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Dock

This is another absurdity and another example of Cassidy’s selective treatment of his sources. Cassidy says that dock, meaning to take a chunk out of someone’s wages as a punishment, comes from the Irish tobhach, which means a levy. Tobhach is pronounced toe-akh or toe-ah, so it doesn’t sound a lot like dock anyway, but it would not be an entirely unreasonable suggestion if there were no better candidate.

And this is Cassidy’s claim, that there is no other candidate, that dock suddenly appears in English out of the blue in the 19th century. But this is a distortion of the truth. Cassidy cherry-picked the information in the English dictionaries and only used what made his case look stronger (while insulting the hard-working lexicographers whose work he parasitized). Dock in the sense of taking a chunk out of your pay only goes back to the 1820s but this is merely a natural extension of the meaning of a word which has been used since the Middle Ages in English to describe the action of cutting an animal’s tail off. All dictionaries recognise that dock (cut off a tail) and dock (clip someone’s wages) are the same word. And if this word has been used in rural communities in England in the tail-cutting sense since at least the fourteenth century, it doesn’t come from Irish. QED.

This is a perfect example of how Cassidy distorted the facts in an attempt to make a case for derivations which are nonsense.

Giggle

One of the clearest signs of Cassidy’s poor methodology is his failure to establish any clear parameters for his research. The title of the book suggests that it is about American slang and the way that as Irish speakers poured into the cities of North America during the 18th and 19th centuries, their Irish language might have given rise to slang terms in English. And many people insist that this is what Cassidy did and what his theories were all about.

But if this is what the book is about, how can you include words which were plainly a part of English centuries before any European (apart from the odd Viking) had set foot in North America? This is what Cassidy did, over and over again. Sneeze, mayhem, bicker, booze. All of these words go back a long, long way and have clear etymologies which Cassidy sometimes cited and then ignored or sometimes just ignored. Looking at it logically, which Cassidy was obviously incapable of doing, words which were mainstream in English by the 17th century have nothing to do with Cassidy’s supposed thesis, because they were learned by Irish speakers just as they learned the rest of the English language, regardless of their origin. There are also increasing problems with claiming an Irish origin the further back you go in time because there is no evidence of significant Irish immigration to England before the 18th century, so how would these words have transferred from the Irish-speaking community to English? Cassidy scoffs at the frequent derivations from Dutch or Flemish claimed by lexicographers but these are actually very easy to justify. There was a lot of immigration from Holland and Flanders in the east of England in the Middle Ages. This is historical fact.

One of Cassidy’s stupidest claims is that giggle comes from gíog gheal, which (if it existed) would mean something like a bright squeak. There is no evidence of anyone ever using the phrase gíog gheal in Irish, either to mean a laugh or a giggle or anything of the type. The phrase doesn’t exist, any more than people in English routinely talk about brightsqueaking when they have a giggle.

Furthermore, we have already said that where words have German cognates they are obviously long-standing and well-established words in English. German has a word gickeln which means almost exactly the same as giggle and sounds very like it. Giggle, gickeln. Against a fake phrase invented by Cassidy and completely unattested and which couldn’t be used in the same way as gickeln and giggle, as both noun and verb. As usual, it’s nonsense. It can be shown to be nonsense. All you have to do is access a German or Dutch dictionary on line and find the cognate and Cassidy’s fake derivation gets blown out of the water.

Shindig

According to Cassidy, the slang term shindig comes from the Irish expression seinnt-theach, meaning a house of music. Seinnt is a common variant of seinm, which means to play a musical instrument, and teach does mean house but the expression seinnt-teach is complete fabrication. It is not attested in Irish and and there are a lot of familiar phrases for a house where music is played and people gather for entertainment, such as teach céilí, teach airneáil, teach airneáin. Teach ceoil (house of music) would also sound reasonable and any Irish speaker would know what you meant. But seinnt-teach (you wouldn’t aspirate the teach, as Cassidy does, so his version of seinnt-theach is a misspelling anyway) is not a real word and it sounds very odd, as if the house is an instrument and someone is blowing into it or hitting it. If you know Spanish, the phrase casa de tocar would give you some indication of why it is odd and improbable.

On some forums, people have defended Cassidy by claiming that Irish speakers suddenly started saying things in a completely different way when they got to the multi-ethnic ghettoes of the New York. They apparently forgot all their grammar and forgot the expressions they had grown up with and were reduced to the level of incoherent grunting imbeciles and conveniently, their grunting imbecilities just happen to coincide with the mad conjectures of a certain Daniel Cassidy. Nobody with half a brain would accept this nonsense. The fact is, if there is no evidence for the existence of something but Daniel Cassidy’s word for it, then it should be treated as not existing. People who regard this as academics trying to maintain a closed shop by refusing to accept the contributions of amateurs are just being stupid. It’s like someone refusing to play pool and simply smashing the pool table with the end of the cue and whacking the balls around the room, then arguing when they are disqualified that the pool establishment has it in for them and refuses to accept their unique and iconoclastic way of playing!

As for the real explanation, the dictionaries suggest that shindig is linked to an obsolete word shindy which means a ruckus. This may be correct but the word shindig also has a certain aptness, in that drunken people dancing clumsily tend to dig each other’s shins. Whatever the explanation, deriving it from an Irish phrase only works if there is an Irish phrase, and in this case there isn’t, because seinnt-theach was made up by Daniel Cassidy.

An Gorta Mór

This is another entirely irrelevant entry in Cassidy’s book. Yes, we know that Ireland was hit by a terrible famine in the 1840s and that the follies of landlordism and the incompetence and malice of the British authorities were largely responsible for the high level of mortality. We also know that the famine drove large numbers of people from Irish-speaking areas to the States and other countries in search of a better life. But why is this Irish phrase (meaning The Great Famine) an entry in a book on Irish influence on American slang? Did anyone ever talk about the Gortamore in English? If so, Cassidy doesn’t mention it.

In fact, while An Gorta Mór is commonly used in books, I have friends who dislike the term in Irish and won’t use it because they regard it as Béarlachas (an Irish expression which has been influenced by English and sounds foreign). They prefer the term which native Irish speakers tend to use when referring to that dark period of Irish history, an Drochshaol (= the bad life).

Burg

There is no doubt in my mind that Cassidy was incompetent. He had no idea what he was doing. Sometimes, it is hard to understand why words have been included in the book at all, as they add nothing to Cassidy’s argument. One of these irrelevant entries is burg. What in God’s name is this doing here? Cassidy points out that it is used to mean a town, usually a dismissive reference to a small town. Scholars say that this is because so many towns in America have burg in their names (Harrisburg, Louisburg, Evansburg). Cassidy gives a rambling, irrelevant and partly incorrect account of the history of the word burg, which is of Germanic origin and has cognates in other branches of Indo-European. It is not from Late Latin burgus, as Cassidy says, as this was a borrowing from Germanic rather than the other way round. In addition to having cognates in Irish, versions of the word were also borrowed into Irish, so that we have the words buirgcheantar (borough) and buirgéiseach (bourgeois) in modern Irish dictionaries. How any of this is relevant to the existence of the word burg in American slang is never explained. It is clear even from what Cassidy says that the word doesn’t come from Irish and that even Cassidy didn’t think it comes from Irish. So saying that Irish has similar words is as pointless and trivial as saying that the words for coffee are similar in French, Irish and Maori. So what?

The Montreal Gazette

I noticed this article about Cassidy by Mark Abley in the Montreal Gazette: http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Watchwords+Irish+really+invent+American+slang/8085048/story.html. It is nice to see that some newspapers have a much more intelligent and discriminating attitude to Cassidy’s work than others which should have known a lot better – The Irish Times, for example, or the Irish News. The article is very balanced and quotes people who know what they are talking about, rather than accepting all of Cassidy’s nonsense at face value. I would just have one word of criticism. The author says that:

Barrett and other critics have pointed out many such flaws, yet Cassidy’s book remains in wide circulation and still has passionate defenders. I suspect his basic point is valid: Gaelic probably does lie at the root of much American slang. It’s a pity that a book making this point so powerfully is also undermined by dubious research and wild speculation.

This is spot on, apart from the suspicion that Cassidy has a point, even if it’s badly made. Sorry, not a chance. There might be some interesting work to be done in the field of Irish influence on the sentence structure of American English (expressions like to hit the road, I wouldn’t put it past him) but if there were lots of American slang words of Irish origin it would be obvious and would be a well-established fact by now. The fact that Cassidy had to invent all his evidence to make any semblance of an argument is a powerful indication that there is nothing to find.

However, check the article out and hats off to the Montreal Gazette and to the aptly-named Mr Abley for telling it like it is.

Frame

Another ridiculous Cassidy claim is that to frame (as in ‘he was framed by the cops’) derives from Irish. According to Cassidy, it derives from the phrase fíor a éimiú, which means something like ‘to refuse the truth’, though both fíor and éimiú would be quite uncommon words. If you asked an Irish speaker how to say ‘deny the truth’ they would almost certainly say an fhírinne a shéanadh or diúltú don fhírinne. As we have already said, it is very uncommon anyway for phrases like this to be borrowed between languages, especially unfamiliar and unattested phrases which don’t sound much like the target phrase and don’t mean the same (does ‘to frame someone’ really mean the same as ‘to deny the truth?’)

And then again, the word frame is so easy to understand and completely appropriate. The crime and its circumstances are the frame and the authorities take one particular mug and put him into that frame. Thus they frame him. Anyone who pretends that this isn’t the origin of the term and chooses instead to believe Cassidy’s absurd and creaky explanation should be kept away from sharp objects and forced to seek medical help as soon as possible.  

Borrowers and Lenders

Borrowing from one language to another is an interesting phenomenon and something which linguists have studied in depth. I am not one of the linguists who have studied it closely, so I can only offer a rough guide to what words and phrases are borrowed and how and why they are borrowed.

Firstly, I should point out that where two words are similar in meaning and appearance in two languages, this does not necessarily mean that one is a borrowing from the other. This is a basic mistake which Cassidy makes because of his lack of general education and common sense. In some cases, there are words which are completely unconnected which happen to look and sound the same. We have already mentioned the case of daor in Irish and dear in English, both of which mean expensive but have completely different histories. Linguists have lots of examples of these, like the Aboriginal language Mbabaram where the word for dog is dog, or the fact that bad is the Persian for bad but again, these words are unrelated. These are known as ‘false cognates’.

Many other similarities are explained by the words being cognates. A cognate is a word which is found in a similar form in different languages because the languages both derive from the same root, not because one language borrowed the word from the other. For example, almost all the languages of Europe and Asia are related and belong to the same big language family, called Indo-European by linguists. The word tír (land) in Irish is related to the word tierra in Spanish and terre in French because all of these words go back to the same Indo-European root, not because one branch has borrowed from another.

Cognates form patterns because the same sound changes have happened to sounds in the same circumstances in all the words of the language. Thus a trainee historical linguist might notice that German Wasser is equivalent to water in English, that essen in German is eat in English, and come up with a theory that where there is a ss between two vowels in German, this will be a t sound in English. Then the linguist might try finding other examples to confirm or refute the hypothesis, such as besser and better. Thus cognates are often easily recognisable and demonstrable because they fit these patterns of sound change.

And then again, we need to look at the historical circumstances to see which way the borrowing is likely to go. If a word is found in Latin and in Irish, it is much more likely that it is a borrowing from Latin into Irish rather than the other way round, because Latin was the language of religion and learning in Ireland and throughout Europe for nearly a thousand years, and Irish has many words of Latin origin, both directly from Latin and through French. Thus words like marc are borrowings into Irish, not borrowings from Irish into other languages as Cassidy suggests.

There are also constraints on what is borrowed. Far and away the majority of borrowings are single words rather than phrases and they are predominantly nouns. They are sometimes changed slightly to make them accord with the sound system of the target language, but mostly they are borrowed and used as they are in the source language. Thus galore sounds like go leor, shebeen sounds like síbín and both these expressions are used in the same way in Irish and in English.

Where phrases are borrowed, they tend to be phrases that are used and found together frequently in the source language. Thus we hear things like je ne sais quoi in English, or bete noir or Sturm und Drang. Cassidy’s practice of finding an English word which (in his opinion) has no known origin and then inventing an improbable origin for it by stitching together words that have no place being together in Irish and are completely unattested is not good practice. For example, the word helter-skelter, which Cassidy claims comes from áilteoir scaoilte or ‘a loose-limbed trickster.’ I have no idea what the supposed connection is between loose-limbed tricksters and any of the usual meanings of helter-skelter in English. I would have thought that Californians would have had more than enough of crazy people attributing bizarre meanings to that word, but apparently there are still plenty of mugs out there who are prepared to believe anything.

What a Total Uath-anchor

One of the worst things about this atrocious book is its fake radicalism. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Cassidy wasn’t politically radical or that he didn’t have strong beliefs. What I am saying is that Cassidy cynically turned his defence of this book into an issue of radicalism versus the establishment, when in reality it was nothing of the kind. Cassidy and his supporters like to depict this book as the little man taking on the self-absorbed academics in their ivory towers, David against Goliath, Galileo muttering ‘eppur si muove’ under his breath to the Inquisition. It is a popular trope and you can easily understand why gullible people find it so attractive.

The only problem is, it isn’t true. Cassidy might have been a man of the people in some ways, but he was first and foremost an egoist. He tried desperately to be taken seriously by academics and by the dictionary makers and only decided that they were bigoted when they turned round and disagreed with him. For example, he initially tried to get his ludicrous book published by A & A Farmar and the University of Limerick but as Alexander Cockburn says in an obituary for Cassidy, two weeks before the book was to go to press, Cassidy complained to him that some ‘hooded revisionist anonymous Irish academic’ had recommended that they didn’t publish it. Rather than thinking that maybe this Irish academic (who presumably knew some Irish) was right and that he should think again, his misplaced self-confidence was undented. Thus the book was published by Counterpunch.

According to Grant Barrett, for some time Cassidy regularly sent his derivations to the American Dialect Society, who politely tried to get him to see reason and use some methodology rather than just making everything up. Again, this turned sour and they were treated as rogues and fools by Cassidy because they had the temerity to disagree with him. Like some Stalinist secret policeman, Cassidy decided that anyone who disagreed with him was suffering from false consciousness. Their imperialist ideology made them unable to see the obvious truths that Cassidy was offering, namely, that the Irish who flocked to the States after the famine spoke a completely different version of Irish to that spoken in Ireland now or recorded in thousands of songs, folk tales, books and manuscripts in the 19th century, an unrecorded Cassidese version of Irish in which, for example, uath-anchor (which, if it existed, would really mean something like ‘spontaneous ill-treatment’ – right, Mr Grey, time for your spontaneous ill-treatment session …) is a normal and comprehensible way of referring to masturbation (rather than real words like féintruailliú, féinsuaitheadh, lámhchairdeas or lámhchartadh) and is the origin of the slang word wanker.

And of course, this idea of a right-wing anti-Irish conspiracy is an easy refrain to sing along to, so before long, Cassidy had assembled a choir of idiots who were prepared to be his backing group and repeat the defamatory claim that academics had closed ranks against Cassidy, not because he was an idiot and his ideas were rubbish, but because the academics were a clique of right-wing bigots.

Here are some of the idiots having a sing-song:

Circumstantial evidence? It sure is and it’s damn good circumstantial evidence. Enough to hang a pompous scholar on. Reality check for the ivory tower types …

At the very least, it opens, or should open, new ideas and new avenues of exploration for the professional scholars, and should cause the more open minded of them to reconsider their assumptions – If only they’ll do some swallowing of their own – of their professional pride – and admit that sometimes an amateur can develop insights into a subject that the experts and engineers miss …

I think I detect a trace of scholarship envy going on here. An individual outside the inner cabal of the Irish language establishment goes and produces one of the most interesting texts related to the language and one that is vastly more relevant to the world at large than anything produced by the little incestuous bodies that thrive and prosper on a relentless wastage of state funding. But said individual doesn’t play ball with the cabal. I think I get the picture.

Peter Quinn’s intro/snapshot history hints at the centuries of class and cultural suppression that have kept recognition of the contents of this book from getting the coverage it deserves.

In fact, there is certainly a clique in this story. It is the clique of Cassidy’s friends and family. Time and again, the names on favourable reviews of Cassidy’s work turn out to be New York jazzmen or relatives of Cassidy or people who had read at his Irish Crossroads Festival. The people who have slated him are a much more mixed bag. They include Irish speakers, Hungarian speakers, English speakers, left-wingers, academics, dialect experts … They don’t all know each other and they certainly aren’t conspiring against Cassidy for political reasons. They are opposing Cassidy because his ideas were up the left, not because his ideas were on the left.

There is nothing radical about lying to people to get them to part with their money. In this respect, Cassidy was no better than any grubby little right-wing politico on the planet.

Lunch/Luncheon

This is a good example of how Cassidy subtly manipulated the evidence to hornswoggle the gullible. He claimed that luncheon comes from lóinte án (elegant food or splendid fare) or lóinfheis án (an elegant, splendid feast of meat). The Irish for lunch is lón, the primary meaning of which is provisions. It wouldn’t normally be put in the plural and anyway, in modern standard Irish the plural would be lónta. The adjective would have to agree with the noun, so it would be ána, not án, though the word án is almost unknown in Irish (though it is a high-frequency word in Cassidese). It goes without saying that there is no reference to lóinfheis án or lónta ána anywhere in any corpus of Irish literature. It is pure Cassidy invention.
Furthermore, Cassidy invites the reader to laugh with him at the whacky opinions of the dictionary dudes who apparently think luncheon derives from Middle English nonechenche. What he chooses not to say is that this is the ultimate source of the word. By the 17th century, this word had developed into the word nuncheon, which can be proven to have existed (unlike lónta ána or lóinte án) and meant a light snack in the afternoon. Nuncheon to luncheon. A mutation of one letter and the exact same meaning. Sounds credible to me – but then I’m neither stupid nor crazy.