Monthly Archives: November 2014

Owen on Lollygagging

Oh dear! Here we go again! I’ve had another message from Owen.

Your argument that the word “leath-luighe géag” couldn’t mean “lollygag” is flawed because you’re basing it on the present day meaning of the Irish Gaelic words and not the language as it was used by poor Irish immigrants in the 1800’s. It stands to reason that semantic shifts and phonology could have produced the English word in question.

Man dear, it’s obvious that you are intent on defending Cassidy’s idiotic book go bun an angair but perhaps you should find some other pointless and Quixotic enterprise – restoring King Zog to the throne of Albania or saving the dodo from extinction spring to mind.

So the language as used in the 19th century was totally different from the modern language, was it? Like many Irish speakers, many of the books I read in Irish were written in the early years of the Revival, works like Mac Gabhann’s Rotha Mór an tSaoil, which I mentioned in a post recently. I have no difficulty in understanding Mac Gabhann’s Irish at all, yet he was born in 1865. Most of the people around him when he was growing up lived through the Famine. Languages change, but they don’t change that radically in 150 years.

As for how that language differed from modern Irish, I have some idea about that. Cassidy didn’t, because Cassidy didn’t speak any Irish at all. I suspect the same is true of you. You are talking about things you know nothing about.

There is no evidence that anyone has ever used leath-luighe géag in Irish. As I’ve explained, it doesn’t make sense and incidentally, it is a phrase, not a word. Phrases are rarely borrowed between languages, especially phrases which don’t actually exist in the source language. And as for semantic shifts, I suppose that means changing the meaning of words any way you want. And phonology means changing the sounds any way you want. So essentially, you’re saying that I’m being unreasonable if I don’t accept your right to take a made-up phrase in ‘Irish’, change the pronunciation and meaning of the constituent words any way that suits you and claim this as the origin of an English word.

The fact is, there is no evidence for any of this. And it might seem to you that these things ‘stand to reason’, but to people who are genuinely reasonable they don’t make sense at all. Have a very merry Christmas with Cassidy, Santy and the Tooth Fairy. And as for me, I’ll continue to put my trust in genuine, verifiable facts.


One of the most stupid claims in Cassidy’s book (and there are SO MANY OF THEM) is the one about whale. Apparently, to whale on someone means to beat or hit them. Nobody knows for sure where this word comes from. My first thought was that it might be from the power and violence of a whale, which could easily smash a boat with one flick of its tail, but apparently that’s not it.  It seems that this use of whale as a verb meaning beat or whip first occurs in the late 18th century and it has been suggested (quite reasonably) that it comes from the word wale, to mark with wales (variant of weals) or stripes, which has been used since the 15th century.

Cassidy, of course, disagrees and comes up with his own childish guess. According to him, it comes from bhuail, the past tense of buail, meaning to hit. As I have said before, words and phrases are not just borrowed any old how between languages. Cassidy thought it was OK to take any form which suited his purpose, plural, grammatically inflected, past tense, a hotchpotch of bad grammar or even just bits of phrases. Whichever form sounded most like his target was the one that ‘must’ have passed from pidgin Irish to slang English.

So, in the case above, if we allow the different mutations, we have buail (booil), bhuail (wooil or vooil depending ón dialect), mbuail (mooil). And of course, as we’ve seen in Cassidy’s overuse of aingí, vowels counted for nothing in his methodology. So the word buail could give ríse to whale, wheel, meal, mole, moll, mall, ball, bowl, bowel, vowel, veal, vole, and a couple of hundred other English words. When you’re casting your net as widely as this, it’s not difficult to find impressive-looking connections.  But they are only impressive if you don’t look too closely. In fact, you could say the same thing about Cassidy and all his works. They are only impressive if you don’t look too closely.


In his ridiculous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy made hundreds of stupid and easily disprovable claims. One of the most stupid of these claims is the one about swoon (to faint), which he claims comes from the Irish suan, an old-fashioned word for sleep. Confusingly, he states that the English word swoon is of unknown etymology, then below that he says:

Many Anglo-American dictionaries derive swoon “from Old English geswōgan in a faint … past participle of swōgan, as in āswōgan, to choke, of uncertain origin.”

In other words, according to the mainstream dictionaries, the etymology of the word swoon is known back to the Old English period more than a thousand years ago and by the Middle English period (according to the Michigan Middle English Dictionary) it was swounen, defined as “To become unconscious, faint, swoon; collapse in a swoon.”

Just because suan happens to resemble swoon doesn’t automatically mean it’s the origin of the word. After all, the Irish for to faint isn’t anything to do with suan. It’s titim i laige or titim i bhfanntais.

More On Shanty

I have already discussed this point, the supposed Irish origins of the word shanty, meaning a wooden house or shack. Many Irish people believe that this is an Irish word. The claim was made in the Cornell Daily Sun in 1936, in an account of a language expert giving a lecture on the influence of Irish on English. The ‘expert’, whose name was Conboy, states that shanty comes from the words sean (old) and tigh (house). In fact, teach is the usual Irish word for house. It is only tigh in Munster dialects. Most experts are sceptical of the Irish origin theory, and believe that shanty comes from the French chantier.

In his ludicrous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Cassidy repeats this claim. As I have already said, while this claim seems reasonable, it is very unlikely that there is any truth to it, because by definition, these shanties are not old houses. They are new, temporary structures.

Recently, I came across a book in a quiet corner of my bookshelves and decided to read it again. It is called Rotha Mór an tSaoil (The Great Wheel of Life), and it is by a Donegal man called Micí Mac Gabhann. Mac Gabhann spent part of his youth in America and he gives an account of his adventures there.

In a chapter called Tógáil Tí (Housebuilding) he has this to say:

… dar linn gur cheart dúinn cábán beag tí a thógáil dúinn féin, in ionad bheith ag díol cíosa mar bhí muid á dhéanamh go dtí sin. Botháin bheaga adhmaid a bhí sa champa uilig …

… we felt that we should build a little cabin of a house (cábán tí) for ourselves, instead of paying rent as we had been until then. The whole camp was of little wooden huts (botháin bheaga adhmaid) …

Mac Gabhann must have been aware of the English term shanty, but he isn’t tempted to use seanteach or seantithe anywhere in his book. Mac Gabhann’s shanties were botháin, cábáin or tithe.


Some Good News

I was looking at Amazon recently and I was heartened to see that Cassidy’s ridiculous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, is now placed at 819,713 in Books. This means that it is a long way down from where it was a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, I have not been keeping a record of Amazon sales for this book but I note that Stephen Pinker’s book The Language Instinct is at number 10,600, which is far ahead of Cassidy. Another heartening piece of information is that there are 66 used copies of the book available at prices as low as 29 cents, which suggests that the bottom has fallen out of the market. (Still 29 cents too much, but I’m not complaining!) With a bit of luck, commentators like myself are starting to get the message across that this book is not to be trusted and that recommending it to other people is simply announcing to the world that you are naïve, stupid or dishonest.

The Linguist’s List

I recently stumbled upon an interesting source, at It is a list of the exchanges between the late Daniel Cassidy, phoney scholar, and members of the American Dialect Society in 2003 and 2004. There are a number of interesting things about this. One of the most amazing things is the level of politeness and deference shown by the members of the ADS towards a man who was obviously crazy, though I would have to say that his credentials look more impressive than they really were and they would have had no way of knowing that he didn’t know any Irish at all.

In his posts, Cassidy did exactly what he did in the book. He simply ignored anything which didn’t suit him, refused to give any evidence which related to the actual words (rather than the social context of the time, the number of Irish speakers in the community etc.) and kept up an endless stream of word-play which I suppose he must have thought was funny but just ends up being irritating and gives his comments a protective camouflage of jokiness.

However, the thing which really stands out in these exchanges is the number of words which are given completely different Irish derivations on this forum and in the book which was published three years later.

For example, in this list, he claims that he has solved the mystery of samollions (a slang term for lots of money, apparently). He says that it comes from suim oll i n’eineach. I imagine this is probably meant to be suim oll in éineacht, as he glosses it a huge amount (sum) all at once. In the book, this is given as suim oll amháin, which he claims means one big sum. (In reality, oll is a prefix in modern Irish so you would have to say ollsuim, not suim oll, so the claim is obvious rubbish anyway, whatever random element Cassidy chose to put at the end.)

Then there are the many expressions which are minced oaths in English and which begin with Holy (Holy Cow, Holy Mackerel). In this forum, Cassidy claimed that these are really the word oille (a nominal form of the adjective oll). I have never heard the word oille in use and I suspect that most Irish speakers would say the same, though it is certainly in the dictionary. Cassidy also claimed that this was pronounced something like holly, as he believed that Irish words that begin with a vowel are pronounced with a h-, which of course is completely untrue. This claim had been dropped in the book, so these oaths were half-English and half-Irish in that version. Cassidy claimed in the book that the Mackerel of Holy Mackerel is Mac Ríúil, Kingly Son. In this list, it is Mac Ríogh-fhuil, Son of King-blood, or as the Great Fraud put it, Great Royal-Blooded Son.

Then there’s growler, a pot used for getting a ‘carry-out’ of beer in the tenements of New York. In the book, this was given the unlikely Irish origin of gearr-ól úr (‘a fresh short-drink’). In this forum, it is given the even more unlikely derivation of gearradh ól leor, which Cassidy defines as ‘plenty of fast drink’. Apparently the gearradh (a word meaning cutting) is supposed to mean quick and Cassidy obviously didn’t know how the word leor is used in Irish.

There is another spate of comments on this list after the publication of Cassidy’s book. By that stage, none of the experts involved were in any doubt that Cassidy was a fraud and they said so clearly and repeatedly. One particular comment caught my eye, from a medievalist called Amy West:

“Having seen Cassidy’s signature block at the end of his archived posting on “big onion,” I’m wondering if there’s a much larger criticism of Cassidy’s work other than, as Grant said, the work being “unreliable and not to be trusted.” With his position as a professor of Irish Studies, should we be holding him to an even *higher* standard even though this is not an academic work? If so, would this be an instance of not academic fraud but *malpractice*? That is, we know what academics can and should do: look for tangible evidence, present points against, think and read critically, attempt to be objective and rational. He not only fails to do this, but engages in superficial thinking using superficial connections /resemblances, a lack of concrete evidence, with an agenda and not only a lack of recognition of counterarguments and other positions but derisive dismissal of them: things I expect more from my freshmen than a professional academic. And those are things I would not tolerate from my freshmen.”

Obviously she didn’t realise what we now know to be the case, that Cassidy was completely unqualified to be a professor of anything, but her comments are exactly right. Cassidy failed to follow even the most basic principles of genuine academic research. He was a fraud and it is bizarre that years later, I am still having to argue with deluded people who insist that Cassidy was some kind of linguistic guru.