Not a day passes, probably, on which I don’t use the word “nyuck” at least once. I find it indispensable, especially since becoming a reluctant cat owner in recent years. But having learned it as a child, I must have used the word on and off all my life.
So it was disconcerting to realise the other day that I don’t know exactly what it means.
I know what I mean by it, at least. It’s a term of mild, sometimes friendly, disparagement of a person or animal. Often, it implies dishonesty. Other times, it just describes somebody who is unreasonably hard to deal with, or to please. This tends to be the context with the cats.
On the many occasions when I find that the latest pet food I’ve bought either of them is not to his liking, and he’s staring at me, or at the open fridge, in desperate hope of something better, I direct him to the bowl and say, for example, “You can eat that or starve, you little nyuck!”
The problem is, I can’t find the word in any dictionary – English, Irish or hybrid. So even its spelling is uncertain. I only know that it’s pronounced with one syllable, as in “yuck” but with a nasal “n” in front (which may be why I associate it with the cats, who seem to turn their noses up a lot). If it were Irish, presumably, it would be spelt “niuc”.
This brings me to the only documented sources I can find for the word, which mostly relate to the town of Newry. The phrase “Newry Nyuck” is well known there, referring in part to the local accent but mainly serving as a simple badge of identity. Thus a “Newry Nyuck” is like a “Real Dub” – someone whose local ancestry goes back a few generations.
But as such, it has no negative connotations, or at least intended ones (although as my friend and scholar Art Agnew points out wisely, a term that might be a badge of honour in a town could start acquiring negative connotations a mile out the road.)
Meanwhile, a website devoted to the Newry Nyuck dialect, admitting mystification about the term’s origins, quotes an unnamed “Anglo-Irish Dictionary” as suggesting it comes from Irish, and from Monaghan Irish specifically, as “niuc”, meaning “rogue”. Which would fit at least some of my understanding of it and also explain where I picked it up.
Unfortunately, I can’t find “niuc” in dictionaries either. As for Googling it, that option is complicated by the fact than NIUC is a common acronym, standing for (among other things) the Nigerian Internet Users Coalition.
It did, however, throw up “the Niuc” as the name of a hole on a golf course in Ballymena. And that sounded promising.
So I rang the club, Galgorm, to inquire. But it turned out that they pronounce it “nuke”, and the man who answered couldn’t enlighten me about what it meant. As for the hole, according to the course map, it’s a straightforward par four, with the tee shot over a lake and a river up the left, but nothing to merit it being called a nyuck in the sense I understand.
Funnily enough, while making inquiries among fellow Monaghan speakers, I heard of the term being used in a golfing sense – controversially – to describe people who try to scam the handicappers. As such, it did indeed imply roguery, but of a rather obvious kind, easily seen through.
And maybe that fits with my usage vis-a-vis the cats, who stare at me as if I haven’t fed them for days, while pretending that the nearby bowl of finest Pedigree Chump – or whatever I’m trying this week – doesn’t exist. But that’s a bit of a stretch.
Naturally I have scoured the books of Diarmaid Ó Muirithe – formerly of this parish – including Words We Don’t Use (Much) Anymore and his latest opus, The Last Word . No nyucks to be found there. Nor does the man himself recall meeting the expression in all his etymological travels.
Other lines of inquiry included the scripts of the old American comedy act, the Three Stooges, one of whom – Curly – used to say “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck” a lot, but with no apparent meaning.
I suppose that if a dictionary doesn’t say otherwise, one is free, like Humpty Dumpty, to ascribe whatever meaning one chooses to a word.
Clearly, I have a vocabularistic vacancy for a term to describe annoyingly fussy cats, and this one seems to fit. Still, old words are like family heirlooms: you feel a responsibility to frame them properly. So if any readers can shed light of the true meaning of the non-Newry Nyuck, I’d be grateful.