A Cork Slang Mystery

This is a bit of a departure for Cassidyslangscam. It is not a debunking of a fake etymology or an attack on the usual cronies and dullards who have supported nonsense in preference to facts. And it’s not an attack on the Donald either, because this is not a political blog and I have already made my contempt for Trump and his supporters quite clear elsewhere on this blog.

No, this post is about a Cork slang expression and its origins. In a previous post, I dismissed the supposed Irish origin of the expression ‘to put the kybosh on something.’ However, there is a similar expression, which is found in the area of Ireland’s most beautiful city, Cork – ‘to put the cawheke on something.’ This is a very interesting expression and I think I can shed some light on its origins.

To put the cawheke (or cawhake) on something means to put a jinx on it or to put the kybosh on it. A couple of explanations have been offered for this, neither of them very satisfactory. One is that it derives from Irish caoch meaning blind. The other is that it comes from cá théadh, supposedly meaning ‘where would (something) be going’ but this shows a lack of basic Irish grammar – it would be cá dtéadh, not cá théadh. In any case, this is really quite unlikely.

The real answer, I believe, lies in a kind of slang used by builders and masons in the Cork and Limerick area. This Gaelic-based slang (known as Béarlagair na Saor) is described in depth in the book The Secret Languages of Ireland by R.A.S. Macalister, first published in 1937. This was based on accounts from Limerick, Youghal and Ballyvourney.

Now, among the phrases in the book are two which seem to use versions of this word, both collected by an architect in Youghal called Fitzgerald:

Cawheke a limeen = What o’clock is it?

Caw-heke in rudghe scab-an-thu na therka na liobogue? = What is the thing which is smaller than the eye of a midge?

I won’t go into any detail about these but limín seems to have been a general term for a device, and in this case, a clock. Macalister was not sure about the second element of caw-heke, though the first is obviously cá, meaning what, or how or where, depending on context. To me, it looks like cá híoc, with íoc meaning recompense or payment, though this would be problematic for the second sentence, where the meaning is definitely ‘what’ rather than ‘how much’. (The only instance of the phrase cá híoc I can find is in a religious poem by an Ulster poet in the 17th century – cá híoc budh breath i mbás ríogh = what recompense would be right for the death of a king? Unfortunately, this doesn’t really help much.)

However, whatever caw-heke/cá híoc originally meant, there is no doubt that it was used by builders and masons in Cork in a phrase meaning ‘what’s the time?’ This, I think, is the origin of its use in modern Cork slang. When it was getting close to knocking-off time, the masons would say ‘Cá híoc a limín?’ It’s a short step from that to calling knocking-off time ‘cawheke time’. And by extension, putting the cawheke on something would be stopping it.

Of course, this is just a suggestion. I’ve no proof of it and it may be wrong. If anyone has any comments or suggestions on the origins of ‘cawheke’, you know where to find me.

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