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!

 

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