At the beginning of the My Fair Lady movie, there is a monologue of prof. Higgins like this:

Hear a Yorkshireman, or worse
Hear a Cornishman converse
I'd rather hear a choir singing flat 
Chickens cackling in a barn 
Just like this one 

My question is: what is the meaning of this "Garn"?

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    It's Shaw's attempt to represent a particular pronunciation of the phrase Go on! expressing disbelief and distrust. – John Lawler May 3 '14 at 22:37
  • @JohnLawler: your answer sounds believable, why don't you write it as an Answer instead of just a Comment? – Honza Zidek May 3 '14 at 22:39

Garn is, as Prof. Lawler tells you, Shaw's orthographic approximation to Eliza's pronunciation of the phrase Go on!.

Go on, however, has little to do with the literal meaning of those words: it is a lower-class colloquial expression which dismisses what the previous speaker has just said as false, incredible, or absurd.

There are similar expressions which employ the notion of dismissing a speaker as a metonymy for dismissing the speaker's statement: Go to!, in Early Middle English, Get away! and Go way! in 19th century US speech, Get out and Gedahdahere in 20th-century US slang, Get off it in recent US slang. Other readers can no doubt provide more examples from recent British speech.

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  • Away and shite (less polite version) – Frank May 4 '14 at 3:40

Why not ask Higgins himself?

ELIZA: Garn!

HIGGINS: "Garn"-I ask you, sir: what sort of word is that?

HIGGINS: It's "ow" and "garn" that keep her in her place,
Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.
Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now, should be antique.
If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do,
Why you might be selling flowers too.

Hooker, a Tolkien scholar, argues that "garn" is a "phonetic distortion" that should not make any sense:

It entirely misses the point that Garn! is a phonetic distortion that is marked for the social stratum to which the speaker belongs. In other words, it needs to be mispronounced and 'vulgar.' The context of the dialogue in My Fair Lady at the point that Eliza says Garn! is phonetics. Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are both phoneticians, and they are discussing pronunciation. The ideal translation of Garn!, therefore, should also be a phonetic distortion. In other words, it is the phonetic distortion that is the most important piece of information to convey in the translation of Garn! in this context, not the exact semantic value.

Citing the OED, Hooker notes its origin as a pronunciation of "go on!":

It is not particularly easy to find a translation for garn. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists garn as an interjection, expressing "disbelief or ridicule of a statement." It is marked as colloquial usage, representing the--chiefly Cockney--pronunciation of go on! says the OED. This explanation of its origin, however, belies its stylistic marking. One of the examples in the OED indicates that its use is vulgar, and this is the marking that is given in the usually thorough Wildhagen German translating dictionary.4 The OED quotes the Glasgow Herald from 1925: "He complained that if he used such words as 'garn' or 'struth'5 he was accused of vulgarity ..."

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  • I guess I understand that Higgins emphasized the way of Eliza's pronunciation and not the meaning of this particular word. However I as a non-native English speaker was just interested in what Eliza wanted to say. So I don't think you have answered my question. Hence the John Lawler's comment below my question satisfied me much more :) – Honza Zidek May 3 '14 at 23:01
  • Better after your edit! – Honza Zidek May 3 '14 at 23:04
  • @HonzaZidek I'm sorry I did not satisfy your question. But I think it's interesting to explore Hook's notion that it is not the meaning of garn that matters but its phonetic distortion. – SEL May 3 '14 at 23:11
  • I fully agree and I have read the Hook's article with linguistic pleasure. But the notion about what matters in the Higgins monologue seems trivial to me, I had understood this from the beginning. The problem we non-native English users have when reading a transcribed colloquial pronunciation is to imagine/deduct the original correct word. – Honza Zidek May 3 '14 at 23:20

In Australia it is used in sport: "Garn the Blues", especially when the Blues are winning. If the Blues are loosing, "Carn" (come on) would be more appropriate.

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I just spent some 20 minutes tracking down garn for a blog. While "go on" makes great sense, and it is easy to see garn as a corruption of that, but I found something as interesting, and I believe it may be a from a more direct source. See: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gearn for the etymology." "Old English: Etymology, From Proto-Germanic *garną, whence also Old Saxon garn, Old High German garn, Old Norse garn. Ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰorn-, *ǵʰer- (“tharm, gut, intestine”). A comment above called the word "vulgar," and I think references to the intestine very likely would be considered crude or profane. Also, in the meaning "go on," the term "go on" could just as likely be a corruption of the original Norse or German "garn." The trouble with language is that the sound continues down through time and keeps some aspect of the meaning, but becomes slurred and simplified. When the idea for written language was developed, our ability to compare information and record it down through time multiplied, I'm sure. For a word to be carried through time by the poor and uneducated people, it well may have a very old meaning, thousands of years as in this case. That of course is why the "anglo-saxon four letter word" avoidance rule came into existence. So many slang words go back to words with meanings like copulation or bodily elimination functions. Also, intestines are eaten by the poor in many places, but I have tasted it and I feel sure that nobody really wants to eat it. In the rural southern USA, the words are "chitterlings" and "tripe" for pigs' intestine or cattle stomach. Really poor and isolated people just can't afford to waste the protein. The word "tripe" in modern usage means, also, "worthless." This started as a word study, and ended up as an anthropology lesson. That's why I love language. It contains bits of ancient knowledge and lore, just as folk literature does. It's all wonderful in my opinion.

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  • How does "yarn" make sense in this context? I checked multiple dictionaries beyond your link (DOE, MED, OED) and was unable to find a reference linking "yarn", "gearn", or "garn" to intestine in English. It only refers to spun fiber (and in later use stories and chats). – Laurel Feb 19 '19 at 0:32

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