Monthly Archives: March 2014

More on Charles Mackay

In a post a number of months ago, I wrote about the strange case of Charles Mackay, a journalist, author and poet of Scottish descent. Mackay is of great interest for several reasons. As a writer of verse, he was a forerunner of Kipling. As an author, he is well known for one of the first works of debunking, Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. He was also famous (or infamous) for a book which claimed Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic) origins for hundreds of words in English, French and even Hebrew. In other words, Mackay was both a crank-buster and a crank.

Daniel Cassidy, another major crank who proposed a very similar set of fake derivations from Irish in his How The Irish Invented Slang, gives a nod to Mackay in the book.

“In his Gaelic Etymology of the languages of the world, published in Edinburgh in 1879, Charles Mackay derived the mysterious word blow from the Scots-Gaelic buille and the Irish verb buail and its verbal noun bualadh. Mackay’s etymological dictionary was dedicated to the Duke of Edinburgh, who had sponsored and financed it. But a few blows from the Irish Fenian Movement in the 1880s and Mackay’s thesis of a substantial Irish and Gaelic influence on English was unthinkable – like Irish Home Rule.” 

This is typical Cassidy nonsense. For one thing, it shows his dire lack of knowledge of Irish or Scots Gaelic, as buille, buail and bualadh are all identical in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It also shows an ignorance of linguistics and a shocking laziness, as blow is obviously linked to cognates in German and is plainly a Germanic word. There is no mystery about it!To the best of my knowledge, the Duke of Edinburgh did not fund the book and the Dictionary of National Biography states that Mackay lost £300 as a result of the book’s publication. As for the Fenians, while there was a campaign of violence in the 1880s, the most important atrocity in Britain was the Clerkenwell Bombing in 1867 which killed 12 people and injured over 50. If this didn’t cause the Establishment to turn against Gaelic, why did the Fenian activities of the 1880s have such a profound effect? The fact is, Cassidy is simply trying to explain away the fact that the very top of the British Establishment was prepared to back a work which claims Gaelic etymologies for words in English in 1879, because according to Cassidy they should have been completely opposed to it! (Brendan Patrick Keane also repeats this nonsense about Mackay’s book and Anglophilia in the comments to his IrishCentral article).

The reality is very different. In fact, Mackay’s book was given negative reviews in the year of its publication by a fellow lover of the Gaelic language, Andrew D. Mackenzie. It is instructive to read the article, which was written in the Celtic Magazine of 1879, as it shows the eternal struggle in intellectual life between cranks like Mackay, Cassidy and Brendan Patrick Keane and rational human beings like the author of the article, Grant Barrett and myself.

 The style is very different from modern English, of course, but the arguments used are the same arguments used by the rational critics of Cassidy. The author states that sometimes no answer is better than a crazy answer.  “Where a definite conclusion cannot be reached, better were it to leave the word alone, and that on the plain principle that better far is no beacon than a false one and no guide than a blind one.”

He then mentions a book which he has on his shelves in which an Irish man called Arthur O’Connor indulged in the same kind of etymology by sound as Mackay. This raises a very valuable point – where etymology is based on sound research, different scholars will come up with the same derivations. Where it is based on fanciful nonsense, the results are all different. He demonstrates this with words in Mackay’s book which are also given by O’Connor, but the two authors give totally different derivations for them! 

The same is also true for Mackay and Cassidy, of course. Although Brendan Patrick Keane claims in an article about Irish that Mackay has been unjustly criticised because of prejudice, the fact is that many of the derivations as given by Mackay are quite different from the derivations given by Cassidy. For example, Mackay claims that boss comes from the Gaelic bas meaning palm, while Cassidy claims that it comes from Irish bas meaning boss. And Mackay’s explanation for the cant word blowen is quite different from Cassidy’s.

The author of the article criticises the fact that Mackay’s derivations are purely based on accidental correspondences of sound, and not on an examination of the different branches of Indo-European and the way that different words are expressed in them. “Too often have the weapons of sarcasm been flung, and flung to some purpose, against what is styled phonetic etymology; but here the reader every now and then encounters in sound and in sense alike the most unaccountable violations of probability.”

Isn’t it remarkable that this individual, writing 130 years ago, expresses the same rationality and scepticism that drives people like me, while Daniel Cassidy and Brendan Patrick Keane are driven by the same crankdom which guarantees that almost anything they say will be wrong? Isn’t it amazing that the eternal battle between wish-fulfilling fantasy and good sense is still being played out in cyberspace just as it was in the pages of the Celtic Magazine in 1879!


Cassidy and Irish

I found a very interesting comment on one of Brendan Patrick Keane’s stupider posts on IrishCentral. The author, Elaine Ní Bhraonáin, is an Irish-language expert who plainly didn’t find Cassidy as impressive as the CCC (Cassidy Crony Club) would have us believe!

Breandan a chara, I organised an event where Daniel spoke a good few years back but was shocked to learn that he had made no effort whatsoever to learn the Irish language prior to writing this book. He had no grasp of pronunciation as Gaeilge at all. It could be an interesting PhD topic for someone to study but the book itself lacks real evidence. When I met him, he looked at my name tag and said “I’m not even going to try and pronounce that name” which I thought odd for an academic involved with Irish/English language research. Le meas Elaine Ní Bhraonáin

Imagine the arrogance! A person who is unable to read a simple name badge in the Irish language, and yet he thinks he is in a position to rock the world of Irish linguistics to the foundation! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What a putz!

Origin Unknown?

It is amazing how many people online have rushed to repeat Cassidy’s claim that most or many of the words in Cassidy’s book are given as ‘origin unknown’ or ‘origin uncertain’ in the dictionaries, without checking the facts for themselves. For example, here’s a quote from Joe ‘The Prof’ Lee:

Daniel Cassidy flings down the gauntlet to all those compilers of dictionaries who fled to the safe haven of ‘origin unknown’ when confronted with the challenge of American slang. 

And here’s another one from the infantile Educational Cyber Playground:

The Dictionary has printed that most of Cassidy’s English words are listed “origin unknown,” and when you think about the huge diaspora, it’s a certainty that the Irish would have contributed words to English.

The Dictionary? Where can I buy THE Dictionary? And did anyone ever really claim that the majority of words in Cassidy’s crapfest are ‘origin unknown’,  even Cassidy himself? He certainly played down the amount of information available about many of the words he proposed daft origins for, but I don’t think the majority of his entries contain the phrases ‘origin unknown’ or ‘origin uncertain’. 

In a number of posts on this blog, I have already pointed out that Cassidy played fast-and-loose with the dictionaries and claimed that a lot of expressions were origin unknown when their origins were very well-known (grumble, for example). 

I therefore decided to go through  Cassidy’s book and compare Cassidy’s version to the reality. However, I am not a masochist and the thought of reading every page of Cassidy’s sad testament to human ignorance was just too much for me, so instead of that, I checked the first hundred headwords in the glossary part of it and researched them. Some words like blowen (ever heard that one? Me neither!), or beak (magistrate) or boogie are certainly origin unknown. But many others were misrepresented by Cassidy. Being generous (and assuming that my sample is representative of the document as a whole), no more than 10% of the words are really lacking a reasonable explanation. For example, Cassidy says that bullyrag is ‘origin unknown’. Yet a quick glance online shows that rag can mean ‘to scold, torment or tease’. So bullyragged might just mean ‘browbeaten by a bully’, which is pretty much what it means anyway. And an aggressive shill being called a capper makes perfect sense to me. A person makes an offer, the shill caps that offer and pushes the bid up, so they are a capper.

I should also point out that in most of the cases where the word is ‘origin unknown’, Cassidy’s supposed ‘Irish’ origins are nonsense and could not possibly be correct. 

The idea that Cassidy found vast numbers of words labelled ‘origin unknown’ with clear origins in Irish which the Anglophile linguists had deliberately ignored is another red herring, created by this evil con-man to deceive the fans of his book who he treated with the same easy comtempt as he treated the Irish language, the world of academia and the people who were foolish enough to regard him as a friend.


Hall of Shame – Brendan Patrick Keane, AGAIN!

The Irish, like every people on Earth, have plenty of cranks, begrudgers and know-nothings. However, generally we also have a positive attitude towards learning and studying. Anti-intellectualism is not a major part of our culture and our self-image as a nation is often about urbanity and scepticism and originality. Because of this, it is always a disappointment when we find people in the Irish diaspora who seem to be dead set on living up to (or living down to?) the negative ethnic stereotypes of the Irish created over hundreds of years by the British with their Irish Bulls, stage-Irish characters and Irish jokes, which portray us as a nation of gullible and dull-witted imbeciles.

One such gullible fool is called Brendan Patrick Keane. I had occasion to comment before on an atrocious post in IrishCentral in which he takes a host of Cassidy’s loopy and easily disprovable claims about the Irish origin of slang terms and repeats them verbatim, thus demonstrating a lamentable lack of any journalistic standards. Unfortunately, my comments last time have either not come to his attention or he has chosen to persist in his folly in the hope of becoming wise. Not much chance of that! According to his description of himself online, he is also a 9/11 Truther!

And now, Keane is at it again! He recently published a childish and dilettante post about the Irish language. He claims that he is ‘a student’ of the language, though it is quite apparent that most of the information he gives in this blog post is derived from the new online Irish dictionary,, and that Keane himself doesn’t know much about Irish or linguistics. This is clear because the phrase ‘An dtuig’ isn’t correct in Irish – it would have to be ‘An dtuigeann?’ – and dhá súile doesn’t make sense at all. The correct Irish is dhá shúil.

As is his wont, Keane likes to garnish his borrowed content with tedious barstool philosophy. No doubt Keane thinks he is highly original, but in fact his recent post is an example of a well-known fallacy, where someone compares random grammatical features of two languages and draws specious and childish conclusions about the hidden mental processes expressed by these grammatical structures. This is best avoided by any intelligent person. It is an over-simplified, folk-linguistic version of the theory known to linguists as The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Mostly, it is a harmless kind of thinking aloud but at times it can verge on racism, as in the case where a British journalist in South America observed that when a glass was knocked over someone said ‘Se me cayó’ in Spanish, and that this ‘blaming’ of the glass for its own demise was typical of a culture where people don’t take responsibility for their own actions!

Keane’s piece is full of nonsense about Irish. He makes the absurd claim that the phrase ‘thinking cap’ comes from the Irish ceap, meaning think. He recommends people to read his original post about Cassidy, where people can find out the ‘origin’ of slang phrases like pizzazz, sucker,  Interesting that Keane’s childish post (and through it, Cassidy’s ridiculous book) get a link, while the source that Keane’s recent post is based on,, doesn’t get a link at all. But then, if you’re recommending a piece of shit to people which is packed to the gills with fake Irish nonsense, the last thing you want them to do is go to an online dictionary and look up the real facts for themselves!

He repeats Cassidy’s ridiculous assertion that jazz comes from the Irish teas, and once again demonstrates a lack of any real knowledge of Irish by also giving Cassidy’s phonetic version, implying that teas can be pronounced with a j sound.

The story of how Cassidy came to believe this is interesting. Cassidy made use of a forum for Irish learners to find out how to pronounce certain sounds []. Cassidy couldn’t understand the linguistic explanations. Eventually, one poster said:

BOTTOM LINE?!  How do I say “tir?”
I’ll bet every native speaker would understand me no matter which I said.

Then Cassidy answered:

A chairde: go raibh maith agat.
tri tir: some tear, some jeer, some cheer (tir)
Sounds like the divine Raic Ard of New Yawk so-called “Ing-lish” — I have at least three registers of pronunciation of Be/arla in mo chab.

In other words, the other poster was saying, it doesn’t matter what you say really because people will understand you, NOT that native speakers use these forms interchangeably. But in the insane world of Cassidy’s head, this casual online comment became a source and was actually quoted as a source in the book and described by Cassidy as The Rule of Tír. In this, we can clearly see Cassidy’s disease, and the reason why only a total idiot like Brendan Patrick Keane would recommend this tripe to other people. Cassidy looked for any hint which might confirm his opinions and then turned it from possibility to probability, from probability to certainty. From a casual and impatient comment on an online forum, Cassidy invented a bogus rule of pronunciation and capitalised it as The Rule of Tír!

The comments page contains even more stupidities from Keane. For example, according to him Proto-Germanic was invented by linguists to give a lineage to English. Yes, I’m sure that was a major priority for Jakob Grimm and Franz Bopp, neither of whom were English!

In short, to any members of the Irish American or Irish community reading this, if you see the by-line Brendan Patrick Keane on an article, don’t bother reading it. This man is a fool who thinks he’s an intellectual and there is no worse kind of fool in the world.