Prefixes and Postscripts – Frank McNally on American superlatives, souperism, and St Patrick’s Week hangovers

History haunts everything in Ireland, or nearly

The mass return of Americans to Dublin this week has reminded me, among other things, of how prevalent the adverb “super” has become over there for describing all things good.

On this side of the Atlantic – at least on social media, as I’ve previously noted – we still prefer “incredibly”. Half the people on Irish Twitter seem to be “incredibly proud” or “incredibly excited” about something.

In the US, by contrast, they’re all “super-exited”, “super-satisfied” or just “super-happy”, on a near-permanent basis.

But the prefix can also now be used for negative emotion too, it seems. Hence an example I heard outside my local Dunne’s foodstore the other night. Having dashed around there just before what I (wrongly) thought was closing time, I arrived just behind a group of young American women, who were equally deceived.


“It doesn’t look super-open,” said one, surveying the entrance with a frown. She was right.

In fact, the shop wasn’t even moderately open. The doors were locked and the staff inside were tidying things away.

We were all super-disappointed.


For any Americans reading this, it may be useful to know that “super” is not to be confused with its soundalike “souper”, a prefix also sometimes still heard in this country, albeit now usually in historical context.

I was reminded of the term by readers of Wednesday’s Diary, which featured the 19th-century “Achill Colony” and its founder Edward Nangle. Hoping to convert locals there to Protestantism, Nangle provided meals to the island’s poor, but insisted that the food came with religious education.

Those who converted were subsequently said to have “taken the soup”. And in time, that phrase was shortened to a derogatory prefix. This was applied usually to the recipients of the food, less frequently to the donors.

Mind you, “souperism” is sometimes used to describe the tactic of using food in this way. So in that sense, I suppose, Nangle could have been described as a souper-intendent.


History haunts everything in Ireland, or nearly. At the counter of a Dublin pub on Wednesday, I heard another US visitor ask for a pint of “half and half”. When the barmaid (Spanish, I think) sought clarification, he added, lowering his voice like a man who’d been given a history lesson on the subject since arriving: “It’s also called a ‘Black and Tan’”. Whereupon the barwoman remembered the formula and went to work.

I had seen the finished version of this atrocity in a bar in New York once, but this was the first time I watched one being poured. The lager half was straightforward. The Guinness half, by contrast, had to be poured slowly onto a spoon – like the cream on an Irish coffee – before percolating over the sides into the glass.

However appalling the idea seems to stout fundamentalists, the result is visually impressive, with the two ends of the pint absolutely refusing to mix.

No doubt there is a St Patrick’s Day version available in places, which must be even more dramatic. I could foresee that being popular among Northern Ireland’s more militant Brexiteers, being a drink with a black north, a green south, and a hard border in between. Maybe partition enthusiasts in the Republic would vote for it too.


In his book On This Day in History, Englishman Dan Snow devotes March 17th to the story of St Patrick but then concludes with this (mostly) heart-warming generalisation:

“Ireland is everybody’s second favourite country and in an impressive example of ‘soft power’ [on Patrick’s Day] Irish bars are packed in cities around the world as people channel their inner ‘Irishness’ for a day of drunken companionship.”

Perhaps his countrymen in Dublin this weekend for the rugby will be less enthusiastic than him about their inner Irishness on Saturday. Or if not then, when they wake up Sunday.

There seems to have been a similar post-Irish hangover in Los Angeles earlier this week. After the extraordinary rush of nominations for The Banshees of Inisherin in January, the Academy ultimately decided against awarding the film any actual Oscars.

This and Martin McDonagh’s plot inspired an excellent joke in the latest Private Eye magazine. Mock-reporting the ceremony, it quoted a “dark, brooding, handsome but slightly simple” nominee from Ireland as wondering why the Academy had suddenly “stopped liking us”.

In the manner of Brendan Gleeson’s character, however, the Academy refused to give reasons. “If you don’t stop asking me, I’m going to start chopping my fingers off and throwing them at you,” a spokesman replied, before concluding sourly: “Just get out of Hollywood and take that fecking donkey with you.”