Monthly Archives: March 2013

Spree

According to Cassidy, the term ‘spree’ as in ‘a killing spree’ or ‘a spending spree’ derives from the Irish word spraoi. The word spraoi is certainly common in the Irish language and many Irish speakers believe it is an Irish word. It means ‘play’, as in bhí siad ag déanamh spraoi (they were playing). You can also say chuaigh siad ar an spraoi (they went on a/the spree). So, surely this MUST be the origin of spree, right?

Wrong, actually. There is no evidence for the existence of the word spraoi in Irish before the early twentieth century. Like the word craic (ceol agus craic), it is almost certainly a loan word which has become an intrinsic and important part of the language since it was borrowed little over a century ago.

If we look up the word spraoi or any variant of it in Corpas na Gaeilge (a database of over 7,000,000 words from the 17th to the 19th century), we find nothing. The same with eDIL, another online database. And Dinneen, the lexicographer who composed his dictionary in the early years of the 20th century, did not include the word at all. This is odd, as it must have been in use in the language at that stage. He presumably left it out because he didn’t regard it as an Irish word.

In English, or rather Scots, the word is recorded as far back as 1804 with the meaning of ‘a pleasant outing’. Scholars of language speculate that it may ultimately derive from a Scottish Gaelic word which is a cognate of Irish spré (spréidh in the older spelling), meaning cattle, wealth or dowry, but spré isn’t recorded with the meaning of outing, drunken ramble or playing in Irish.

It is just conceivable – just – that the word is an old word in Irish and by an incredible coincidence was never recorded anywhere before the modern era. It seems much more likely to me that it is an English slang term (perhaps of ultimate Gaelic derivation) which has come into the language and been adopted by Irish speakers as their own.

Chance of Cassidy being correct about this: certainly less than 1%.

Crusher

This has to be one of the silliest suggestions, not only in this incredibly silly book, but in any book, anywhere. According to Cassidy, the term ‘crusher’, a slang term for a policeman, has no connection with the English word ‘crush’. No, to go for such an obvious derivation would be the act of a racist, determined to deprive the Irish of their linguistic patrimony. In fact, says Cassidy, the word ‘crusher’ comes from the Irish phrase cuir siar ar, meaning to enforce.

Now, this phrase certainly exists in dictionaries. Of course it does. Cassidy didn’t speak any Irish so he was completely dependent on dictionaries to find words and phrases which bore some slight resemblance to his target English expressions. But the phrase isn’t a word, and it means to force something on someone. It is used like this:

Bhí sé ag iarraidh a thuairimí a chur siar orm. (He was trying to put his opinions back on me, he was trying to force his opinions on me)

Chuir siad an cógas siar air. (They put the medicine back on him, they forced him to take the medicine)

In other words, it is found in phrases like this. But why would anyone use cuir siar ar as a noun for an enforcer? Even if you don’t speak Irish, you must realise that there is something fishy about this claim. It’s like someone saying that because the phrase ‘give vent to’ exists in English, then it is quite natural to say:

            *He is a give vent to. (He is someone who blows hot and cold)

            *You will have to stop these give vent tos. (You will have to stop these outbursts)

Languages do differ in what they allow a speaker to do but I really don’t think any language on earth would allow you to take a phrasal verb and use it as a noun like this.

And back in the real world, crusher (as in English for person who crushes) is a pretty good description of a group of people whose task was to quell unrest and to beat miscreants off the streets. It’s certainly a better idea than cuir siar ar!

Chance of Cassidy being correct?  Why even bother asking the question? The suggestion is just so utterly, completely stupid, only a total nincompoop like Cassidy could have come up with it.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

This is primarily an account of how one slightly crazy and unscrupulous pseudo-scholar has succeeded in poisoning the well and spreading lies and misinformation about the Irish language throughout the world of cyberspace. However, this is not only about the Irish language and American slang. The same kind of misinformation is being spread continually about a host of subjects. As a matter of urgency, people need to be taught how to think and how to recognise nonsense when they see it.
In other words, learning the techniques that people like Cassidy and his supporters use to further their absurd claims is an important first step in the struggle against this rubbish.
The statistical argument is one of the gambits that comes most readily to these people.

I don’t swallow everything in this book, nor do I find every section of it 100% plausible. Yet there is enough here that I do swallow. If only 50% of it is correct, and I suspect that that is so, it throws all the theories about the lack of Irish influence on the language into a cocked hat.

Even if only 15-20% of Cassidy’s word connections are correct, he still has pointed out a …

Let’s think about this a minute. Try substituting other things for Cassidy’s arguments. What about “If only 5% of bigfoot sightings are real, there is an undiscovered species of primate alive in North America.”
Or “If only 10% of alien abduction stories are true, then we will have to rewrite the science books and accept the existence of alien intelligence.”
But statistics have no place here. Bigfeet and alien abductions probably aren’t true, so it doesn’t matter how many sightings or testimonies there are. They are all likely to be untrue, just as Cassidy’s illiterate ramblings can be shown to be nonsense over and over again, so it is safer to assume that all these claims are rubbish and work on that basis, rather than assuming that some of them have to be right because there are so many of them.
After all, 100% of nothing is the same as 50% of nothing, which is the same as 1% of nothing.
Nothing.

Hoodoo

According to Cassidy, the term ‘hoodoo’ derives from an Irish expression uath dubh, which according to Cassidy means:

 Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing. Uath, n., a form or shape; a spectre or phantom; dread, terror, hate. Old Gaelic name for the hawthorn. Dubh, (pron. doo, duv), adj., dark; black; malevolent, evil; wicked; angry, sinister; gloomy, melancholy; strange, unknown.

 (O’Donaill, 457, 1294; Dineen, 374, 1287; De Bhaldraithe, English-Irish Dictionary, 755; Dwelly, 988)

 Looking at this list of dictionaries, you would think that Cassidy had actually found the phrase uath dubh recorded in one or all of them. In fact, no dictionary records the phrase uath dubh. Uath is in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, where it is described as a literary term meaning fear or horror (for literary, read ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘not in current use.’) It is also given in Dineen, where it is defined as:

            A form or shape, a spectre or phantom; dread, terror; hate.

 It is not found in De Bhaldraithe, which is an English-Irish dictionary and seems to have been thrown in to make the list of references look more impressive. Dwelly is a Scottish Gaelic dictionary and therefore quite irrelevant in this context.

 There is also another old-fashioned term uath, an entirely different word, which means the whitethorn bush.

 So, the situation is this. The first part of Cassidy’s definition above (Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing) was invented by Cassidy. And not only is the supposed Irish source of ‘hoodoo’ not in any dictionary or any other source, Cassidy mixes up two quite separate words and throws in the adjective spiky for good measure because a whitethorn bush is spiky!

 If you are sympathetic to Cassidy, you are probably saying, if uath exists and dubh exists, couldn’t Cassidy be right? Couldn’t the two words have been combined by Irish speakers to mean an evil apparition?

 I don’t think so. Even leaving aside the fact that uath was an old-fashioned word by the 19th century, where is the evidence that the Irish ever believed in a supernatural being called the uath dubh? Why hasn’t this word survived in any books or poems or stories or songs? Why didn’t the collectors of Irish folklore find any trace of it? Why isn’t it as well known as the banshee (bean sí) or the pooka (púca)?

 Suppose someone decided that in English there was a supernatural being called a spritegoblin. Is it enough for them to prove that the words sprite and goblin both exist in English? Wouldn’t you expect them to find specific references to the compound word spritegoblin?

 Unfortunately, Cassidy’s book is haunted by hundreds of spritegoblins, made-up phrases which don’t exist outside of Cassidyworld.  Cassidy, on his own admission, spoke no Irish at all. He claimed that he ‘checked’ his words with a native speaker of Irish. Exactly how he did this is unclear. I have visions of him walking into an Irish bar, asking if anyone was an Irish speaker, showing the putative native speaker his list of words and asking them if they were OK, and then when they nodded sagely and said ‘Oh yes!’ he would buy them a pint as a reward. Maybe this is a bit cynical on my part, but  I can’t imagine that he did the thing that anyone would do if they seriously wanted to prove their case. I’m sure he never gave a list of words and phrases like uath dubh and sách úr to native speakers in a blind test to see whether they really are recognisable as what Cassidy thought they meant. Cassidy obviously preferred to include all kinds of rubbish and not check his facts at all because with even a slight scrutiny of his materials he would have ended up with a pamphlet rather than a book. 

 The origin of hoodoo is a mystery but there is absolutely no evidence linking it to the Irish language or to the island of Ireland. Unless Cassidy’s supporters can find even one reference to the uath dubh somewhere in the vast corpus of Irish literature, we can reasonably assume that it doesn’t exist.

 Chance of Cassidy being correct: I’ll be generous this time – 0.0001%!

Sneeze

Here’s another example of my issues with Cassidy’s theories. According to Cassidy, the English word sneeze derives from Irish.

             Sní as (pron. snee’as, flowing, dripping, leaking, coursing out of) is not to be    sneezed at. It is the Irish origin of the English sneeze.

There are several points to be noted here. First of all, the phrase sní as doesn’t exist in Irish as a way of referring to sneezing. Nor could it exist, as far as I can see. The word sní refers to slow movement of liquids, such as a running, a dripping or a flowing, or to the slow movement of snails or slugs. Here is the entry from Mícheál Ó Siochfhradha’s Irish-English, English-Irish Dictionary published in 1973 by the Talbot Press in Dublin:

            Sní, f. flowing slowly (as water); crawling (as snail)

As sneezing is one of the fastest and most dynamic actions the human body is capable of, it hardly seems likely that sní would be used to describe it! It would be far more likely to be used (if at all) as a way of describing a nose running because of a cold.

Then again, there is an Irish word for sneeze. It’s in all the dictionaries. Sraoth is the word. So if you want to say “I sneezed”, you would say lig me sraoth. If you want to say ‘I was sneezing’, you say bhí mé ag sraothartach (or in my Ulster dialect, bhí mé ag srofartaigh).

And last but by no means least, we have to look at borrowings between languages. Generally speaking, languages borrow words that they don’t have a word for themselves. Thus banshee, or kosher, or imam have been borrowed into English because English doesn’t have words for those concepts. But people have always sneezed, so why wouldn’t English have had a word for sneezing before the Irish gave them an expression?

Of course, the English did have an expression for sneezing. It’s the word sneezing. English is a Germanic language, which is why Irish fear is ‘man’ in English and ‘Mann’ in German, or Irish lámh is ‘hand’ in English and ‘Hand’ in German, because the core vocabulary of the Germanic languages is related. If we look at words for sneeze in the Germanic languages, sneeze is ‘niesen’ (pronounced ‘neezen’) in German and ‘niezen’ (neesa) in Dutch. Apparently all of these words originally had an f in front of them which in English was somehow replaced with an s, probably on the analogy of words like sniff, snort, snivel. As it happens, the version with f- is not found in any Old English text but this doesn’t mean it never existed. The words sneeze, niesen and niezen are obviously the same word (and phonetically far closer than many of Cassidy’s fake associations like block and bealach or sách úr and sucker) and none of them has any direct connection with Irish.

Pussy

According to Cassidy, the term ‘pussy’ (in its slang sense of vagina) derives from the Irish word pus. Cassidy claims that in the plural the word pusa (lips) is used for the vagina. He cites no evidence for this claim. For Cassidy, it was unnecessary to prove that Irish speakers do or even might say something. If it sounded reasonable enough to Cassidy (who spoke no Irish), it was a done deal.  

So, is there any truth to this claim? Well, the word pus does exist in Irish and will be dealt with in depth elsewhere. It is the origin of the American English slang expressions “a smack in the puss” and “a sourpuss”. It is defined by Ó Dónaill as:

            protruding mouth, sulky expression, pout, snout.

 In other words, it is not a usual expression for lip or mouth because it has pejorative overtones. And it is not used in the plural to mean vagina. If it were, this meaning would have been mentioned in the dictionaries and especially in Ó Luineacháin’s excellent Ó Ghlíomáil go Giniúint, a dictionary of sexual terms in Irish. Furthermore, there is a very common word in Irish which does mean vagina, the word pit (pronounced roughly like the word pitch in English). It is this word which is used as the equivalent of the English pussy, not pusa.

As a final nail in the coffin of Cassidy’s theory, the word pussy is already found in Old Saxon as pūse (vulva). In other words, it is an ancient word of Germanic origin which is wholly at home in English, not a loanword from Irish.  

You can find a discussion of the origins of the word on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pussy.

 

 

Chance of Cassidy being correct: Surprise, surprise – 0% again!

Brag

According to Cassidy, the terms ‘brag’ and ‘braggart’ in English derive from the Irish words bréag and bréagóir.

So, is there any truth to this claim? Well, the word bréag does exist in Irish and the word bréagóir is given as a variant (by Dineen) of the more common expression bréagadóir. O Dónaill’s dictionary doesn’t even mention bréagóir as an alternative version. The problem is that while both of these expressions, bréag and bréagadóir/bréagóir, are somewhere in the ballpark, they are out with the hot-dog sellers rather than in the diamond. Bréag means ‘a lie’. It doesn’t mean the same thing as bragging or boasting. There are a number of expressions for bragging: ag déanamh mórtais, ag braigeáil (a loan word from English brag!), maíomh a dhéanamh as rud, ag déanamh a mhór díot féin and half a dozen others.

And, as it happens, brag is well attested in English as far back as the 14th century, which means that it didn’t come from bréag and has nothing to do with Irish slang in America.

And finally, let’s all have a good laugh at Cassidy’s expense. Bréag is pronounced brayg, to rhyme with Haigue or Craig. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of doing the phonetics in books like this. You can either learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and use it as the basis for your description, which looks a bit off-putting to anyone without linguistic training, or you can produce an ad hoc system of your own based on English, as I did with brayg above.

This is the IPA version: bʲɾʲeːɡ. At least, I think this is right. I’m no expert!

Cassidy wrote b’ríǒg as his version of the phonetics of the word bréag. Nobody trying to work out the pronunciation of bréag would have a chance of pronouncing it properly from this. While it looks as technical and scientific as the IPA, it is complete nonsense. Pure codology. God alone knows what Cassidy thought he was doing when he produced this silly little piece of pseudo-phonetics but it just goes to show what a complete charlatan, doofus and moron he was!

These words, of course, are all Irish: síorliodán meaning ‘an eternal rigmarole’, dubhfhios meaning ‘black knowledge’ or figuratively, ignorance, and mór-rón, a big fat stupid seal. Obviously, none of these is really correct but it just shows how easy it is to produce crap like this using Cassidy’s ‘methodology!’

Chance of Cassidy being correct: Surprise, surprise – 0%!

Booze

This is a typically ridiculous Cassidy claim. Booze is a long-established word in English, both as a verb and as a noun. Scholars have quite rightly identified that this word is linked to the Dutch word busen, which meant to drink to excess.

Cassidy disagrees. On the basis of his vast knowledge of the Irish language (!) he believes that this word derives from an Irish word beathuis. Now, you will search in vain for this word in the dictionary. Beathuis is not a real word. Even if it were real, it wouldn’t sound much like booze. It would be pronounced as bahish.

Where did Cassidy get this word? Well, there is a word beathuisce (life-water) in the dictionaries. It is a variant of the vastly more common uisce beatha (water of life) which is the origin of English whisk(e)y. This variant seems to be found mostly in songs and poems and is probably used in these contexts for reasons of metre, because it has 3 syllables rather than 4. It is pronounced bahishka. So what about the inconvenient –ka at the end? After all, nobody talks about boozeka in English! According to Cassidy, beathuisce was shortened to beathuis. He gives no evidence of this or reason for it, and it seems about as likely as someone in English contracting the word water to wart.

So, to recap, there is a perfectly good derivation from Dutch which fits the facts, sounds right and has the right meaning. And there is a completely improbable candidate which doesn’t sound like booze and which was made up by Cassidy by mutilating a rare variant word beathuisce, the ‘word’ beathuis.

Which is correct? I’ll leave you to make up your own mind on that one!

The Great Daniel Cassidy Slang Scam!

I first became aware of Daniel Cassidy’s book a few years ago, when a work colleague told me about the supposed origin of the word sucker, which, according to Cassidy, comes from the Irish sách úr. I was deeply sceptical of this claim, which seemed and still seems very unlikely. Then I came across more and more Cassidy claims on the internet, each one more ridiculous than the last.

They made me angry. I am still angry, at Cassidy himself, at the people who published this nonsense, and at all the people who should have known better than to lend their support to something so obviously worthless. Why did newspapers publish favourable reviews of this book? Why did it win an American Book Award, when anyone with access to Google can disprove half of the claims in the book with ease? Why did academics with solid reputations put those reputations on the line to defend Cassidy? And why has the rest of academia (with a few honourable exceptions) tended to stay silent rather than tackle this nonsense?

When I bought a copy and read the book, I got even angrier. Perhaps even Cassidy’s supporters could smell the bullshit emanating from phrases like liú lúith (Cassidy’s origin for ‘It’s a lulu!’, supposedly meaning ‘an agile shriek’ or some such rubbish), so many of the crazier and more obviously deluded claims were never given on the internet. Because of this, bad as it is, the sample of Cassidy’s work in cyberspace is almost sane and reasonable compared to some of the nonsense in the book.

And as I read more and looked at Cassidy’s contributions to websites, to Wikipedia and to forums, I got even angrier at the constant self-justification and the outright lies. Cassidy had a way of always making himself out to be the victim of irrational conspiracy instead of the perpetrator of fraud and he continually projected his own faults onto those who criticised him. For example, Cassidy claimed that his detractors were always looking for written evidence, while he was concerned with rescuing the traces of the spoken language of the people in American slang which had left no written record. Yet the paradox of this is that Cassidy didn’t speak any Irish and was completely dependent on written sources such as dictionaries and glossaries. He rifled through these looking for phonetic matches for his target sentences and in the process, he demonstrated time and time again that he knew nothing about the grammar of Irish, had only the shakiest grasp of Irish pronunciation and had never made any serious attempt to crack the code of spoken Irish so that he could see how words are really used by Irish speakers in real contexts to describe the world.

Thus we get claims like this. By criticising Cassidy, I am apparently ‘flogging ground sweat’, a slang expression I’ve never heard which Cassidy says means to speak ill of the dead. (Cassidy died shortly after the book was published.) According to Cassidy, this comes from fliuchadh grian suite, wetting a sunny place or figuratively a grave. This is not a real Irish phrase, of course. Its source is Cassidy’s head. The word fliuchadh does mean ‘to wet’, grian means sun, and suite means situated or located (or is the genitive of suí meaning site). But the grammar of the phrase makes no sense. Is grian suite supposed to be a noun meaning a grave? Why isn’t it suí gréine (site of sun) rather than grian suite (sun of site?) Or is it meant to be a compound word, griansuite (sun-situated). And why wouldn’t the Irish speaker use a less ambiguous and strange word like áit (place), making it áit ghréine, áit na gréine, áit ghrianmhar, or even just the word grianán (a sunny place). And anyway, since when does ‘a sunny place’ mean the grave in Irish? Where’s the evidence? Then again, flukhoo gree-an sitcha doesn’t even sound much like ‘flogging ground sweat’. And of course, ground sweat is really a jocular English expression referring to the liquefaction of the body as soon as it’s buried, as in the proverb ‘a ground sweat cures all diseases.’

Cassidy made the assumption that these words could be put together in a particular way to make an Irish phrase, but he did not base this on any knowledge of Irish usage or grammar. His guesswork is rubbish. His scholarship is non-existent. And the whole thing, far from being a tribute to the Irish language or an attempt to elevate the status of Irish culture, is an insulting piece of cultural appropriation. Cassidy was a self-publicist and this book is a massive rip-off, an insult to the Irish people. With this ridiculous book, Cassidy essentially unzipped and pissed on the graves (uaigheanna or tuamaí, not ‘griansuíonna’) of countless generations of Irish speakers.

Which is why I’m quite happy to return the favour.