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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.


  1. Jim O'Brien says:

    You’ll find lots of links if you use the Irish spelling “oinseach” (pronounced roughly “own shock”. It’s like amadan, although in my experience applied more often to a woman, and usually insinuating a sort of pathetic foolishness or stupidity.

    I hadn’t heard “gomog” before, but if you look up “gom” you’ll get some useful links. Even in Irish slang (spoken in English) that word is in common usage – meaning an idiot or “eejit” (a mildly rude version – “Stop acting the gom, would you? You’re a right feckin’ eejit!”) I found one reference to “gamallog” (that “o” at the end would be long, as in “owe”) as a possible root.

    Feel free to follow up by e-mail.

    1. Ha! I knew this would work! Many thanks for taking the time to spell it out for me. (Literally–which has always been much of the problem.) I never would have guessed “oinseach” in 2E256 years.

      In thinking back, I recall my grandmother saying, “You gom!” to my father when he was teasing her about something. I always assumed it was an abbreviation of “gomog” but maybe “gomog” was just an original elaboration on “gom”.

      Thanks again. Learning new words is one of my guilty pleasures, and the odder the better.

  2. Jim O'Brien says:

    Ta failte romhat. (You’re welcome). By the way, “og” means “young” and it’s occasionally added as a suffix, giving an emphasis not unlike “why, you little…”

    By the way, we corresponded years ago on Delphi when you were running Visual Developer. I’m the author of the VCL product that’s sold these days as Raize DropMaster.

    1. Well, then, that nails it: I was the gomog in question. (My father was generally the gom.)

      This is amazing. And I recall DropMaster clearly. I used it to build my bookmark manager Aardmarks back in 1999 or so. I never turned it loose, but I used it for years afterward, and it served me well. I actually abandoned it after one of the other VCL packages I used ceased being supported.

  3. Rich, N8UX says:

    “To Gom something up” is a term I’ve heard used quite frequently in the hills of Southern and Eastern Kentucky.
    It is when something is messed up, or beyond repair. Perhaps it’s a morphed application of what you’re describing.


  4. Rich, N8UX says:

    I have my grandfather’s Underwood #2 that he used as a police chief to type reports. Like an old Teletype 19, weighs a ton, and typing on it is like punching your fingers 2 inches into cookie dough.

  5. […] who don’t read Contra comments on my WordPress main site may have missed Jim O’Brien’s insights on “oonchick,” which in Irish is spelled “oinse… and denotes a person of pathetic foolishness or stupidity. He also suggests that since in Irish the […]

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