More On Slum and Scam

In his ludicrous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy claimed that the English words slum and scam come from the ‘Irish phrases’ ‘s lom (é) and ‘s cam (é) where the ‘s is short for the copula is. I have taken issue with these claims before but I have never gone through the evidence against these claims fully, so that is what I intend to do in this post.

Firstly, the phrases is cam (é) and is lom (é) are strange, to say the least. I’m not saying you would never find them in an Irish conversation, but there is something oddly truncated about them. I’ll try to explain what I mean. Suppose you have signed up for some show on Irish-language television (TG4) where would-be designers do up a room in your house. Someone paints your living room in forty shades of green. There you are, looking at your green room. Do you say, Is glas é or Is glas? Absolutely not. You might say Tá sé iontach glas, nach bhfuil? (It’s very green, isn’t it?) But you are not likely to say Is glas é. Short phrases with the copula like this are only likely to be used to echo another, more informative comment, like the English It sure is or So they say. They are phrases that belong in a particular context and don’t have much meaning outside of that context.

The same applies to is cam é and is lom é. They are odd and really don’t mean a lot. Furthermore, even if these phrases meant anything, why would they be used as nouns? Could you really see someone in English saying He pulled an it is crooked on me? Because I can’t.

In the case of slum, there is another major reason for doubting Cassidy’s claim. The word lom does mean bleak, but its basic meaning is bare or empty. Think of the favelas of Brazil, the slums of Mumbai, the East End in the days of Jack the Ripper. Do they really make you think of emptiness and bareness? To me, slums are teeming, heaving, full of activity, people, animals. A desert is lom. A slum is anything but lom.

Then again, Cassidy talked about “cutting through two hundred years of academic baloney” in this book. In fact, what Cassidy did was cut out and discard anything at all which didn’t fit in with the particular idiotic claim he was making at the time. Because of this, he simply says that scam and slum are claimed to be origin unknown. In fact, while there is no certainty about their origins, there is no shortage of contenders.

In the case of slum, the word first makes its appearance in English in England in the early years of the nineteenth century. At that time, it meant a cheap lodging, so it is probably a shortened form of slumber. In modern Irish, the two words for slum are plódcheantar (a throng-area) or sluma, a borrowing from English. What would an Irish speaker in the 19th century have called a slum? It’s hard to say, but they might have called it ceantar bocht (a poor area), coinicéar (a rabbit warren), na brocaisí (the hovels, the smelly places), or cathair ghríobháin (a griffin-city, a labyrinth). Not is lom é!

As for scam, this word first occurs in America in the 1960s. There are many possible explanations. It could be from scamp, meaning a swindler. Or from scheme. Or from a group of related words in French, Spanish and Portuguese meaning to disappear or to swindle. The most likely of these is escamotear in Spanish. Me han escamoteado mil dolares means “they stole a thousand dollars from me. “ Cassidy’s suggestion is so unlikely that it really isn’t worth bothering with, just like the rest of the insulting nonsense in this book.

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How Not To Think Like An Idiot

Thinking rationally is important. It is also something which can be taught. While some people are more logical and rational than others by nature, just as some people have a better ear for music or are more athletic than others, this doesn’t mean that people can’t learn to recognise duff arguments and illogical thinking. Over the centuries, philosophers have developed a host of terms for foolish and unreasonable arguments. It is interesting to look back over the arguments used by the supporters of the late Daniel Cassidy and identify some of the logical fallacies and crap thinking which motivate them.

Straw man arguments. Essentially, a straw man argument is an argument which purports to challenge the arguments of the other side but really misrepresents their position, giving a version which is much easier to knock down. For example, Cassidy’s sheeple tend to argue that the Irish speakers who challenge Cassidy are doing so because we don’t believe the Irish language would have been rich enough to give expressions to English. (This is also an example of another fallacy, the false dichotomy. Cassidy’s supporters pretend there are two choices: a) Irish was rich and expressive and gave many words to English, and b) Irish was a worthless language which English ignored because there was nothing worth having in it. In reality, of course, there are other choices, such as my position, that Irish is and was a beautiful and expressive language, but because of circumstances which have nothing to do with its intrinsic merit, it had little or no influence on English.) Another straw man argument, used by certain silly and ignorant people who support Cassidy, is that people like me don’t accept the Irish influence on English because we don’t believe there were Irish speakers in America. In reality, we know that generations of people have left Gaeltacht areas in the west of Ireland and settled in the States but this fact has nothing at all to do with the ridiculous phoney Irish given in Cassidy’s book.

The genetic fallacy. This is where you argue not on the basis of the merits of the case presented, but on the basis that people like that can’t be right. In other words, if the people at the Oxford English Dictionary make a claim about a word, that claim is intrinsically untrustworthy because Oxford is a bastion of Anglophile privilege. This is a version of the ad hominem fallacy, where the opinion that Mr X is a dick is used to argue that Mr X’s opinions must also be stupid. Incidentally, many of Cassidy’s supporters have misused the ad hominem label in criticising myself and other opponents of Cassidy. An ad hominem argument is one which uses criticism of the person instead of an argument. Saying that Cassidy was a liar because all his ‘research’ was made up and he didn’t speak any Irish is not an ad hominem argument.

Appeal to (Inappropriate) Authority. Cassidy loved nothing better than to reel off a list of American and Irish professors and writers who had endorsed his work. In most cases these people were not language specialists and knew as little as he did about slang and Irish. In most cases, they were also close personal friends of his, which means that their support is worth precisely nothing.

Subjectivism (Also known as the Fallacy of the Irrefutable Hypothesis.) Really stupid people rarely get much further than these kind of arguments. I want there to be lots of words of Irish origin in English, therefore there must be lots of words of Irish origin in English. Or I thought Daniel Cassidy was a genius, therefore Daniel Cassidy must have been a genius. Yeah right … And Donald Trump is going to solve all your problems too …

The non sequitur. This literally means “it does not follow” in Latin. Apparently, some of Cassidy’s followers believe that English must be full of Irish loan words because Irish people talk a lot. I don’t know whether this is really true or not. I’ve never seen any research into it. I can tell you for nothing that the Irish don’t respect people who blether a lot. Irish people respect those who can talk well, who are witty, who know what they are talking about. Bullshitters and loudmouths like Cassidy are no more respected in Irish culture than in any other. And even if it were true that the Irish are incredibly loquacious, it would not automatically mean that English must contain lots of borrowings from Irish. You can say it as often as you like, but it won’t make it any truer. (That’s another fallacy, argument from repetition.)

The Anecdotal Fallacy. This seems to be what is going on here, where Sean Sweeney (God love his wit, what a clown!) mentions the fact that his Irish-speaking father used some of the “unknown” words given by Cassidy.

Perhaps Cassidy overreached on some, but the fact remains most of the Anglophilic dictionaries list the etymology of words he addresses as “unknown”, an amazing deficit, despite their slew of researchers and experts to trace the origins. Talking about “shit”. I’ve seen these same dictionaries deem as “unknown” words that I heard my Irish-speaking father use when I was a child. Not saying it applies to you, but “No Irish Need Apply” is still alive and well in some modern linguistic circles.

Anyone with any capacity for rational thought would immediately realise that this is completely irrelevant. These words were presumably spoken by his father in English and I see no evidence that Sweeney ever learned Irish. So were all the words used by his father in English derived from Irish? Did he ever say words like pizza, toreador, blitzkrieg, karate, kummerbund, bagel? Are these all from Irish too? Or did he give some special sign to show that the word in question came from Irish? Perhaps he went all dreamy and gazed off into the middle distance. Ah, lollygag, Seany boy. Dat’s one from da ouuuuuuld language … Yeah, right! What a clown!

The ‘real criminals’ fallacy. I can’t find an established name for this so I’ve made one up. Picture the scene: it’s a couple of days before Christmas and a drunken businessman is standing beside his BMW being breathalysed by a policeman. “Why don’t choo go and cash shome real criminalsh?” says the drunk driver. In other words, according to these people, there is a hierarchy of things to be done in the world, but protecting the Irish language from a creep like Cassidy should be way down the list. “Yes, maybe our friend Danny was a liar and a cheat. But is this really so important? What about world poverty, radicalisation, global warming, the refugee crisis? Why don’t you blog about them?” The answer is, of course, that the Irish language matters to me. And as for the other subjects, I don’t know much about solving world poverty or the war in Syria. So, I choose to blog about a subject where I have a specialist knowledge. Cassidy may not have been the worst criminal in history but he was definitely a criminal and he and his scummy followers deserve to be challenged and shamed.

 

 

Cassidy and Sexual Harassment

I haven ‘t been posting much recently but I decided that it was high time I gave a brief update.

In spite of what Cassidy’s friends and supporters say, there has never been any doubt about the worthlessness of Cassidy’s research. Anyone can log on and examine an online Irish dictionary to discover that almost all of Cassidy’s claims about the Irish language are untrue. And if that isn’t enough to convince them, they can look up etymological dictionaries of English to see how Cassidy lied and distorted the truth about the known origin of the words in Cassidy’s book.

In addition to that, it has often been claimed that Cassidy had degrees from Cornell and Colombia Universities. In fact, Cassidy attended Cornell but never received a degree, and he certainly never received any qualifications from Colombia. Not only was his ‘research’ a fraud, but Cassidy himself was a fraudster and a criminal.

Then a couple of weeks ago, we received a message from Colleen Whalen, who studied at New College of California for a semester and was unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of Cassidy’s bullying and arrogance. She also informed us (and this is an allegation I find entirely convincing) that Cassidy often sexually harassed female students at New College.

So, Daniel Cassidy was incompetent, arrogant, a fraud, a criminal, and worse still, a letch. A worthless piece of shit. Yet for some reason, many people still choose to defend this creep. None of Cassidy’s Cronies has repudiated him or accepted the truth about this lying sleazebag. They are probably comfortable enough with maintaining their silence. After all, this blog has only had about 23,000 hits in its history. Apparently, it doesn’t bother the Cronies, people like Peter Quinn and Michael Patrick MacDonald, that the few thousand people who find their way to this site know that their friend was a criminal fraud and that they don’t care enough about the truth to put things right. However, the fact is, the readers of this blog and the many people who have stopped by to lend their support and provide information know exactly what kind of person Cassidy was and what kind of people his supporters are. And the people who support him know what they are, even if some them aren’t prepared to admit that, even to themselves.

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Niall O’Dowd Has Sold Out!

On this blog, I have frequently criticised an awful tabloid website called IrishCentral. This website has repeatedly republished a lying and badly-written article by Brendan Patrick Keane, purporting to be an opinion piece. In reality, all it does is regurgitate a number of Daniel Cassidy’s insane theories about the Irish origins of slang. As has often been said, people are entitled to their own opinions, not to their own facts. Almost nothing in this article is factually correct. I have also criticised IrishCentral’s founder, Niall O’Dowd, who is closely associated with many of Cassidy’s cronies.

However, over the last couple of days, I have discovered that Niall O’Dowd has sold IrishCentral for €2.7 million to a consortium of Irish media investors. Surprise, surprise, one of this consortium is a figure I have also mentioned on this blog – Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, Sinn Féin minister for finance in Stormont.

This is a perfect opportunity for Ó Muilleoir to act according to his principles. He can put a word in with the editors of IrishCentral and tell them to stop republishing these lies about the Irish language. Even better, perhaps he could ask them to write an article which actually tells the truth about Daniel Cassidy and his dishonesty and fraud. Surely IrishCentral and Ó Muilleoir and the other Cassidy Cronies have done enough damage to our language and culture. It’s time to set the record straight and tell it like it is. It’s time for Ó Muilleoir to stop supporting these scumbags and start defending the Irish language from this nonsense.

It’s a simple choice. I know he’s a busy man, but If he has the time to tweet pictures of cows on the Lagan towpath and follow the activities of other Cassidy Cronies like Michael Patrick MacDonald, he has time to do this.

Racism

Was Daniel Cassidy A Racist?

Was Cassidy a racist? In a sense, the answer to this is no. He wasn’t a Klansman or a white supremacist. He would not have identified himself as a racist. Yet the behaviour of people like Cassidy (i.e. crazy people) is often problematic. They frequently act in ways that conflict with the principles they pretend to live by. For example, Cassidy claimed to be a socialist and a trade unionist, yet he took a job as an academic without having a degree. Nobody who believed in the principles of socialism, trade unionism or ordinary, basic fairness would do that. In a sense, he was also a racist, because he treated the Irish language and Irish culture not as a reality existing in its own right, but as a worthless dead language which he had a right to use as a plaything.

I recently mentioned Cassidy’s family tree. His brother has put a fairly comprehensive pedigree on Ancestry.com, which shows that there was a family tradition that the Cassidys had Cherokee blood. Cassidy’s grandmother Frances Stokes was the daughter of Frances Garrity, whose mother was Matilda May Byrnes, whose mother was Emma Pattison, whose mother was Margaret Abbott, who was rumoured to be part Cherokee, and her surname, Abbott, is found in records of the Cherokee at the time. In other words, Cassidy’s great-great-great-great-grandmother might have been partly of Cherokee descent.

Let’s just suppose that Cassidy, instead of getting a bee in his bonnet about Irish, decided to look at his Cherokee ancestry. Suppose he came up with a theory that millions of America’s urban poor had Cherokee descent and that they had remembered the Cherokee language without knowing it. And suppose that, instead of going off to the Cherokee nation and learning some of the language, he hit the dictionaries running and came up with ‘Cherokee’ phrases like guladale, the ‘obvious’ origin of English galoot. (Derived from gu-la = idiot + da-le = foolish! These are genuine Cherokee dictionary entries, but I have no idea whether adjectives come before nouns or after them in Cherokee or whether anyone would actually say ‘foolish idiot’ in that language – I mean, what other kind of idiot is there? And of course, this is exactly the kind of inept guesswork that Cassidy applied to the Irish language.)

And suppose that some Cherokee people thought that this theory would help to bring them support and money and give them kudos, so they backed him, in spite of the fact that they knew this was all rubbish, and allowed this pretentious, badly-educated white fool to stand on a platform with a highly inappropriate feathered head-dress and beaded vest sounding forth about the Cherokee roots of American popular culture. And meanwhile, imagine that other people who had a good knowledge of linguistics and Cherokee language were crying foul and pointing out that all of his claims were nonsense, and they were being accused of being time-servers and narrow-minded fools refusing to think out of the box by people who had never heard a word of Cherokee in their lives. Wouldn’t that be racism? Wouldn’t that be cultural appropriation? Wouldn’t that be treating a minority language as something with no value except as a source of unearned income for a liar and fantasist who was completely ignorant of that language?

Yes, it was all of those things. Because, although the Cherokee scenario never happened, this is exactly what happened in the case of Cassidy’s claims about Irish. People who know nothing at all about Irish are arguing with people who use the language every day of their lives, as if they have an equal right to decide what sounds like good Irish and what doesn’t. People who do that might think they are socialists, or radicals, or left-wing, or even Irish Republicans. But in the real world, Cassidy and his minions are simply ignorant bigots who refuse to accept the facts. They are as much a product of colonialism as men in bowler hats trying to force unwelcome marches through Catholic areas in Belfast.

The top ten Cassidy lies

There are still many people out there who are determined to carry on spreading the same old lies about Daniel Cassidy. Why do they do it? Some of them are obviously friends of Cassidy’s who want to continue believing in the myth rather than looking the facts squarely in the face. Others are just trolls, fantasists and compulsive liars, just like their hero Cassidy. Still others are stupid and naive people who have been conned into thinking that support for Cassidy is support for Irish Republicanism or socialism, while criticism of Cassidy is criticism of those causes. Anyway, to help balanced and rational people who find their way to this site to understand what a liar Cassidy was, here is a list of the top ten lies from and about Daniel Cassidy. Enjoy!

 

Cassidy was qualified

Cassidy went to Cornell but flunked out in 1965. While there is no direct evidence of Cassidy claiming that he was a graduate, there is plenty of indirect evidence. The most important piece of indirect evidence is that Cassidy worked as a professor in New College of California (and apparently he lectured in San Francisco State before that). Who would give someone a lecturer’s job if they didn’t have any degrees at all? It seems clear that there was some kind of fraud here. Until someone provides evidence to the contrary or explains how Cassidy became an academic with only a high school diploma, then the logical assumption has to be that he committed a crime in accepting a job as a lecturer, probably stealing in excess of half a million dollars from the American education system by using non-existent qualifications to gain employment.

 

The Rule of Tír

According to Cassidy, this is a rule of Irish pronunciation. In fact, it’s just another piece of nonsense invented by Cassidy. Cassidy made use of a forum for Irish learners to find out how to pronounce certain sounds. He was too stupid to understand the linguistic explanations given. Eventually, one poster said:

BOTTOM LINE?!  How do I say “tír?”

Cheer

Tear

jeer.

I’ll bet every native speaker would understand me no matter which I said.

In other words, this poster was saying, it doesn’t matter what you say really because people will understand you, NOT that native speakers use these forms interchangeably. But in the insane world of Cassidy’s head, this casual online comment was transformed into The Rule of Tír, a fictional ‘rule’ which states that they ARE interchangeable!

 

Cassidy’s grandparents

Cassidy, using his sockpuppet identity of Medbh, claimed that his grandparents spoke Donegal Irish. He gives no further details. Grandparents (plural) means that at least two of his grandparents were supposedly speakers of Donegal Irish. According to a family tree on Ancestry.co.uk, only one of Cassidy’s grandparents was born in Ireland. She was from Monaghan, so she didn’t speak Donegal Irish. The rest were born in New York and Toronto. Some of his forebears had Munster names like O’Brien and Garrity. There seems to be no certainty about where the Cassidys themselves came from, but it’s primarily a Fermanagh name, not a Donegal name.

 

Cassidy and Dallas

Cassidy claimed that he was in the newsroom of the New York Times as a rookie journalist the day JFK was shot in 1963. Yet Cassidy stated elsewhere that he was still in Cornell until 1965 and started as a rookie journalist in the NYT after he was booted out of Cornell university with no degree.

 

Cassidy was award-winning

According to the sources on line, Cassidy won an award for poetry at Cornell, before they kicked him out. In his adult life, he only won one award. He received an American Book Award for his ridiculous dreckfest How The Irish Invented Slang in 2007. We don’t know who the judges were (they don’t tell us in any detail how the judging is done), but I find it interesting that at least four of his friends are currently on the board of the Before Columbus Foundation ( based in Oakland, CA), which hands out the awards (David Meltzer, Ishmael Reed, T.J. English and Jack Foley). Cassidy was also supposed to have received a nomination (which isn’t an award) for an Emmy for his documentary Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs, but there is no independent confirmation of this anywhere on line.

 

Cassidy’s work was endorsed by many Irish speakers

This is nonsense. Some Irish speakers did support Cassidy, but we have to remember several points here. Almost all those who provided support for Cassidy (Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, Ciarán Ó Pronntaigh, Joe Lee) knew him. We have no information about the circumstances in which they gave their support. Had they read the book or were they asked to provide a favourable review ‘blind,’ without seeing the finished article? The reaction to Cassidy’s work among genuine Irish speakers who didn’t know him has been very hostile, and many people who have only a nodding acquaintance with the language have praised his work while pretending to be better informed about Irish than they really are – just like Cassidy himself.

 

Cassidy’s work was ‘peer-reviewed’

This is claimed by his sockpuppet identity Méabh, and repeated by some of his more enthusiastic and less intelligent supporters. Cassidy’s work was not peer-reviewed (the closest it got to that was when it was rejected by an academic reviewer when Cassidy tried to get it published by the University of Limerick). It was given reviews in newspapers, which is not the same thing at all. In fact, if a body of experts on linguistics, slang and the Irish language were assembled together to assess the merit of Cassidy’s work, not only would they fall about laughing, they would not be peers of Cassidy’s. A peer means an equal. Cassidy knew absolutely nothing about any of these subjects. Cassidy’s peers were other fake Irish loudmouths with no qualifications and no idea about their ancestral culture.

 

Cassidy was ‘passionate’ about the Irish language

As one Irish blogger who had listened to too many fools in New York said: Cassidy argued in his book that many American English slang words were derived from Gaelic, a claim with which some disagreed. But if they thought his argument thin, they must never have experienced his vast passion for the Irish language. Let’s just examine this one closely. Cassidy lived his whole life in cities like New York and San Francisco. There were Irish organisations in both these cities giving classes in the language. Linguaphone used to offer a course in Irish, starting in 1957, which would have been available anywhere. Yet somehow, Cassidy managed to avoid learning any Irish – or indeed buying any books, dictionaries or tape courses in or on the language – until 2001, when he was left an Irish dictionary in someone’s will. Some passion! And he never succeeded in learning any Irish. He had no idea about the pronunciation, the grammar, or the usage. Cassidy’s interest in Irish was shallow dilettantism, not passion.

 

A working-class hero is something to be ..

Cassidy really played up the working-class hero thing, cultivating a broad Brooklyn accent and talking about his past as a merchant marine (though it’s hard to work out when, or indeed, if, he was ever a merchant marine). His sister Susan commented that: Cockbum also said that Danny grew up in the “slums of Brooklyn”. we grew up on Long Island in the ’50’s – it was all country … And while his family may have been ordinary folk, they don’t seem to have been that poor. His father ran an Irish bar. Cassidy won a scholarship to the New York Military Academy, alma mater of Donald Trump and Stephen Sondheim, and then went on to Cornell. Not exactly Les Misérables

 

“…this pioneering book proves that US slang has its strongest wellsprings in nineteenth-century Irish America.”

I started writing this blog before I knew anything about Daniel Cassidy. The more I learned, the more I despised him. All I knew at the start was that the book was nonsense and that a number of high-profile buffoons were trying to pretend that it isn’t nonsense, for reasons best known to themselves. The fact is, this book is stuffed with lies. You can find lies on every page. And we’re talking whoppers here, not minnows. Cassidy invented the overwhelming majority of the Irish ‘phrases’ in this book. They have never existed. Since I began this project, none of the buffoons who have lauded this idiotic garbage has tried to defend Cassidy. We have had the occasional idiot or troll calling in to make sweeping generalisations about how the Irish talk a lot so American English must be full of Irish. But none of them has answered the challenge which I have repeatedly given them – to provide evidence that Cassidy’s phrases had any existence independent of his crazy echo-chamber of a head. Of course, none of them ever will do, because there is no evidence. Cassidy made it all up as he went along.

Is Irish a Superlanguage?

I am a big fan of Flann O’Brien (or Myles na Gopaleen, as he sometimes styled himself). However, I don’t agree with everything he wrote. For example, in one article, he claimed that English is inferior to Irish:

“A lady lecturing on the Irish language drew attention to the fact (I mentioned it myself as long ago as 1925) that while the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words, the Irish-speaking peasant uses 4,000. .. Your paltry English speaker apprehends sea-going craft through the infantile cognition which merely distinguishes the small from the big. If it’s small, it’s a boat, and if it’s large, it’s a ship. In his great book, An tOileánach, however, the uneducated Tomás Ó Criomhthain uses perhaps a dozen words to convey the concept of varying super-marinity — árthach long, soitheach, bád, naomhóg, bád raice, galbhád, púcán and whatever you’re having yourself.”

In a way, of course, the great Myles was joking here. However, the drift of his argument is serious enough. The claim that an ‘average’ English speaker uses 400 words is absurd and even the most stupid and limited English speaker of my acquaintance has a far larger vocabulary than 400 words. And a look at the example of ship/boat shows the contrived nature of the argument. How many Irish speakers know the official Irish for sloop, brig, ketch, frigate, destroyer, catamaran, dhow, junk, trireme, galleon, man o’war, dinghy, hydrofoil etc. etc.? (slúpa, bruig, cits, frigéad, scriostóir, catamarán, dabha, siunca, tríréim, gaileon, long chogaidh, báidín, duillárthach, in case you’re wondering!) Irish is not in a healthy state, and the ‘average’ Irish speaker these days has a fairly impoverished grasp of the language. That’s not the fault of the language, or of its speakers, but it reflects the fact that the resources available to Irish speakers and learners are severely restricted. Yet many people continue to claim, with Myles, that Irish is superior to English.

In a way, the claim made in Daniel Cassidy’s book is similar. Cassidy’s theory is flattering, which probably explains why so many otherwise rational human beings have chosen to believe it, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Cassidy’s nonsense suggests that Irish was such a lively and colourful language that it crossed the language barrier with ease, colouring the vulgar and expressive argot of American crime and street life, ultimately becoming modern English. Of course, Irish is an extremely colourful and expressive language and would have had no shortage of expressions to contribute, but in spite of that, there is no evidence at all that Irish exerted any influence on American slang or modern English (apart from a paltry handful of words like sourpuss and slew).

This unfortunate tendency is also found in claims about the vocabulary of the Irish language. For example, there are plenty of people in Belfast – usually people who don’t know much of the language – who will try to tell you that the word faiteadh is the Irish for warming yourself on a cold day by flapping your arms around. In fact, faiteadh just means flapping or fluttering. It’s used in phrases like i bhfaiteadh na súl (in the fluttering of an eye(lid)). It can describe someone flapping their arms, or a bird or a bat flapping around, or lots of other things. But the notion that Irish has ‘a word for warming yourself by flapping your arms’ is just nonsense and what’s more, it’s nonsense calculated to make out that Irish is somehow more sophisticated and more expressive than all other languages.

Another of these words is one which has probably been noticed and commented on by generations of Irish learners, a word found in Dinneen’s dictionary, the notorious sleith. This is not a modern word. It is found in ancient legal texts. Dinneen, the great amateur lexicographer, defined it as ‘carnal intercourse with a woman without her consent or knowledge’, which – on the face of it, seems like a concept unlikely to have a word devoted to it in many languages. However, the word (a verbal noun formed from a verb meaning – appropriately enough – ‘to creep’), is unfortunately an all too familiar concept in the modern world. As defined in the examples on eDIL, it simply means the rape of a sleeping or unconscious woman. One reference specifically mentions sleith trí mheisce (sleith through drunkenness). In other words, far from showing the richness and sophistication of Irish, it’s a fairly clear indication that jerks like Brock Turner and his appalling grunt of a father were as big a problem in ancient times as they are today.

Another one I came across recently is the claim that the word gránna can mean both ugly and nasty or nice in Irish, which is again suggesting that Irish is somehow different from other languages. In reality, this is from a minor error in a book by Seán Mac Corraidh on the translations of Seosamh Mac Grianna. In a translation of the play The White-Headed Boy, the line ‘It would be nice if after all the money were lost” was translated as Ba ghránna an t-airgead a bheith caillte, because the nice is ironic here and means terrible or awful. Mac Grianna could have used irony as well, and Nár dheas an t-airgead a bheith caillte (Wouldn’t it be just great if the money were lost!) would have worked just as well. Instead of that, he chose to translate the implied rather than the literal meaning. Someone has then seen the entry in the book, which gives no indication that this is ironic, and has decided that Irish is some bizarre quantum language where words can mean two opposing things at once, nasty and nice.

So, what’s happening here? Basically, it is a product of an inferiority complex. It is a case of people taking a minor language which is weakened and disadvantaged and trying to claim that the language in question, far from being down on its luck and struggling, is really a super-language, a language which is vastly superior to languages like English. I dislike this kind of claim, for all kinds of reasons. As I’ve explained before, all languages have strengths and weaknesses, but all languages are beautiful because all languages are products of human ingenuity. All of them. There are no primitive languages where people grunt and point and have no grammar. And there are no super-languages either.

I want Irish to survive. I love the language and use it as much as I can. I also try to learn words and enrich my knowledge of the vocabulary (there’s a great fun resource for learning interesting vocab on Twitter called TheIrishFor). But Irish doesn’t have to be anything special to justify its existence. It doesn’t have to be a language of miraculous expressive power to be treated with the same respect as major world languages. It doesn’t have to be better. It just has to be as good – which it is.

Trying to categorise languages – or indeed peoples or races – as inferior or superior is a dangerous and foolish game, and should be avoided by anyone with a brain.