HAPPY ST. PADDY'S DAY. No offense. Until...


HAPPY ST. PADDY'S DAY. No offense. Until recently "Paddy" was always thought of as a term of endearment. I still think of it that way, as do my Irish friends and relatives.

But, naturally, in this age of political correctness, "Paddy" is officially no longer affectionate. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition, 1993) defines "Paddy" as "Irishman" and adds this: "often taken to be offensive."

The Ninth Edition (1986) doesn't say that. Nor does the unabridged Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), the Oxford English Dictionary (1905), the Dictionary of American English (1936) and the Dictionary of American Slang (1967).

The OED traces "Paddy" back to 1780 and defines it as "Nickname for an Irishman." It says it is an "Irish pet-form of Padraic or Patrick." Some version of that definition and explanation appears in all the dictionaries in the paragraph above and in all other older ones I have checked, with no sense of insult.

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, not only Merriam-Webster's but other dictionaries began to frown on the word. American Heritage's latest edition goes even further than the Webster's Tenth Collegiate. It says, "offensive slang. Used as a disparaging term for an Irishman." Not just "often" but always!

I find that hard to believe, but maybe I'm behind the times. What brought this up was a discussion in a class at Hopkins about offensive words in everyday speech and writing. A student cited some words and phrases she felt were in that category and should not be used in, for instance, The Sun. Among them was "paddy wagon."

That got me to thinking that if in fact the origin of the word was the canard that most criminals transported in these when the phrase was coined were Irishmen, then it was offensive.

But a look into the Dictionary of American Slang confirmed that my earlier assumption was right: "A police wagon used for taking arrested persons to jail. . . . Prob. from the association of there being many Irish policemen."

Another thing that got me thinking about the decline and fall of "Paddy" this St. Patrick's season is William Zorzi's recent lament on the passing away of two slang words rooted in the Irish-American experience: "Muldoon" and "b'hoys." Their meaning, history and present sad state are too complicated to explain here. If you missed the Zorzi article, check it out on Page 1E of last Sunday's Perspective section.

Zorzi is as good an investigator into word origins and meanings as he is a political reporter. However, I doubt that he has a future at Merriam-Webster or American Heritage as a lexicographer. He's not politically correct enough. In a piece of reportage from Annapolis last month he referred to certain legislation as "a red-headed Eskimo bill."

"Eskimo" is banned by the style book of the Los Angeles Times. The proper term is "red-headed Inuit."

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