Peter Quinn

Most of the people who are most vociferous in their support for Daniel Cassidy and his preposterous ideas were linked to him in some way. They were his relatives, his friends, his colleagues. Sometimes they were obviously Cassidy himself under a false sock-puppet identity. Peter Quinn, who wrote the introduction to How Cassidy Invented Irish … sorry, How The Irish Invented Slang, deserves special mention for his resolute refusal to accept that Cassidy was a fraud, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

Here’s a piece from Peter Quinn (not on the subject of Cassidy) in the Irish Echo http://irishecho.com/?p=59808, Feb 17, 2011:

Eugenics is still with us, Quinn said. Indeed, “The Bell Curve” by conservative sociologist Charles Murray, who argued that certain groups were innately intellectually inferior, appeared the same year as “The Banished Children of Eve.” Murray’s book became a bestseller, while collections of essays taking his arguments apart sold handfuls of copies.
“It’s such an attractive belief — the poor are poor because there’s nothing to can do to lift them up. Genetically, they’re there for a reason. It obviates the need for a lot of social programs,” Quinn said.
Meanwhile, the “rich are rich because they’re smart and inventive.”
Quinn said: “My brother, who works for the Ford Foundation, says it’s hard to keep a bad idea down.”

I agree with Quinn’s views on “The Bell Curve” and I object to this kind of biological determinism as much as he does, but I think his comments about Murray and his opponents are a bit rich in the light of Quinn’s outspoken support for Cassidy. Murray’s book became a bestseller, while collections of essays taking his arguments apart sold handfuls of copies. How familiar! This is exactly what happened in the case of Cassidy’s work. His book sold large numbers of copies because it pretended to break paradigms and tell a different story about the history of Irish America. Those scholars who did criticise Cassidy’s work rather than ignore it were insulted for their pains, labelled as ivory-tower intellectuals, WASPs, bigots, ‘dictionary dudes’. It’s hard to keep a bad idea down … Which is why Cassidy’s lies have prospered while genuine resources aimed at helping people to learn Irish struggle to survive.

Here is Quinn in an article from Irish America (Oct/Nov 2009), supporting Cassidy’s crazy book and criticising the intellectuals who refused to kiss Cassidy’s ring:

Others have been far less receptive. Though no American university or college offers a degree in etymology and few American etymologists have even a slight understanding of Irish, a cadre of soi-disant professional etymologists has done its best to deride, dismiss and, whenever possible, ignore Cassidy’s work. In the year since his death, relieved of his insistent challenge to their blank refusal to consider the evidence of the influence of Irish on American slang, the “dictionary dudes” (that was Cassidy’s term for them) have happily returned to their policy of benign neglect. I have no doubt that their fervent hope is that his thesis will wither from inattention and quietly blow away.

Soi-disant, Peter?  Last time I heard, English had a word for this – ‘self-appointed’. (And Irish has féincheaptha, while we’re at it.)  Does it make it smarter if you say it in French? Us woikin’ stiffs, we really hate dem soi-disant intellectuals … As for no American university offering a degree in etymology, this is true but they do offer degrees in historical linguistics, which would prepare you to be an etymologist. And it’s true that few of them have an understanding of Irish. But at least one academic with a sound knowledge of Irish, Jim McCloskey, has commented on Cassidy’s book. You can check out the rest of it here, on Mark Liberman’s excellent blog post (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003326.html), but this is what Jim McCloskey has to say about Cassidy’s invented word buanchumadh:

No, this is very fanciful, I think. `Buanchumadh’ is, I suppose, a morphologically possible word, but it’s not a word I’ve ever come across and it’s not in any of the dictionaries that I have to hand (three). I’m reasonably sure that the apparent dictionary entry at the start of the piece:

Buanchumadh, (pron. buan’cumah), perpetual invention, endless composition (of a story, poem, or song), a long made-up story, fig. a shaggy dog tale.

is fictional; it’s not, at any rate, in any of the standard dictionaries, and he gives no other reference to check.

Further: if this were an actual word of the language, it would mean something like `perpetual composing’. It’s a long way from that to a sense close to that of English `story’.

Cassidy, of course, didn’t speak Irish, so Quinn’s idea that the scholars should have listened to him as some kind of expert on Irish is ridiculous. There is also an implied criticism of generations of Irish scholars in the position of people like Cassidy and Quinn. If there really were hundreds of Irish words hidden in English that are so obvious then why didn’t professional linguists in Ireland spot them? Are we really expected to believe that Cassidy was some kind of genius who was able to spot these paradigm-busting correspondences when far brighter and better qualified scholars couldn’t? It’s true that Cassidy saw things that nobody else could … but that’s because they weren’t there. The posts in this blog prove that.

Assuming that Quinn is not an idiot, it is hard to see what combination of ignorance, naivety or misguided loyalty caused him to deny the undeniable and support Cassidy’s absurd theories. But there is an even stranger question. Why did Irish speakers support Cassidy, when nearly all the Irish in the book is nonsense? That will be the subject of the next post.

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