What Is An Irish Goodbye, And Why Is It Irish?

No, the Irish sadly did not invent the practice of leaving a party without saying goodbye to anyone.
August 7, 2019
What Is An Irish Goodbye, And Why Is It Irish?

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to leave a party without saying goodbye. You could be in a hurry, or maybe you’re avoiding a confrontation, or perhaps you don’t feel like going through the ringer of 10 goodbyes in a row. And when you do that, you’ll probably be accused of making an Irish goodbye. Or maybe it’s a French exit? Or maybe … well, there are actually quite a few different options.

What exactly you call this social maneuver depends on where you’re from. Each country seems to have its own version of the Irish goodbye, most citing a different country as the source of this exit strategy. Which country is targeted can be revealing, but what is it revealing exactly?

Variations On The Irish Goodbye

In an interview with Quartz, linguist Anatoly Liberman says that the original version of the Irish goodbye comes from the English, who called it “French leave,” as in “He took French leave.” This phrase can be traced back all the way to the mid-18th century. Other countries took up the phrase as well, with the Italian andarsene alla francese, the Spanish despedirse a la francesca, the Portuguese sair á francesca, the Slovenian oditi po francosko and others. 

The French, taking offense to being associated with this concept, likely fired back shortly after with filer a l’anglaise, or “to leave as the English.” This was picked up by another assortment of countries, including the Hungarian angolosan távozik, the Romanian a o sterge englezeste and the Russian уйти по-английски. This phrase also has a long history, but it should be noted that one of our French experts had not heard of the phrase, and would use partir comme un voleur (“to leave like a thief”) instead.

There are also a few more exceptional variants, one of which is the Irish goodbye itself, which seems to only be used by the English and Americans. Similarly, Germany has the phrase einen Polnischen Abgang machen, which is “to make a Polish exit.” But for the most part, these European phrases fall on the side of either the French or the English.

How And Why Were These Names Created?

The fact there is so much variation in the names is a good hint that it’s not like the French actually invented the French exit, much like they didn’t invent French fries or the French horn. So where do the names come from?

Arguably, an Irish goodbye is moderately socially acceptable, and there are plenty of think pieces about why it’s actually the best way to leave a party. But to understand how the maneuver got its name, you have to know that for most of its history the act has been considered inexcusably rude. Thus, when the English called it “French leave,” they were insulting the French (and inaccurate stereotypes of French rudeness persist to this day).

The use of this term to make fun of a country is also demonstrated in the German alternative, which is the Polish exit. It is perhaps the newest version of the name, and Zeit Magazin says it only came about after the fall of the Berlin Wall when jokes about Polish thievery were commonplace. This also ties into the non-country specific “to leave like a thief.”

There are a few theories about how the Irish goodbye got its name. For a long time, the Irish were subject to harsh British rule, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Irish goodbye got its name as just another way of denigrating the country. It could also be tied to the Irish stereotype of drunkenness, with the idea being that the Irish were too inebriated to say a proper goodbye. Irish Central has a slightly less severe reasoning behind the phrase, citing a rumor about “an enraged woman [who] coined the term after her second Irish boyfriend in a row disappeared without a trace at the end of a date.” (Is the “Irish goodbye” the original ghosting?) Based on the patterns, however, it’s far more likely the phrase originated outside of Ireland.

Today, most people who use the terms are likely not meaning to insult the population of people who are implicated. This is demonstrated by the fact that people who hear something like “Irish goodbye” think it’s something the Irish might have actually invented. It just is another demonstration that whenever you use a phrase that is connected to a certain country or culture, it’s worth questioning its origin.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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