Go to almost any Irish pub in the United States and you’ll probably see the word “craic” somewhere. It’s an Irish word meaning “news, gossip, or fun”.
Or is it? The word is actually English, and comes from the Middle English word crak, which meant “loud conversation” or “bragging talk”. Over time, the spelling was normalized to match the pronunciation: “crack”. The word was especially popular in Northern England and Scotland, where people would ask their friends “what’s the crack?”, in the sense of “what’s up?” or “what’s going on?” or “how are you?”. And if you’ve ever heard an English person say something was a “cracking good time”, it’s this meaning of fun and revelry they’re talking about.
There are scholarly works that mention crack being used in northern England as early as 1825. Sir Walter Scott also used it in Rob Roy (1817) as “I maun hai a crack wil an auld acquaintance here”. Another Scot author used it in 1813, while other written records confirm the usage of “crack” in this sense from 1865 (Cumberland), 1869 (Lancashire, Edinburgh), 1878 (Yorkshire), 1886 (Cheshire), and 1892 (Northumberland).
Linguists are pretty certain that “crack” entered Ireland via the Ulster Scots. This wasn’t until the mid 20th century, however. The first Irish records of the word are from the 1950s, and they clearly indicate its English origins by way of Ulster, and even spell it the “correct” way: in 1964, a linguist named John Braidwood said that “perhaps one of the most seemingly native Ulster words is crack… In fact the word is of English and Scots origin”. As recently as 1980 the word appeared as “crack” in works by Irish writers.
The Irish language has borrowed a ton of words from English, and crack was no different. The word was “Gaelicized” as craic, and the first written records of this appear in 1968. The word soon became part of not just everyday conversation, but of pub mottos and tourism slogans, too. The Irish, apparently unaware of the word’s English origins, eagerly adopted it in the 1970s and 1980s, such that “the craic” is as Irish today as “baseball and apple pie” is American.
But then a curious thing happened. The word came back to England, where it inexplicably retained the Irish spelling. The Irish craic, not the English crack, is what you’ll find now in most of Great Britain. And, just to show you how confusing language can be, even with all the modern tools at our disposal these days, and how very recently this all was, linguists still aren’t sure whether the “updated” spelling of craic came to Scotland by way of Ireland from the west or England from the south.
Needless to say, there are many English linguists who detest the existence of craic. Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, a retired senior lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin, says that
“The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word crack as craic sets my teeth on edge. It seems, indeed, that many people think that the word is an Irish one; hence we find advertisements proclaiming ‘music, songs, dancing and craic’; the implication is that craic = boozing and high jinks, great fun as it used to be…”
Others agree. While I doubt that most Americans will have such a strong opinion on the matter, we can still smirk at our nation’s Irish pubs, which heavily push craic as some ancient Irish idea of fun… where “ancient” in this case means “1968”.
And it’s really amusing that the term is now totally ingrained into Irish culture, given that it’s basically a tourism slogan. Remember Fahrvergnügen? It was a word Volkswagen made up for a 1990s ad campaign in North America. It was supposed to mean “driving pleasure” (from the German fahren, “to drive,” and Vergnügen, “enjoyment”). But even though the German language never met a compound word it didn’t like, there’s no such word in German. It’s as if if Americans actually started using the word seriously, and the word somehow crept back into usage in Germany. That’s crazy… or whack, like craic.