"Luck of the Irish" Is an Old Mining Expression
by Angela Tung, Wordnik*
Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, which has gotten everyone at Wordnik thinking about luck and luck words.
1. Luck of the Irish
The phrase luck of the Irish is commonly thought to mean “extreme good fortune.” However, according to Edward T. O’Donnell, an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College and author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, the term has not an Irish origin but “a happier, if not altogether positive,” American one.
"During the gold and silver rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish American birth. . . .Over time this association of the Irish with mining fortunes led to the expression 'luck of the Irish.' Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed."
The word luck is Middle Dutch in origin, coming from luc, a shortening of gheluc, “happiness, good fortune.”
Luck may have been borrowed into English in the 15th century as a gambling term. (Draw an ambsace, or double aces? Then you’re S.O.L.—a phrase which originated as World War I military slang.)
Potluck, now mostly associated with “a meal consisting of whatever guests have brought,” originally meant “what may chance to be in the pot, in provision for a meal; hence, a meal at which no special preparation has been made for guests.” And while potluck bears a striking resemblance to potlatch, a Native American “feast, often lasting several days,” according to the Word Detective, “there is no actual connection between the words.”
Hap is older than luck. Originating in the 12th century, the word comes from the Old Norse happ, meaning “chance, good luck.” Hap gives us happy, as well as haphazard, “chance; accidental; random”; hapless, “luckless, unfortunate”; and mishap, “misfortune.”
Auspicious, “of good omen; betokening success,” comes from the Latin auspicium, “divination by observing the flight of birds.” In ancient Rome, an augur was “a functionary whose duty it was to observe and to interpret, according to traditional rules, the auspices, or reputed natural signs concerning future events.” An auspex was an augur “who interpreted omens derived from the observation of birds.” To auspicate means “to initiate or inaugurate with ceremonies calculated to insure good luck.”
A luckdragon, “a fictitious flying dragon with a wingless elongated body, possessing neither magical talent nor immense physical strength, but distinctive in its unfailing serendipity,” is a meme based on the character from the film, The Neverending Story.
A lucky-penny is “a small sum given back ‘for luck’ to the purchaser or payer by the person who receives money in a bargain or other transaction,” as well as “a copper tossed overboard ‘for luck.’”
A lucky-bag is “a receptacle on a man-of-war for all clothes and other articles of private property carelessly left by their owners,” so-called because these articles “were later auctioned off,” says A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy, “thereby making those Sailors fortunate enough to obtain new items for relatively little money ‘lucky.’” Another definition of lucky-bag is similar to that of grab bag or goody bag.
Want to wish someone good luck? Prosit! you might say over drinks. Prosit means “good luck to you,” and comes from the Latin, by way of German, pr?sit, “may it benefit.”
Or — and this seems particularly appropriate during the NCAA Tournament — you could get your own mascot, “a thing supposed to bring good luck to its possessor; a person whose presence is supposed to be a cause of good fortune.” The word mascot comes from the French mascotte, “sorcerer’s charm,” which ultimately comes from the Medieval Latin masca, “mask, specter, witch.”
*NOTE: This post originally appeared under Wordnik founder Erin McKean's byline. It was actually her co-worker Angela Tung who did most of the work here. We hope to get both of them a lot more involved in the mental_floss universe! Dyed river image via Shutterstock