John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A caution about St. Patrick's Day

Though the Irish in my genome  is probably the deplorable Scotch-Irish Presbyterian form rather than the genuine article,* I do know this: Do not refer casually to St. Patrick’s Day as St. Patty’s Day, or you will betray ignorance.

The diminutive form of Patrick, from the Irish Padraig, is Paddy. If you want to be cute about March 17, call it St. Paddy’s Day.

Paddy is also a slang term for an Irishman, one that can give offense because of condescending, stereotypical associations.

A police van, for example, is sometimes called a paddy wagon. The New Oxford American Dictionary speculates that that came about in the 1930s or so because many police officers in major Eastern cities were of Irish descent. I suspect that the term may be associated with the stereotype of an Irishman as someone who drinks up his weekly wages, becomes violent, and has to be carted away to jail to sleep it off. Your sense of the etymology of paddy wagon will depend on whether you think the term refers to the driver or the cargo. In any case, steer clear of it; you don’t want to get anyone’s Irish up.

*St. Patrick himself was a Brit. So no harm and no foul if you choose to be honorary Irish on the grand day as you lift a pint of Guinness to your lips. Slainte. 


  1. Finally! Someone who get the Padraig connection with both the saint and the nickname. 'Patty' is a girl (as in 'Peppermint Patty'), Paddy is for men. The older generation sometimes used 'Pa' (pronounced paaaaa) while the younger generation goes by Pat (both for Patrick and Padraig (pronounced poor-ick)). There isn't a single Irishman within my family or my acquaintance who uses 'Paddy' as a nickname.
    Thank you, John, for setting this straight.

    Cailin (pronounced Cah-LEEN or Colleen)

  2. Don't give in to the idiots, Mr McIntyre. The Scotch-Irish Presbyterian fellows are genuinely Irish, too (just as the Irish-descended Scots don't stop being Scots). Those of the Northern Irish who choose to remain British don't become less Irish as a result.

  3. Virginia MerchánMarch 6, 2010 at 7:44 PM

    Here, in the center of Buenos Aires, people do celebrate St. Patrick's Day (= "el día de San Patricio"), though most of them have no idea what it means. But everyone gets drunk on beer, first into the bars... then wandering the streets all night.

  4. I'm too young to remember him, but my great grandfather was called "Darby," not because that was his name (it wasn't), but -- according to my grandmother -- because that was the term for pay/cash/money and that's what he'd bring home (when he made it home). She says they'd all just say "Darby's home," and that became what they called him.

    My favorite story about him is the one in which the whole family is in a panic and neighbors are gathering to offer condolences because his car rolled off the Staten Island ferry as it docked, and all assumed he drowned in it, but he had been drunk on the ferry and forgot his car was on it, and walked off it straight to the bar before heading home, and that's where he really was.

  5. I work at a weekly and carefully edited out the "Patty" from a press release I got. But there it was, making us look dumb, in another section of the paper. Arrrgghh.

  6. Apparently "Patty's Day" trended on Twitter last year, so it's evidently a widespread gaffe. Your correction is well judged. Here are a few thoughts I posted to an Irish blog last year, when the subject arose (and aroused as much irate exasperation as tolerant amusement):

    When I hear Patty I think of patties, or Patty and Selma Bouvier.

    American English pronunciation is more staccato than Irish English, which tends towards glissando (sometimes so much it almost slurs). So the -tt- sound in Patty’s Day would have a harder edge than we give it. In Ireland it just sounds and looks a bit wet. Using Patty’s Day might also stem from a perception that Paddy is a pejorative or even RACIST!!1! word.

  7. Here in Dublin people say "Paddy's day". A couple of years ago the staff of RTÉ were reprimanded for using the colloquial form instead of the more official "St Patrick's Day".

  8. St Patrick himself was, specifically, Welsh. And the Welsh Patron Saint is in fact St David! He has his day on the first of March, and we manage not to go around getting crazy drunk. What's with that???