Going the wrong way!

Anyone who reads this blog carefully will have realised that Cassidy went about things the wrong way. He never checked his sources properly and he never attempted to disprove his own theories in order to test them and arrive at the truth.

But in many of the cases in this book, Cassidy was literally going the wrong way. Where a word in Irish resembled a word in English, Cassidy decided that the word was of Irish origin and had been borrowed into English rather than the other way round. He was usually wrong about this. For example, the word drong is a long-established word in Irish but it is not of Celtic origin and it is not the origin of English throng. It is Germanic. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the English throng comes from the Old English (ge)drang. There are certainly similar words in German and Dutch, and it would be hard to explain how they got into those languages if Irish is really the source.

Many words of foreign origin in Irish have an –a at the end and almost no native words end in –a. For example, pot is pota, coat is cóta, pocket is póca, table is tábla. When a word ends in –a, it is a clear indication that it is likely to be a borrowing.

This is why Cassidy is wrong about cute coming from Irish ciúta. It is the other way round, and cute itself is a shortening of acute. Interestingly, Irish ciúta is used in very different ways from the English word. The word ciúta in Irish is a noun. It means a knack, a witty saying, or a special way of doing something, but I have no doubt that it is a borrowing of the English cute, which usually means clever or sharp in Ireland rather than attractive.

It is also the reason that he is wrong about néata, which is obviously a borrowing from the English neat, not the origin of the English term, which derives from the French word net meaning clean, and ultimately from the Latin nitidus. And he is very wrong about the phonetics of néata. Cassidy obviously thought that the phonetic symbol æ is pronounced like the vowel sound in day. In fact, æ is pronounced the way an English speaker of English might pronounce ‘hat’, so his phonetic version suggests that the word is pronounced nyatta, which it isn’t.

However, one of the most interesting examples in this book is Cassidy’s association of English dear, meaning expensive, and Irish daor, meaning expensive. Cassidy is right that the Irish word is not a borrowing from the English. But the English word is not a borrowing from the Irish either. Both these words have developed independently through different routes until they just happen to have roughly the same sound and exactly the same meaning. Yet English dear is Germanic, a cognate of German teuer, while Irish daor is one of many pairs of words in Irish where the negative has a d and the positive has an s. Daor means expensive or unfree, and it is the opposite of the well-known Irish word saor, which means free, as in Saorstát Éireann. Other examples include dona and sona, which mean unhappy (or unlucky) and happy (or lucky; and daoi (dunce) and saoi (sage).

The case of daor/dear shows why basing an argument about etymology on chance phonetic similarity is so unreliable, as remarkable coincidental similarities happen all the time.

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