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Make a hames of something

Q From Paul Blake, UK: In Ireland the expression to make a hames of something (as in ‘Sure, your one made an awful hames of it’) is used where standard UK English would say ‘to make a mess of’. I’ve often wondered what the etymology of hames was.

A The expression is indeed restricted to Ireland and doesn’t now seem to be so very common even there, at least to judge from the small number of examples I’ve been able to turn up. Here’s one from the Irish Examiner in August 2004, describing a local politician’s chances in a reshuffle: “You know he’d be thrilled with Finance, and it wouldn’t do you any harm to watch him make a hames of it. He could even be the scapegoat for the next election.”

Though the expression isn’t known elsewhere, anyone who has much to do with working horses will know the term, because the hames are the two curved supports attached to the collar of a draft horse to which the traces are fastened. I’m no horseman — I know which end bites and that’s about it — but my carriage-driving consultant tells me it’s all too easy to put the hames on a horse the wrong way up, thus making a complete mess of things and risking adverse comments from bystanders.

Here’s a literary example, from Hugh Leonard’s Out After Dark of 1989: “Instead I made a hames of it, mislaying a verb, marooning a noun on a foreign shore, starting a jerry-built sentence that caved in halfway through”.

Hame, in lots of different spellings, was once common in dialects throughout Britain and Ireland and there are terms in Old Dutch and German that are similar. The best we can say about its origins is that it’s a Germanic word, perhaps imported from Dutch around 1300.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Oct. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 October 2004.