In translating W. H. Hodgson's The Regeneration of Captain Bully Keller, I came across this sentence, which I suppose must be some kind of pun or joke, but I cannot understand at all.

He knew [...] that he had administered a knock-out blow, of a foot-energy (if I may so express it, without appearing Irish) of several hundred pounds.

I'm quite puzzled by this one, and although I suppose the joke will get lost in translation, I'd like to know whether it's my ignorance of physics or my ignorance of jokes on Irishmen to blame.

  • 1
    Perhaps because of using Imperial units (foot-pound) rather than metric (joule). Depending on the timeframe, it may not identify them explicitly as Irish, but as a segment of the British Empire. – Kik Oct 6 '14 at 17:20
  • 1
    @fdreger please undelete your answer, it's not a duplicate of Janus's at all, but it does explain nicely what a foot-energy is – Mari-Lou A Oct 6 '14 at 23:00

This isn’t really a joke as such, but it is a pun, centered around a not-often-seen meaning of the word Irish. The OED article on Irish has this in sense A.5.c (adj.):

colloq. (somewhat offensive). Of a statement or action: paradoxical; illogical or apparently so.

The speaker is presumably talking about boxing and thus a fist blow, but he measures its force in foot-energy. Therefore he adds “if I may say it like that without coming off too illogical, giving foot values to hand blows”.

As Compro01 points out in the comments, the foot-energy reference is most likely to the Imperial unit foot-pound, which measures energy (“the energy transferred on applying a force of one pound-force (lbf) through a displacement of one foot”), corresponding to the metric joule.

This actually makes the pun a double-pun, as it were: the unit of measurement relates to the foot as a unit of length, not the physical body part—but the speaker here puns on the dual meaning of the word foot to create a second pun on hand vs. foot.


There may even be a third layer to this pun, since Irish can also have overtones of quick-temperedness and violence; sense B.5 (n.) in the OED entry reads:

colloq. (orig. U.S.). Fieriness of temper; passion, anger, rage. Chiefly with up, esp. in to get one's Irish up.

Considering that the reference here is to a fist blow compared to feet (and thus implicitly to kicks), it may be that Irish here is intended not only to mean ‘paradoxical, illogical’, but also in a second, deeper layer ‘temperamental, violent’.

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    Quite. Most written instances of sounds a bit Irish are in fact nothing to do with literally sounding like an Irish accent. They're figurative references to concepts that seem to be illogical. – FumbleFingers Oct 6 '14 at 17:29
  • 1
    It probably has to do with imperial units of measure. The unit of energy is the foot-pound, and a punch from a high level boxer would probably pack several hundred foot-pounds of energy. Coincidentally, the unit is about the same size as a Joule. – Compro01 Oct 7 '14 at 10:08
  • @Compro01 Thank you! I will add that to my answer later when I have the time. I did not know of this unit at all. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 7 '14 at 10:10
  • Thank you for going so deep in layering the meanings, I managed to save the pun using the first one, but the last one I fear is not possible to convey in just one italian word and more words would diminish the effect. – Elena Oct 8 '14 at 12:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.