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May 4th, 2009:

Redshanks and Omathauns and Gomogs, Oh My!

I had an Irish grandmother. Her Irishness was off the scale, pinning the needle and wrapping it around the (green) post three times, one for each Person of the Trinity. She was wry and cranky and as a younger woman had an operatic voice, which she used mostly to ridicule the whole idea of opera. (If I had inherited her voice, by God, I’d use it for the same thing.) Sade Genevieve Prendergast Duntemann (1892-1965) was quite the character. Back in 2005, I published the marvelous letter she was writing to my father when WWII ended. She gave me her Underwood typewriter–the same one from which that letter emerged–when I was only ten years old, and in doing so changed me forever. Words, both spoken and hammered in uneven type on a smeary two-color cloth ribbon, were the bond we had together.

And some of those words were…odd. Four in particular come to mind, though she died 44 years ago and I may have forgotten a few. I always assumed she had made them all up, as making things up was one of her gifts. (I believe that my knack for storytelling came down from her through my father.) Then, as the years rolled on, I started encountering them in real life:

  • Redshanks, in her parlance, were small imaginary animals that burrowed in her garden, making a mess. As a preschooler I imagined them as bright red mice with little horns. I would build redshank castles with my blocks, and my father and I once made redshank houses with strips of papier mache laid over half-flattened beer cans. I later found out that redshanks were also Scottish mercenaries serving in the Irish army circa 1600. There may have been an ancient family tradition coming to the surface here; had the Irish Army ever marched through County Mayo and trampled the Prendergast tomato patch?
  • An omathaun was a silly, clumsy goof–a word she applied to me often, and my father perhaps more than that. Again, I thought it was a pure Sade invention, until we saw the scraggly Irish cartoon fox in Mary Poppins yell “You heathen omathauns!” at the pursuing fox hounds. As with a lot of things, it was hard to research because I didn’t know how it was spelled. I suspect that in the original Gaelic the “th” was the single letter thorn (which looks like a crooked “d”) and today it’s generally spelled omadhaun. Sade had this one precisely right.

So. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. The two other words I will give you phonetically. My favorite is gomog, which in use was a somewhat stronger version of omathaun, particularly when there was a lot of frantic motion involved. “Running around like gomogs” is an expression Carol and I still use to describe QBit and Aero tearing through the house at flank speed, yapping like hyenas. I’ve already used the term “gomog” as a sort of immaterial AI PDA in my magic-as-software fantasy novel, Ten Gentle Opportunities, which I may finish someday with some borrowed Irish luck. (Quick, where’s my shamrock?)

And finally, oonchick. (Again, the spelling is phonetic.) An oonchick, if I recall the nuance correctly, was a dullard, albeit one deserving of some respect. I suspect it was Sade’s opinion of President Eisenhower, though we never talked politics. Mostly it was spoken in conversation I overheard, about adults I did not know. Sade was never short of opinions, just as she was never short of words.

I miss her, as I miss all those who were ever kind to me; and I miss her more than many, because of the peculiar power that her kindness imparted. I’m sure, as my mother lugged the heavy cast-iron contraption with “Underwood” painted on the front out of the car and up to my room, she was wondering, “Now what in heaven’s name is he going to do with that?” Sade had a hunch, and she was right. Wherever she is, I hope she got the word.