Monthly Archives: July 2013

Did Cassidy Ever Get It Right?

I have already mentioned the statistics of this book, the way that people assume that some percentage of the book’s claims must be correct because there are so many of them. One individual on an Amazon review, who claimed to be a student of Irish, actually thought that this book was two-thirds correct! More sensible estimates are somewhere around 10%, but of course, these are not specifically based on a knowledge of Irish. Anyone who genuinely knew any Irish would be far harder on the book and would instantly realise that almost all of Cassidy’s claims are nonsense.

So, is there anything worth having in this book? Surprisingly, I am prepared to concede that Cassidy got it right a few times. However, we need to exercise a little caution here. Many of the correct entries are not really English at all. They are merely transcribed Irish phrases like machree, mavourneen, aroon, which are used in sentimental songs and dramas but were never really borrowed into English.

And in the overwhelming majority of cases where Cassidy got it right and the words are genuine loanwords in English, other people have got it right before him. These include dictionary dudes and Anglophiles who, according to Cassidy, hate the Irish language and would never admit the contribution of Irish to English. Yet there they are in the dictionaries, words of unimpeachable Irish/Gaelic origin like slew, whiskey, galore, sourpuss, shebeen, banshee, shamrock, bog, dornick, spunk, smithereens, glom, gob, keen, bard, brat, slogan. (And the Shelta words like moniker and mawley are also given in mainstream dictionaries.)  In other words, where the evidence exists, genuine scholars are quite happy to include Irish derivations in their dictionaries. In fact, Cassidy missed a lot of words of Irish origin like like tanist, esker, carrigeen and drumlin which are in English dictionaries. So much for Cassidy’s paranoid vision of sinister cabals of Anglophile lexicographers closing ranks against the Irish language! 

Then there are some words that might deserve a second glance to see if there is any chance that they are of Irish origin. People have been suggesting for decades that snazzy is related to snas, and they may be right about this but there isn’t a lot of evidence and it has recently been pointed out that an entertainer called G.H. Snazelle was known as ‘Snazzy’ well over a hundred years ago. Phoney being related to fawney and fáinne is also quite an old suggestion and didn’t originate with Cassidy. Again, this is more than possible and merits a mention in any discussion of possible origins. Rookie isn’t likely to come from rúcach, in spite of the similarity, because it is apparently from the way a drill sergeant would pronounce the word recruit-  RUH-croot! This is just as good an explanation as rúcach and it has a clear advantage in that it is based on and in English. ‘Say Uncle’ deriving from Irish anacal is not very likely, as anacal is a fairly obscure word. Its primary meaning is ‘protect’ rather than ‘mercy’ and the only recorded Irish expression I am aware of for ‘Say Uncle’ or ‘Pax’ in Irish is méaram. Twig and dig might well come from tuig, but more research would be needed.

I think Cassidy might have a point with ‘in a jiffy’ (deifir) and ‘a cold snap’ (snab is specifically mentioned by Dinneen as meaning ‘a cold snap’) but I am not really sure. Soogan (súgán) being used for a sleeping mat is interesting but Cassidy got this from the Dictionary of American Slang. And the word mihall (meitheal) occurring in Trade Union contexts is also quite interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that Cassidy gives a quotation from a trade union member in which he alludes to the fact that meitheal was known to be an Irish word. This confirms what Grant Barrett and others have said. Where words cross language barriers, there tends to be some evidence of the transition. It can be circumstantial evidence, such as the same word with the same pronunciation and same meaning found in one language and then suddenly cropping up in another (soogan/súgán), or it can be clear and definite evidence from contemporary documents that a word is known to have come from a particular term in another language.

But the simple fact is that Cassidy’s claim that hundreds of common English expressions derive from Irish is nonsense. Very few Irish words were borrowed into English and that’s a fact. Cassidy’s supporters may not like that fact. I may not like that fact but reality is reality and we have to live with it. When you start basing your view of reality on fantasies, where do you stop? The view of some of Cassidy’s supporters seems to be that history should accord with what we want and not what really happened. 

Perhaps it would have been nice if the Spanish Armada had been successful and Ireland had been a prosperous and powerful country while the English suffered hundreds of years of oppression and famine and economic stagnation under the Irish and their Spanish allies, but that isn’t what happened. And I would love to believe that millions of Jewish people were not exterminated in the Holocaust but should we pretend it didn’t happen just because it is a horrible and painful truth? Of course not. The history we have is the history we are stuck with, whether we like it or not. Only knaves and fools like Cassidy try to invent alternative histories.

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Mad, Bad or Very, Very Stupid?

This is a question that has bothered me a lot. Was Daniel Cassidy (author of How the Irish Invented Slang) insane, was he consciously  and deliberately dishonest, or was he too stupid to know the difference between real research and idiotic speculation?

It is a tricky one. While there is quite a lot of evidence that Cassidy was a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, I don’t think we can say that he was completely insane. He managed to write the book and talk at public meetings with a semblance of rationality. His view of the world might have been very strange, but he wasn’t a carpet-chewing crazy.

There is also clear evidence that he was dishonest. He added entire phrases to definitions to make them accord more closely with what he wanted. He adopted unconvincing sock-puppet identities to attack his critics. However, I also get the impression that he actually believed that his ‘research’ was largely right.

Cassidy was certainly stupid. He lacked any knowledge of the Irish language or of linguistics and his conclusions show an astounding inability to think, or to distinguish between bullshit and reality.

So, which is it: mad, bad or stupid? In a sense, I think Cassidy was all three. I never met him, so I am judging purely on the basis of his public persona, but he reminds me of a lot of news stories about people with narcissistic personality disorders, fantasist con-men with an appetite for publicity, an inflated sense of their own importance, the capacity to believe in their own spiel as if it were the truth, an ability to charm and manipulate, and a tendency to turn very nasty when criticised or crossed.

Pseudo-scholarship

I have recently read a couple of excellent books, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and Paranormality by Professor Richard Wiseman. I would recommend them to anyone with an intelligent and questioning mind. It’s great to read something rational after spending so much time arguing against a liúdramán like Daniel Cassidy. Inspired by Goldacre’s work on debunking the nonsense of alternative medicine and Wiseman’s treatment of the paranormal, I took a look at the article on Pseudoscience on Wikipedia. While Cassidy’s book How The Irish Invented Slang does not pretend to be science, it does pretend to be scholarship, and many of the characteristics of pseudoscience as given in the article (and in the two excellent books by Goldacre and Wiseman) are certainly applicable to Cassidy’s nonsense. Here are just a few of them:

Failure to make reasonable use of the principle of parsimony, i.e. failing to seek an explanation that requires the fewest possible additional assumptions when multiple viable explanations are possible. Thus, where we have a choice between English chicken meaning coward coming from English chicken meaning bird or coming from an unattested Irish phrase téigh ar cheann, a sensible person would opt for the parsimonious choice, that chicken is the English word chicken. Not Cassidy, of course!

Use of obscurantist language, and use of apparently technical jargon in an effort to give the superficial trappings of science. Cassidy uses terms like ‘back-formation’ and ‘macaronic’. He understands some of these terms but others like macaronic are not used correctly. (Cassidy thinks it means nonsense words – a macaronic song is really a song which uses two or more languages).

Lack of boundary conditions: Most well-supported scientific theories possess well-articulated limitations under which the predicted phenomena do and do not apply. This is also clearly a problem in Cassidy’s work. Where there is no satisfactory candidate in Irish, Cassidy takes words from Scots Gaelic. Where words are found in English centuries before the Mayflower, they are still included in Cassidy’s book, in spite of the fact that it claims to be an examination of Irish influence on American slang.

Lack of effective controls, such as placebo and double-blind, in experimental design. This is more applicable to hard science but it is still relevant to Cassidy’s work to some extent. As I have said before, you could make a list of Cassidy’s ‘Irish’ phrases and give them to some Irish speakers to see what they make of ‘uí bhfolaíocht án’ or ‘sách úr’ or ‘béal ónna’. If they failed to take the same meaning as Cassidy from them, or if they refused to recognise them as Irish (which they would), then Cassidy’s ‘research’ would have failed the test.

Lack of understanding of basic and established principles of physics and engineering. Cassidy was clearly completely clueless about linguistics, phonetics and Irish grammar, which are the subjects of this book.

Presentation of data that seems to support its claims while suppressing or refusing to consider data that conflict with its claims. This is an example of selection bias, a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected. It is sometimes referred to as the selection effect. In other words, cherry-picking what confirms your argument rather than looking for evidence which might falsify your argument. Cassidy was a past master of this.

Reversed burden of proof: In science, the burden of proof rests on those making a claim, not on the critic. “Pseudoscientific” arguments may neglect this principle and demand that skeptics demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a claim (e.g. an assertion regarding the efficacy of a novel therapeutic technique) is false. It is essentially impossible to prove a universal negative, so this tactic incorrectly places the burden of proof on the skeptic rather than the claimant. This is very important. Many of Cassidy’s supporters seem to think that sensible people should waste their time disproving his arguments. Of course, the burden of proof is on Cassidy and his supporters. If they think an Irish word beathuis is the origin of booze, then they should find an example in Irish of beathuis being used to mean alcohol. It is not up to critics to prove that the word beathuis DOESN’T exist (and ultimately we couldn’t do this anyway until every last manuscript in Irish has been transcribed and made available on line). 

Personalization of issues. Tight social groups and authoritarian personality, suppression of dissent, and groupthink can enhance the adoption of beliefs that have no rational basis. In attempting to confirm their beliefs, the group tends to identify their critics as enemies.  Cassidy seems to have been a charmer and had many friends and supporters (including academics who should have known better) who have boosted his work in spite of its intrinsic lack of merit. Others have taken to his work because they believe (erroneously) that it puts them in touch with their Irish roots and can’t bear to admit to themselves that the fact that their granny used the expression ‘the bee’s knees’ doesn’t automatically make them part of a bilingual Irish-American subculture.

Assertion of claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to suppress the results. Cassidy routinely claimed that overpaid academics and the ‘dictionary dudes’ from the OED had it in for him and that the linguistic community were determined to exclude all references to the Irish language from the dictionaries. This is nonsense. While there is possibly a slight subconscious bias against Irish in documents like the OED and there is almost certainly a practical bias caused by the fact that relatively few people are competent in Irish compared to other languages like French or Dutch, the idea of an academic conspiracy against Irish and against Cassidy’s work is just a smokescreen to protect him from criticism.

Attacking the motives or character of anyone who questions the claims (see Ad hominem fallacy). Cassidy and his supporters have attacked people like Grant Barrett and anyone else who criticised this idiotic book. Strangely, I have had very little direct criticism, probably because I actually speak Irish and am not an easy target.

 

So, buy Bad Science and Paranormality and read them. And if you have a copy of How The Irish Invented Slang, do the human race a favour and put it in the recycling bin.

Sucker

This is another Cassidy claim which has been spread far and wide by gullible and naïve people – glasóga as I would call them. According to Cassidy, sucker (in the sense of stooge or naïve person) comes from the Irish sách úr meaning ‘a fresh, well-fed fellow’ or ‘fat cat’ ready to be fleeced ‘like a ripe Donegal sheep’. (A ripe Donegal sheep?? What exactly is a ripe sheep? Can fat cats be ripe too? And why Donegal?  Don’t they fleece sheep in other counties?)  

So, does sách úr mean a sucker? As usual with Cassidy’s claims, the phrase sách úr is not found together (as noun and adjective) in any Irish text, so we will just have to examine the two constituent words to see if there is any chance at all that Cassidy accidentally got it right for a change. (Don’t hold your breath …)

Firstly, úr does mean fresh or new. What about sách? Sách is primarily an adjective meaning sated, full, well-fed. Its main use in some dialects (though not in mine: we use measartha) is as an adverb, as the equivalent of words like ‘fairly’ or ‘pretty’ in English.

Bhí sé sách maith. (It was fairly good, good enough)

But in Cassidy’s phrase, the word sách is obviously a noun. In the Irish dictionaries (such as Ó Dónaill) there is a noun sách meaning a well-fed person and the word is familiar to almost all Irish speakers from the proverb Ní thuigeann sách seang, má thuigeann ní in am. (The well-fed do not understand the slender, if they do it’s too late.)  But just because something is used as a noun in a proverb doesn’t mean you can use it as a noun in any circumstances. Proverbs have their own rules, in Irish and in English. For example, in English you can say “Only the good die young.” But you can’t say “*That man is a real good” or “*That family are really nice – they’re all goods!”

In exactly the same way, while you can use sách as a noun in the proverb, you can’t say *Nach tú an sách na laethanta seo? (Aren’t you the well-fed person these days?) or *Is sách é anois (He is a well-fed person now.) If you have any Irish, check out some uses of sách in this excellent website, Pota Focalhttp://www.potafocal.com/Search.aspx?Text=s%c3%a1ch&Lang=ga

There are lots and lots of references on Pota Focal where the word is being used as an adverb and at least one where it is a noun, but in that case it occurs with seang and is a clear reference to the proverb.

So, I am confident that sách would not be used as Cassidy says. Of course, we have to remember that Cassidy didn’t know any Irish. He was completely and totally ignorant of the language and it seems that his only interest in Irish was as a means of self-publicity. In Irish, there are plenty of expressions which could be used to mean gull or sucker: boigéisí; gabhdán; glasóg; mothaolaí, and I am sure Irish speakers would have used an expression like these rather than sách úr.

After all, the semantic connection between being well-fed and being a target for robbery is not very strong. And in any case, the phrase sách úr would be pronounced saakhoor or saahoor, so it is very unlikely that it would be heard as sucker.

In fact, there are other words which a dishonest person with a dictionary could claim as ‘obvious’ candidates for the origin of sucker. What about socair, an adjective meaning settled, decided, established, and even dead. Couldn’t this be ‘the one we have decided to rob?’ Or what about sochar, which has the dictionary meaning of benefit, gain. Couldn’t this be ‘the one who is going to benefit us?’ Or what about sac air (a sack on him), because swindling a mark is like putting a sack over his head? Or sú cóir, (proper juice), because the mark is a tempting, ‘juicy’ target? I could probably come up with a few others but what’s the point? You get the picture. It’s dead easy to take a huge dictionary and do some mixing and matching like this. It’s also totally worthless. It’s what Cassidy did in this book, over and over again. He was a one-trick pony with a one-horsepower brain.

Then again, the real origins of the word sucker in English are pretty clear. Young innocent children suck their thumbs or suck the teat. Young innocent children are easy to rob. So a sucker is someone who is young and innocent (wet behind the ears) and easy to rob. It’s not rocket science! So if you are one of these idiots who have helped to spread this laughable trash of Cassidy’s about ripe Donegal sheep and fresh well-feds, you must be a total sucker!   

Taunt

Daniel Cassidy (sometimes known as Professor Daniel Cassidy, though it is clear that he was underqualified to be a professor of anything) was the author of an insane work of pseudo-scholarship called How The Irish Invented Slang, in which he claimed that hundreds of English words were really derived from Irish. For example, he claimed that the word taunt is derived from the Irish tathant, which means to urge or incite or entreat.

There are several problems with this. While taunt sounds a bit like tathant (tahunt), the word taunt is already found in the English of England at the beginning of the 16th century. This is too early for it to have come from Irish, as there was no significant Irish immigration to England that far back. Furthermore, most scholars regard it as from French, probably from tenter (to tempt or to provoke). And then again, the meaning is off. Tathant is a word with positive connotations. It means to urge, to encourage, to entreat, not to rile someone or provoke them.

This is yet another piece of childish non-scholarship and yet another piece of evidence that Cassidy, far from being a serious academic, was the perpetrator of intellectual fraud on an industrial scale.

Yacking

Most dictionaries regard yack and yacking as versions of the phrase yackety-yack. In other words, they are an onomatopoeic rendering of the noise a set of teeth make when they are chattering. In Daniel Cassidy’s outrageously stupid book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Cassidy suggests that it comes from the Irish éagcaoin (properly éagaoin), which is pronounced aygeen and means ‘mourning’ or ‘lamenting’. This is really not similar at all, either in sound or meaning and of course, there is no evidence of yacking having an Irish origin. It is just bullshit and nonsense, like everything else in this book.

I came across a really funny quotation from Cassidy the other day in an article called Family History and Irish America, which is by someone called Marion R. Casey and published in The Journal of American Ethnic History (remind me to cancel my subscription!). She is apparently a genuine academic, though her impartiality is suspect (as well as her common sense) because she is linked to Professor Joseph Lee at NYU, who is on record as supporting Cassidy and endorsing his duff research as though it were a real and valid contribution to the sum of human knowledge. Anyway, I will quote it below:

“Ireland will take care of itself. My advice to students who are into Irish studies, or into any studies that look at America, and who want to come into an interesting field, and a field that will open up – you know, there are not a lot discoveries being made in the Humanities these days, folks! You come into Irish American Studies and there’s a lot of them. They’re like big gold nuggets sittin’ on the ground so get out there, start pickin’ ’em up.”

This is (unintentionally) rather funny, when you consider that the stupid claim above and hundreds like it are among Cassidy’s ‘nuggets’. The image of gold nuggets is very apt, given that gold nuggets often turn out to be fool’s gold, and that fairy gold which turns out to be worthless is a cliché of Irish folklore. But the strongest image it evokes in my mind is Cassidy the madman, squatting down and producing another fresh ‘nugget’ which he then holds up proudly to idiots who should know better. ‘Dat’s right. It might look like shit but I can assure you dat’ it’s pure gold. I’ve laid a whole lot o’ dem. And my ass is a p’fume factory too.’

Mug

Mug is a slang term for face in English. According to most dictionaries, it comes from those old mugs which were decorated with faces like Toby Jugs.

Daniel Cassidy, author of an atrocious piece of pseudo-scholarship called How The Irish Invented Slang, disagrees. He believes that it comes from the word muc, meaning pig. It is worth quoting his claim in full, as it clearly shows Cassidy’s poor scholarship and dishonesty.

“Muc, n., a pig; anything resembling a pig or hog; (of person) a piggish, hoggish individual, a swine; a scowl; a beetling brow; a scowling face; a piggish face. Múchna; n. a surly appearance; piggish scowl. Muc ar mala, a scowl, a beetling of brows, a piggish mug.

Most Anglo-American dictionaries derive the slang word mug from an English drinking mug with an ugly face painted on it. In Irish American vernacular, a mug (muc, a scowling, beetle-browed face) is a pig-faced mucker.”

The first point to make is that múchna is nothing to do with muc. Múchna comes from múch, meaning to extinguish or suppress. And it doesn’t sound anything like mug, so it is completely irrelevant here.

Then there is the problem of what muc means. If it meant ‘a scowling face, a piggish’ face, then it would be a pretty good candidate for the origin of mug. So does it?

If you’ve read the other posts in this blog, you’ll know what to expect. Cassidy was a pathological liar and muc does not mean a face … scowling, beetle-browed, smiley or any other kind. Muc means a pig, or a bulge which is rounded or pig-shaped. Muca sneachta are snowdrifts. When someone frowns, they get a small rounded bulge on their forehead, which in Irish is called muc ar gach mala (a bulge on each brow). It is used in this way but the phrases quoted above “a scowling face; a piggish face … a piggish mug … a scowling, beetle-browed face” are not true definitions of muc. They are Cassidy inventions. If you asked somebody in Irish why they had a muc on them (without the ar gach mala bit), they would look at you in puzzlement and say that they don’t have a pig on them. What Cassidy is saying is a little like saying that ‘laughter’ can be used in English to mean a wrinkled face because people talk about laughter lines. It is pure and total nonsense.