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.