Glom

Daniel Cassidy, in his ridiculous book How The Irish Invented Slang, impatiently grabbed all round him, swiping words from Black American English, Yiddish and French (amongst others) and claiming them for Irish America. This was apparently a pattern of behaviour established in childhood. Cassidy informs us that his mother used to call him Glom, because he was always grabbing things that didn’t belong to him …

Glom is one of the words which Cassidy’s supporters hold up triumphantly as a clear-cut example of Irish influence on American English, which is very strange, because a few minutes of research online is enough to prove that glom has nothing to do with Irish.

According to The Random House Mavens’ Word of the Day, this word was first used with the sense of ‘to steal’ in 1897, in a book by Jack London, who was not raised in any cabin Irish ghetto. This shows that by the end of the 19th century, this was a common word in English. It was used all over the States by English speakers of all ethnic backgrounds.

In the form glaum, this word has been a Scots dialect word for centuries with the meanings ‘to grope, especially in the dark’ or ‘to grab at something’. This in turn derives from the Scots Gaelic word glàm, meaning to grab. The mainstream dictionaries are quite happy to accept this derivation in spite of their supposed anti-Gaelic bias.

It is true that glàm has a cognate in Irish with the word glám. (As a point of information, glám is not that common and most Irish speakers I know would use sciob instead.) What is absolutely clear is that the fact that Cassidy was nicknamed Glom when he was a child has nothing whatever to do with his Irish family’s roots. Glom was a part of the English which was spoken by everyone around him when he was growing up regardless of their ethnic background. It had become a part of English in Scotland and was an intrinsic part of mainstream American English. Cassidy’s claim (if it means anything at all) has to be about people retaining elements of Irish in their speech from generation to generation and these exotic elements surfacing in the language used by Irish Americans, which is obviously not the case here. 

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