Monthly Archives: September 2013

Lollygag

Sometimes, you can tell which language a word comes from by the sound of it. If you heard or saw a word like as-saqiyah or pozhalujsta or mokele-mbembe, you would probably be able to hazard a guess about the language. What do you think? The first, of course, is Arabic, the second Russian and the third is from an African language called Lingala. When I hear a word like lollygag, it sounds very English to me. It sounds like mollycoddle or hornswoggle or guttersnipe. It doesn’t sound like Irish, however much that Irish might have been changed in transition between languages.

Lollygag, meaning idling or necking,  first makes its appearance in the USA in the 1860s. Most experts regard it as coming from the English word loll, as in ‘lolling about’. This seems reasonable, as lolling is very similar to the core meaning of lollygagging. Daniel Cassidy, in his absurd apology for a book, How The Irish Invented Slang, disagrees. He claims that the word ‘lollygag’, comes from the Irish leath-luighe géag, which he claims means ‘a reclining, leaning, lolling youth.’ Anyone who speaks any Irish at all will immediately realise that there are a number of problems with this.

Admittedly leath-luighe (leathluí in modern spelling) does mean reclining or lying on your side (as does loll in English, of course), but the primary meaning of géag is limb, or arm, or arm of the sea, or a branch of a family. One obscure and poetic meaning is ‘a youth’ or ‘young person’, but this is not the meaning that an Irish speaker would usually take from the word in the absence of other contextual clues. And the version given by Cassidy makes no sense at all in terms of Irish grammar. Leath-luí is not an adjective, and anyway adjectives need to come after the noun in Irish. So leath-luí géag could never mean ‘reclining youth,’ even if you ignore the unsuitability of the word géag for a young person in ordinary conversation.

You would also have to account for why Irish immigrants didn’t use one of the many words which are similar in meaning to lollygag, words like learaireacht, scraisteacht, leadaíocht.

Like almost all of the phrases given by Cassidy in this trashy con-trick of a book, this is not real Irish. It doesn’t look or sound like real Irish and the only person who has ever claimed that it is Irish was the American con-man who made it up, a liar and charlatan who didn’t know any Irish at all.  

Skedaddle

You would think that after six months and 111 posts attacking Daniel Cassidy’s ridiculous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, I would be nearing the end of my journey, that there would be no nonsense left to pull apart and denigrate. However, Cassidy’s book is such a crap-filled septic tank that there are still plenty of claims in it which are every bit as bad as the worst examples dealt with so far.

One of these utterly moronic claims is the idea that ‘skedaddle’ (meaning ‘to run off’) comes from the Irish sciord ar dólámh. Of course, as usual with Cassidy’s claims, sciord ar dólámh isn’t found in Irish. It isn’t a recognised phrase. It is not found in any song or poem or prose work. Cassidy invented it by putting together words he found in a dictionary. It doesn’t sound much like skedaddle and there are plenty of well-known expressions in Irish which mean to run off or run away. Cassidy liked to talk about ‘phonetic overcoats’ of English but in this case it would have to be more of a ‘phonetic straitjacket’.

Furthermore, the experts tell us that skedaddle is an American version of an English dialect word scaddle, which also means ‘to run off.’ This word is actually attested and it is also found in the English of Ulster (according to the excellent Concise Ulster Dictionary, which in spite of its being published by Oxford is full of words of Irish Gaelic origin and had an Irish language expert on the team, Dr Art Hughes. No doubt he is also an Anglophile stooge of British Imperialism!) There is evidence that the word scaddle exists, which there isn’t with the phrase sciord ar dólámh.

Of course, if Cassidy’s supporters want to claim that this phrase is Irish, then they have a clear choice. Let them find some evidence. Because the testimony of an American moron who didn’t speak any Irish doesn’t constitute evidence.

H.L. Mencken

I don’t know much about H.L. Mencken. I have heard him referred to on Frasier and I have some vague idea that he was a ‘word maven’, an expert on the American English language. The fact is that Mencken isn’t really a big name over here. In Ireland, he is not much quoted and is certainly far less famous than Dorothy Parker or Mark Twain. Cassidy and people like him are fond of quoting H.L. Mencken as an example of discrimination against the Irish, because he denied the extent of Irish influence on English and said that ‘perhaps speakeasy, shillelagh and smithereens exhaust the list.’ From what I have read online, he does seem to have been a racist and a rather unpleasant man and the quote above about the Irish is obviously not genuinely about linguistics. As an expert on English, I think he would have known that speakeasy isn’t an Irish word (it comes from the English words speak and easy!), though its synonym shebeen is. The fact is that Mencken’s glib comment has a narrative in it. The Irish drink, fight and wreck things. They go to the speakeasy, hit one another with shillelaghs and smash things to smithereens.

However, to take the fact of Mencken’s snobbish, racist attitude to the Irish and other minorities and use it to suggest that Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary have conspired against words from the Irish language only makes sense if you buy Cassidy’s idiotic claims wholesale. It is quite plain that there is no evidence of a large number of words derived from Irish in the English language and those that do exist, like banshee, usker, whiskey, poteen, esker, drumlin, shebeen, galore, ogham and tanist are already in the dictionaries. If you gathered a large number of linguists together and asked them to look at the Irish contribution to English again, it is unlikely that they would turn up more than a couple of extra words. The reason why the lexicographers are reluctant to take Cassidy’s claims seriously is that they are rubbish and Cassidy was a fraud. There is no conspiracy against words of Irish language origin. It is just a smokescreen, a ruse invented by Cassidy himself so that gullible people would regard academic criticism as proof of Cassidy’s rightness rather than proof of his stupidity and dishonesty.

Heckler

To the long-dead flax workers of Scotland.

You were known as hecklers, a Scots and dialect English version of hackler. You worked long, exhausting hours, dragging bundles of flax or hemp through heckling combs to separate the fibres so that they could be spun into thread and then into cloth.

You were one of the most radical and vociferous elements in the labour movement of Britain. You were famed for your literacy, your burning desire for self-improvement, your advocacy for the rights of the poor. It is said that while you worked in cities like Dundee, one of your number used to read out the stories of the day from a newspaper and shouts and comments would come from all corners of the room.

Your trade is long gone now but the memory of your radicalism lives on in the word heckler, a name now used to denote someone who shouts out and interrupts a speaker. 

Unfortunately, there are people now who want to make your contribution to the history of the English language as dead as your trade. They are people who have read a foolish book and believed all of it (I can imagine you turning in your graves – Think on that, folks that accept the printed word as true without questioning or thinking or investigating! For shame!)

That book is Daniel Cassidy’s How The Irish Invented Slang. Cassidy, who claimed to be ‘a labor activist’, cared nothing for the facts and chose to ignore your contribution to the history of the labour movement. He invented a foolish phrase in Irish (éamh call) which he claimed meant ‘to shout out complaints’ and he tried to pass this off as the origin of the word heckler. No matter that no Irish speaker has ever used éamh call. No matter that it makes little sense. No matter that Irish has many real ways of saying heckle or interrupt, like trasnáil a dhéanamh, trasnú, trioscadh, cur isteach ar chainteoir, briseadh isteach ar chainteoir. No matter that your own proud name is well-established as the origin of the word heckler.

A parcel of rogues and fools wants to believe in lies and nonsense rather than accept the facts. Which is why I am here, on a piece of technology you could not have imagined back in your day, shouting out my objections on your behalf – like a true heckler.   

Gash

Gash is apparently a slang term for a vagina and a gash-hound is a man who is obsessed with sex. Where does this come from? Well, I would have thought the English word ‘gash’ meaning a cut or wound is a pretty good candidate. Not according to Daniel Cassidy, author of the atrocious book How The Irish Invented Slang. He thinks that when someone went out on a Saturday night in the slums of Noo Yoik looking for gash, they were really looking for the Irish gáirse, meaning lewdness. Words fail me. Really …

Cassidy’s mate Peter Quinn once wrote: ‘Danny Cassidy was the funniest, wisest, most learned, most generous, most electric, and least pretentious person I ever met.

Which is strange, because I thought Peter Quinn came from New York. The fact is, on the evidence of claims like the one above, you would have to have been raised in a cupboard in the Fritzl Suite under a house in a quiet area of Dumbass Lane, Stupidville, deprived of all human contact and fed exclusively on Pop-tarts pushed through a letterbox to avoid meeting someone wiser and more learned than Daniel Cassidy.

Cretin though he was, Cassidy must have been possessed of immense charisma to inspire this kind of self-deluding nonsense.

Gallus

This is another instance where Daniel Cassidy got it massively wrong in his absurd insult to the world of scholarship, How The Irish Invented Slang.

There is a common word in Scots (the Lowland Scots version of English, not Scots Gaelic) which is also found in northern dialects of English, the word gallus. According to the experts, this word is related to the standard English ‘gallows’. It is used in the plural as galluses in Scotland and northern England as the equivalent of ‘braces’ in standard British English or ‘suspenders’ in American English. The word gallus is also used in Scotland as an adjective which originally meant ‘pertaining to the gallows’ (a bit like the English ‘a gallows bird’, a criminal), but which later meant ‘daring’ or ‘cheeky’ or ‘impressive’. It is still very much alive in Scottish speech.

The word gealaisí in Irish means ‘braces’/’suspenders’ and is a borrowing of galluses. We know that it came from Britain to Ireland rather than the other way round because galluses is found in both Scotland and England and has a recognised etymology (galluses=gallows) while gealaisí doesn’t. Cassidy tries to suggest a tenuous link with the Irish gealas meaning ‘brightness’ or ‘ray’ but fails to explain how this could become an adjective or how the meanings of gealas could give rise to gallus or galluses, or indeed how you can explain an Irish word becoming so widespread in northern England.

In other words, Cassidy’s item on gallus is just more anti-intellectual garbage from a fool who couldn’t be bothered doing any proper research himself but liked to taunt and insult genuine scholars in Ireland, Scotland, England and the US while borrowing extensively from their work when it suited him and selectively ignoring anything they wrote when it didn’t.

Lucre

Let me tell you a story. Long ago, in Central Europe, there were two language groups which resembled each other. One was the ancestor of Latin, the other the ancestor of Irish. These language groups had many similar words, like the words for land or sea. They also had a similar word for value or wealth. In Irish, thousands of years later, this was to become luach. In Latin, the word became lucrum, and this later developed into the French lucre, which by the time of Chaucer had been borrowed into the English and was used to mean ‘money’. It was often used with words like foul or filthy to show that wealth was corrupting.

This is how English got the word lucre, as in ‘filthy lucre’. There is no doubt or room for argument about this. The word lucre came from French, which developed out of Latin. The word is a cognate (a cousin, if you like) of the Irish luach. But it isn’t a borrowing from Irish. So why is it in this book? How is it relevant to Cassidy’s theory of Irish influence on English? 

Your guess is as good as mine. You just have to bear in mind that Cassidy was completely nuts and that hardly any of the claims made in this book make any sense at all.