Mute Point - Frank McNally on an etymological spot of ‘bother’

A mental befuddlement caused by excessive noise

Back when I was a child of 10 or 11, I went through a phase that might now be diagnosed as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder.

It involved intense curiosity about often minor details of my surroundings, including half-heard conversations. More than curiosity, I felt a sense of responsibility – bordering on dread – to record these details mentally. Because if I didn’t, nobody would.

Regular readers may have opinions on whether I ever recovered from this condition. Either way, a symptom of its onset that I was always asking people to repeat things I hadn’t quite heard the first time (probably because they weren’t important enough to be spoken clearly).

And when I did this a few times too often one day, my mother looked at me with concern and said: “Anybody would think you were bothered.”


At the time, I thought “bothered” was a euphemism for “mentally unbalanced”, or something along those lines. This would have been in keeping with the word’s usual modern meaning: “vexed, or troubled”.

So it came as a great revelation, years later, when I first learned that in Hiberno-English, “bothered” could also mean “deaf”.

Which is clearly what my mother meant. And which may also be the meaning that underlies the word as used in modern English. If so, both derive from the Irish “bodhar”, which can imply either actual deafness, or a mental befuddlement caused by excessive noise.

This would therefore also be the etymological origin of such impeccably British phenomena as “Bovver Boys”: a branch of the 1970s hooligan movement, known for skinhead hairstyles and big boots.

It would also account for Catherine Tate’s comic creation, the cockney teenager who repeatedly asks people “Am I bovvered?”, “Do I look bovvered?”, etc, by way of establishing that she is not bothered about anything.

There is an alternative origin theory, in which bother is the surviving form of an archaic English word “pother”, meaning fuss or commotion, or in some cases an atmosphere confused by thick smoke.

That originally rhymed with “other”. But by the 20th century, Fowler’s dictionary declared it extinct outside literary use, while suggesting that bother might be an “Irish corruption” of it.

This last possibility is echoed in Terry Dolan’s more recent Hiberno-English dictionary (which also includes the Irish bodhar theory). But at the end of a page-long entry on “Bother” in his English as We Speak It in Ireland (1910), PW Joyce dismisses Fowler and Dolan in advance: “Those who derive bother from the English pother make a guess, and not a good one.”

As Joyce and others have pointed out, a strong argument for the Irish origins of bother is that the word first appears in print via 18th-century Anglo-Irish writers. It was considered slang then and for long afterwards, and therefore excluded with other such “low words” from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary. But slang or not, Swift, Sheridan, and Sterne all used it.

By PW Joyce’s time, when it was firmly established in dictionaries, the “bothered” spoken in Ireland still often implied some form of hearing loss, if only metaphorical.

He quoted a magazine article in which a deaf character is introduced with the exclamation: “Who should come in but bothered Nancy Fay.” He also listed a popular phrase for wilful deafness: “You turn a ‘bothered ear’ to a person when you do not wish to hear what he says ...”

There is at least one good argument against the Irish bodhar being the root word of bother, however. Ironically in the circumstances, it is that the “dh” of the original is usually silent, whereas the “th” of the English version is not.

Perhaps in softening the consonant, Catherine Tate’s unbovvered teenager is trying to reconcile the latter-day term with its Gaelic roots. Or maybe there is a more scholarly explanation for the apparent contradiction.

I believe an English scholar named Alan J Bliss argued so in a 1978 essay – currently beyond my reach – that favoured the bodhar origin. Despite which, the etymology remains officially in dispute, for now.

In the meantime, speaking of the silent “dh”, PW Joyce’s entry on “bother” also includes an amusing cross-reference to the related “bowraun” (as he spelt it).

We would write that as bodhrán now, when the thing in question is invariably an Irish percussion instrument. But in Joyce’s time, a bowraun was still primarily a “sieve shaped vessel for holding or measuring out corn, with the flat bottom made of dried sheepskin stretched tight”.

Only as a secondary meaning does he mention this was also sometimes used as “a rude tambourine”, which had given the farm implement its name. The etymology may come as no surprise to the instrument’s critics. By Joyce’s logic, the bodhrán’s name implies that its playing causes hearing difficulties, thanks to the instrument’s “bothered or indistinct sound”.