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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.

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    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
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    @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
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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’.

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    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
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    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

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