ordinary Irish, forced into uneasy adoption of the English language and the customs of the colonisers, found themselves grappling with the formalities of the landed estate. The master would have been referred to as ‘His Lordship’ or ‘His Honour’, so they would be schooled to refer to their betters in the third person, which in more relaxed circumstances was transmuted to Himself.
That’s merely a guess, a stab in the dark, but as such, completely unsupported by evidence, it has the felicity of evoking the fraught servant-master relationship in a colonial Ireland with its unequal partnership of Anglo-Irish masters and formerly Irish-speaking servants.
It puts me in mind of the Irish RM stories of Somerville and Ross. In these comic tales, the resident magistrate, Major Yeates, recently arrived from England, grapples with life in rural Ireland. Time and again, his expectation of a level of formality in behaviour and class distinctions is challenged by the more relaxed standards of Irish country life. The tension between this representative of authority and the colonised people around him plays out against a background of a kind of squinting, ironic deference on the part of the Irish.
So I too imagine a long-ago Irish labourer or house servant, subject to His Lordship and Her Ladyship. My imaginary servant, perhaps a first-generation English speaker, holds in reserve that small coin of autonomy, his own soft rebellion, the wry, not entirely derisive, irreverence, uttered in the fields, across the back of a horse as it is unsaddled or in the clamorous depths of the kitchen: Is Himself at home?