Monthly Archives: April 2013

Professor Cassidy?

One of the main problems I have with the whole Cassidy story is the fact that he was a professor of Irish Studies at the New College of California. Cassidy was able to use this title to gain credibility. But how on Earth did anyone give him a job as an academic? How was he qualified for the job?

The usual pattern is that someone gets a primary degree, then they go on to do a Master’s and then a Doctorate, or sometimes they just go from primary degree to Doctorate. After that there are various stages in different systems, but basically there are several kinds of lecturer and then you become a professor.

There are exceptions, of course. If Seamus Heaney wants to become a professor of English in your university, you make room for him, doctorate or no doctorate, or if Martin Scorsese wanted to be a professor of Film Studies, any university would accommodate him and quite rightly so. The body of work and the experience that these people have is worth a hundred doctorates.

Cassidy seems to have had a primary degree from Cornell University but the Wikipedia article on his life makes no mention of any postgraduate degrees, either Master’s or Doctorate. He doesn’t seem to have published any books or written any academic papers.

Cassidy was no Heaney or Scorsese, though he obviously had some talents. He apparently wrote some scripts for television and film but his name is not mentioned on IMDB. He produced a documentary about Northern Ireland called Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs, but I can’t comment on it because I have never seen it and it’s not available on youtube. He worked as a professional musician and cut a jazz album. But it is hard to see how anyone could justify making him a professor. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of better qualified people with doctorates, academic experience, knowledge of Irish.

New College of California seems to have been an odd institution. It seems to have been run autocratically and it eventually collapsed in 2008 amid allegations of incompetence and corruption.

Interestingly, I found this comment on Michael Patrick Brady’s review of the book at http://www.michaelpatrickbrady.com/blog/complete-blarney-daniel-cassidys-how-the-irish-invented-slang/ It was added to the comments in 2008:

“The horse pucky just gets deeper and deeper. From what I hear, one of the  only profs still getting paid at NCOC is Danny Cassidy. This is the same guy who trolled New College students on a message board when they were attempting to unite and fight the sinister system!!! Cassidy used an anonymous email address, with the name Camog49, to harass students and faculty from the Activism and Social Change MA program. Ironically, the board was called stop the silence and Cassidy was trying to scare students into silence. Cassidy’s final trolling email included in this package was sent from Cassidys non-anonymous email address. BUSTED!!!! I wonder if WASC knows about this yet. That guy shouldn’t be teaching anyone. What shameful behavior, trolling students who are trying to do what the school taught them. And using his beloved Irish slang in the process. Ironic, no?”

Clearly another Cassidy fan!

 

P.S. When I wrote this, I still thought Cassidy had a degree. Since writing it, I have been informed by Cassidy’s sister (and this was confirmed by the Cornell Registrar) that Cassidy flunked his degree at Cornell. In other words, he had no academic qualifications at all but was still employed by NCoC and permitted to swan around the States and Ireland pretending to be a professor. What a fake!

 

Scam

Another oft-quoted Cassidy gem is the word scam, which Cassidy linked to the phrase is cam é or ’s cam é, meaning ‘it’s crooked’. This is a slightly odd phrase, though it is possible that someone would say it. The problem with this is that it is a phrase. Why would someone who was bilingual in Irish and English use a phrase rather than a word like caimiléireacht (which means fraud or deception)? So a bilingual person saying ‘It’s a ’s cam’ is really saying ‘It’s a it’s crooked’. Highly unlikely.

Back in the real world, scam probably comes from the Spanish escamotear, which is defined as:

            to palm, to conceal; to lift, to swipe; to cover up.

Here’s a definition in Spanish from wordreference.com.  The second example essentially means ‘they stole a thousand pesetas from me in front of everybody.’

            escamotear

            1.tr. Hacer desaparecer algo mediante un hábil juego de manos de manera que        los presentes no se den cuenta:

            el mago escamoteó un par de palomas y un conejo.

            2. Robar o quitar algo con agilidad y astucia:

            me han escamoteado mil pesetas delante de todo el mundo.

            3. Eludir, evitar, suprimir intencionadamente:

            cuando habla de su marido no escamotea elogios.

This is a much more likely candidate, as the meaning is exactly right and you don’t have to put two words together in order to make up a suitable phrase. All the letters are there in escamotear!

How much Irish did Cassidy have?

Many people will assume that Cassidy, being a Professor of Irish Studies, must have been proficient in Irish but this is really a misunderstanding of what Irish Studies entails. Irish Studies embraces anything relating to the island of Ireland or the Irish diaspora, so it covers aspects of history, sociology, economics, literature and (sometimes) linguistics. However, most academic institutions which teach and research the Irish language do so in a department called Celtic Studies, usually in conjunction with work on other Celtic languages like Welsh, Breton or Scottish Gaelic.

Cassidy did not speak Irish. Firstly, on his own admission, he knew no Irish at all until the year 2000. In the book, he states that he was left an Irish dictionary in a friend’s will and said to his wife ‘I’m too old to learn Irish’.

There is plenty of evidence from other sources. On January 8th 2005, Cassidy registered on the Daltaí discussion forums and assessed his knowledge of the language as ‘Beginner. Though large vocabulary from family.’ This vocabulary presumably consisted of fantasy words and phrases like sách úr, bocaí rua and ceanndánacht ársa.

However, the main evidence is from the examples of Irish in the book itself, which clearly demonstrate that Cassidy was clueless about almost every aspect of Irish usage. Here are just a few examples:

  • Cassidy thought that words beginning with a vowel in Irish are pronounced with a h- sound. They aren’t. The Irish word for apple is úll. It’s pronounced ool, not hool.
  • Adjectives which begin with a vowel in Irish don’t acquire a h after masculine nouns or verbal nouns. Thus béalú h-ard (if it really existed as a phrase) would be béalú ard.
  • Phrases like uí bhfolaíocht án are completely meaningless in terms of Irish grammar.
  • Cassidy’s explanation for ‘hot-diggety-dog’, árd-iachtach-tach is just so stupid and so unlike anything you would really hear from a competent speaker of Irish that I can’t even be bothered commenting.
  • The t in the word teas can’t be pronounced as a j in any dialect of Irish.
  • Cling a clog, Cassidy’s (ludicrous) explanation for the phrase ‘to clean someone’s clock’ means to ring her bell, not to ring his bell as the great fraud states.

I could keep going but I really can’t be bothered. Take it from me. Cassidy didn’t know any Irish. He was a monoglot Anglo who was completely unqualified to comment on what is or is not correct or plausible in Irish.

Slugger

Cassidy claims that the word slugger, as in someone who hits a ball strongly, comes from the Irish word slacaire, which means a hitter or a batsman (slacaí in modern Standard Irish). On the face of it, this seems like a convincing claim but if you examine it more closely, it starts to lose its appeal.

Firstly, let’s look at slug as a word for hitting. The English dictionaries agree that it is related to slog (as in ‘a hard slog’) and that its origin is unknown. For the word slog, its first recorded use in English is apparently in 1824, while slug is even later, in 1830.

The Irish word slacadh apparently comes from slaic (slacán) which mean stick or bat. So far, so good for Cassidy’s theory.

The problem is this. Slog looks Germanic. It looks and sounds as though it is related to the German schlagen or the Yiddish shlogn. It may well be an English dialect word which went mainstream around the time that dialectologists first went to work. Whatever the real origin of slog/slug, I don’t believe in Cassidy’s theory.

My reason for being sceptical of Cassidy’s claim is that slacadh sounds very different from slog or slug. The sl is the same, but if English borrowed the word slacadh without changing the sound, you would have a great batsman described as a slacker, who really slacks the ball! Slog could have been borrowed into English from Irish, but it means to swallow. When languages borrow from other languages, they frequently have difficulties because the other language has sounds or combinations of sounds that are unfamiliar and then they change the borrowed word. This wouldn’t be the case here. Both slack (slac) and slog (slog) are perfectly good words in both English and Irish, so there would be no reason to use slog instead of slack. Admittedly, slack has another meaning in English and this could be confusing, but then lots of words have lots of different meanings. People don’t assume that someone has given up football because they kicked the ball or that someone has murdered his wife because he took her out last night. Most words and phrases are complex and multi-faceted but native speakers still manage to use them effectively. I don’t believe that anyone would have a problem with “slacking the ball” if it existed as a common phrase, but it doesn’t. People say slug, not slack, and they do that because they didn’t borrow it from Irish slacadh.

I admit that this is somewhat more plausible than most of Cassidy’s claims, but I am still unconvinced because of the lack of any phonetic similarity. 

Block

According to Cassidy, the word ‘block’, in the sense of a city block, derives from the Irish bealach, meaning road or way. This is a typical Cassidy claim, in that it is completely unrealistic and presents no evidence beyond a vague phonetic similarity. A very vague similarity. Bealach is usually pronounced with the final ch either silent or like a breathy h, though you could choose to pronounce it more strongly, as in the ch sound of Scottish loch. However, it would never be pronounced ballack, let alone block, so it is unlikely as an origin for block and in any case, it refers to the road, not to the space between roads.

Another point to remember is that block is a perfectly sensible and long-established word in English to describe the parcels or areas of land in cities which were created along with the grid system in the new world. Just as a person looking at a stone wall will see the blocks of stone laid out in a pattern, the mapmaker will see blocks of buildings with roads between. The word block in the sense of a lump of stone or wood is an ancient one in English, dating back at least to the 13th century. Here’s a brief account of the word’s origins from etymonline:

“solid piece,” c.1300, from O.Fr. bloc “log, block” (13c.), via M.Du. bloc “trunk of a tree” or O.H.G. bloh, both from PIE *bhlugo-, from *bhelg- “a thick plank, beam” (see balk). Slang sense of “head” is from 1630s. The meaning in city block is 1796, from the notion of a “compact mass” of buildings; …  

Incidentally, bloc is also a fairly common and long-established loanword in Irish, where Bloc na Nollag (the Christmas Block) was the traditional Yule Log.   

The grid system was first laid out in Cassidy’s home city of New York by the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for New York. Let’s hear from the Commissioners themselves:

‘The northerly side of number one begins at the southern end of Avenue B and terminates in the Bower lane; number one hundred and fifty-five runs from Bussing’s Point to Hudson river, and is the most northern of those which is was thought at all needful to lay out as part of the city of New York, excepting the Tenth avenue, which is continued to Harlem river and strikes it near Kingsbridge. These streets are all sixty feet wide except fifteen, which are one hundred feet wide, viz.: Numbers fourteen, twenty-three, thirty-four, forty-two, fifty-seven, seventy-two, seventy-nine, eighty-six, ninety-six, one hundred and six, one hundred and sixteen, one hundred and twenty-five, one hundred and thirty-five, one hundred and forty-five, and one hundred and fifty-five–the block or space between them being in general about two hundred feet’

In other words, the absurd idea that ‘city block’ came from the Irish language simply ignores all the evidence.

The Bee’s Knees

According to Cassidy, this phrase is Irish and derives from béas núíosach, which he says means ‘the new custom’. Let’s examine this claim.

According to Ó Dónaill, béas means ‘habit; moral habit; conduct, manners’. And núíosach means ‘new, unaccustomed, green, unseasoned, unlearned; strange, novel.’

Béas and núíosach are both real words. So why don’t I accept that this is a real phrase? The problem is that languages are governed by subtle constraints, far too subtle to be explained adequately in even the most detailed dictionary. Suppose I said that this book is stinking garbage. (Which it is!) You would understand what I meant immediately. But suppose I then went to the dictionary and found that high is another word for stinking and that refuse is another word for garbage, would you still understand if I said that the book was ‘high refuse?’ Probably not. In other words, to combine words in a language, you need to have some grasp of usage, otherwise you will end up with phrases which make no sense.

Neither of these words is particularly common, and there is a far more usual way of saying something new, the word nuacht (also sometimes nuaíocht). There is a common phrase in Irish, go maire tú do nuacht, which means something like ‘may you live out your new thing’. In English, Irish people frequently use the expression ‘health to enjoy’ in the same circumstances. For example, if someone has just bought a new house, or a new car, the person they are speaking to will say go maire tú do nuacht! So the nuacht (or nuaíocht, as I would say) is the house or car. It is the new thing in your life.

Cassidy did not understand Irish and béas núíosach is not a real phrase. Try thinking ‘novel conduct’ as a translation of the effect this phrase has on the ear of an Irish speaker. Can you imagine anyone saying ‘That car is the novel conduct?’ (!)

Look it up on Google and you will see that every reference to béas núíosach is to bee’s knees and to Cassidy’s theories. Then look up go maire tú do nuacht and you will see that it is a real phrase and that it is mentioned by lots of people on lots of sites.

Finally, the most likely origin of the phrase is that it is a jocular mispronunciation of business. Both ‘it’s the business’ and ‘it’s the bee’s knees’ can be used interchangeably to mean something very good.

Squeal, Kid, Buddy

Time and again, Cassidy simply ignored easily understandable English derivations in favour of Irish explanations which are highly improbable or completely factitious.

For example, Cassidy denied that the word squeal, as in “he squealed to the cops”, has anything to do with the noise that a panicking animal makes. He derived it from scaoil, an Irish verb which means release, and can mean to divulge a secret, as in the phrase scaoil sé a rún. However, it is worth noting that squeal is often used as an intransitive verb – you can say “he squealed” and not “he squealed something”. With scaoileadh, you couldn’t do this. It requires an object. The fact is that when people borrow words, they generally use them in the foreign sentence in just the same way as they would be used in the original language. As far as I’m concerned, squeal is self-explanatory in English, and there is no need to regard it as loan from Irish or any other language.

Another silly one is kid, which Cassidy derives from the term of endearment, a chuid. A chuid does exist, but so does the English word kid meaning a young goat, and as far as I can see, this is a much better candidate. It fits far better with the way that the word is used in English (i.e. it is a noun meaning children, not primarily a term of endearment).

And then there is buddy, which is generally regarded as being a childish version of brother. This seems logical to me. Cassidy will have none of it. He dismissively says that all American dictionaries ‘inexplicably’ derive buddy from brother. He prefers a derivation from Irish bodach, which means ‘a clown, a churl, a strong lusty youth’.  I will freely admit that the phrase a bhodaigh is given by Ó Dónaill as ‘my lad’ but it is hardly a common phrase and the ‘brother’ explanation seems to me much more sensible.

The fact is that where there is a word in an English sentence which seems to have a reasonable derivation in English, it is not bigotry or intolerance to accept that English derivation in preference to a borrowed word or phrase. After all, it is quite clear that Irish has contributed very little to the English language, in spite of Cassidy’s assertions. The Irish were systematically bullied and starved and cajoled into regarding their language as inferior. When they came to the States and Canada, they wanted to learn English and forget where they came from. We have no right to condemn them for this. Where they came from was hunger and poverty and they wanted to get something better for their children, even if it meant turning their back on their heritage.