What Does the Irish Word ‘Craic’ Mean?

It’s pronounced “crack.”
Mighty craic.
Mighty craic. / (Revelers) South_agency/E+/Getty Images; (Speech bubble) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss
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Of all the colorful Irish slang terms, craic is probably the most fun (literally). Here’s what it means, how to use it correctly, and where it came from (which, surprisingly, wasn’t Ireland).

The Meaning of Craic

Craic, pronounced “crack,” is used to describe the fun (or lack of fun) had at any given social gathering—not unlike how American English speakers use the word time (e.g. in good time or bad time). But while craic is often modified by an adjective, it still makes sense without one. Craic or the craic just refers more generally to the kind of fun you’d expect to have in a group setting.

Take, for example, this sentence from a 1992 article in The Star about Irish rock band The Saw Doctors and their time on Clare Island: “The lads first came to this lovely island two years ago when they heard there was a festival here and decided to go for the craic.”

Having the craic basically means “having fun,” as it did in 2018 when Bernard O’Shea, a one-time contestant on Ireland’s Dancing with the Stars, told The Irish Times, “If it was called ‘Having the Craic with the Stars,’ I would have won it.”

Back to adjectives, though. Craic is a spectrum of sorts: Mighty craic is better than good craic, for example, but not as good as deadly craic. It helps to be familiar with all the levels so you can easily situate someone’s statement within the spectrum. Below is a guide based on a rundown from IrishCentral.

Ranking

Term

Definition

6.

Minus craic

A bad time; the vibes were horrible and no fun was had.

5.

Good craic

A fine time that will probably fade from memory fairly quickly.

4.

Mighty craic

A solidly fun time, but nothing too wild.

3.

Savage craic

A memorably great time.

2.

Deadly craic

Approaching the epitome of fun, but just shy of it.

1.

The craic was ninety

The ultimate peak of craic; one of the best and most unforgettable experiences of your life.

What’s the Craic? and Other Common Uses

The word craic isn’t limited to social events. It can basically describe any experience, activity, or even person. It’s a compliment to call someone “good craic” or “great craic”—in other words, they’re fun to be around. If someone’s no fun, on the other hand, you’d call them “no craic” or “no craic at all.”

In November 2023, after footage of musicians playing an impromptu concert during an Aer Lingus flight was posted to social media, commenters had mixed feelings about whether that seemed like great craic or not. As The Irish Times reported, “Some dissenting voices applauded the performers, wished they had been on the flight themselves and chided the naysayers as ‘no craic’ and ‘dry shites.’”

Craic can also mean “news” or “gossip,” as in the phrase Any craic?. This sense has given way to What’s the craic?, a general greeting that’s essentially a synonym for What’s up? or How’s it going?.

The Etymology of Craic

These days, the concept of craic is considered quintessentially Irish—but it didn’t start out that way. In fact, craic is pseudo-Irish, derived from the English word crack, which itself has roots in the Middle English craken and the Old English cracian.

Craken and cracian were both verbs meaning “to make a sharp sound,” but craken could also mean “to talk,” especially loudly and/or boastfully. Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned one of its forms in “The Reeve’s Tale” (from The Canterbury Tales): “He craketh boost, and swoor it was nat so.”

illustration of oswald the reeve on a horse from chaucer's "the reeve's tale"
A late-19th-century illustration of Oswald the reeve from 'The Canterbury Tales.' / whitemay/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

By the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, people in Scotland and Northern England had started using crack to mean “to converse briskly and sociably, chat, talk of the news.” Eventually (circa the 1700s, per the OED), crack became a noun describing that kind of chat.

The term later made the leap to Ulster, Ireland’s northernmost historical province, which today encompasses all of Northern Ireland and three counties in the Republic of Ireland (Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal). There, the word took on its current meaning as “fun.” But that sense didn’t really gain momentum until well into the 20th century—and initially, it was still spelled crack, not craic.

The OED’s earliest written reference to crack in the “fun” sense is from a satirical newspaper column written by Brian O’Nolan (better known as Flann O’Brien) under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen sometime before 1966. “You say you’d like a joke or two for a bit of crack and the finger of scorn is pointed at you,” he wrote in character as “The Plain People of Ireland.” 

How Crack Became Craic

It didn’t take long for Irish speakers to start Gaelicizing crack as craic when they were speaking or writing in Irish. A notable example is found in the catchphrase Beidh ceol, caint agus craic againn (meaning “We will have music, chat, and fun”), which is how Irish broadcaster Seán Bán Breathnach kicked off his chat show SBB ina Shuí in the 1970s and early 1980s.

But craic didn’t stay confined to Irish-language contexts, and by the turn of the century it had begun to supplant crack as the favored spelling in English. While it’s not totally clear why this shift occurred, it could have something to do with Ireland’s increased cultural visibility during that era. Ireland made its World Cup debut in 1990, won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993, and then introduced the world to Riverdance—which quickly became a global phenomenon—while hosting Eurovision the following year.

“To this point, you could scarcely imagine a less trendy entity than the Irish pub. Sticky carpets, curled ham sandwiches, Margo on the jukebox: out-of-town carpet warehouses offered more temptations to the urban hipster,” Irish Times columnist Donald Clarke wrote in 2013. “All of a sudden, people in good shoes were voluntarily entering hostelries bedecked with copper kettles, battered road signs and broken bicycle wheels. It was clear that a murky Rubicon had been crossed when my local pub in Kings Cross, hitherto the Charles I, changed its name to the Craic House.”

In short, Irish culture was suddenly cool, and craic—both the concept and the word itself, with its unmistakably Irish spelling—was part of that wave. In the years since, craic has proven its linguistic staying power, though some detractors have argued that the Irish spelling has given the term a false sense of historical cultural significance—in Clarke’s words, a “bogus Irishness.” But even if craic hasn’t been around for centuries, the communal fun and camaraderie it represents certainly has been: The oldest Irish pub dates back to 900 CE.

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