In the post I wrote on the word cac (Irish for shit), I criticized a foolish and pseudo-intellectual article by Jonathan Scott in the Journal of Socialism and Democracy online. This review of Cassidy’s book manages to build a towering edifice of pretentious verbiage on the shifting quicksand of Cassidy’s insane speculations, and I feel that it is high time that I had a further go at dismantling the foolish arguments advanced by the author.
The author of this childish and pompous review, Jonathan Scott, was obviously impressed with Cassidy:
Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang is a specialist work of linguistic scholarship, but it cuts across many academic disciplines. This explains its particular power, for it cannot be reduced to linguistics, Irish studies, American studies, ethnography or cultural theory, and yet none of these disciplines can remain the same as a result of his work.
Of course, in reality, Cassidy’s work was simply a hoax and a con-job manufactured by a narcissist with no genuine qualifications and no knowledge of Irish, linguistics, history or (apparently) anything else. It has had and will have no lasting influence on any of these disciplines, though some naïve and foolish individuals have taken some of Cassidy’s claims seriously and suffered the consequences by shaming themselves in public.
One of the stupidest claims in this article is the one about the phrase ‘Don’t be a pussy!’ It’s worth quoting in full here because it’s so ridiculous and so full of nonsense:
By the end of Cassidy’s study not only is the claim that Shakespeare was Irish plausible, but also many mysteries of American vernacular, extremely perplexing hitherto, are finally solved – the offensive word “pussy,” for example. From a feminist standpoint, the word is pornographic and its use morally indefensible, as it associates the female genitalia with weakness and cowardice, thus belonging to misogynist discourse. Cassidy shows that “pussy” is an Irish word, both a noun and an adjective (pusaire: n., a crybaby; pusach: adj., pouting, whimpering, sulking). In Irish, “Don’t be a pussy!” means “Stop crying all the time!” or “Be brave!” Of course this is how American boys and men, and girls and women too, always use the word, but without knowing its Irish root they’re indeed guilty of deploying it in sexist way, by comparing their (almost always male) object of ridicule to a female’s private parts – what everyone wrongly assumes when they say it. The original Irish meaning of the word is actually gender-free – it can refer to a male or a female – and has no connection whatever to the Latin word pusa, which refers to the labia. “Pussy,” like all the Irish words in Cassidy’s text, was passed down from one generation of Irish-Americans to the next, and then adopted by Americans of all languages and ethnicities, both because of its appealing lyrical quality and its special knack for signifying precisely what the speaker is trying to say.
This is, of course, total and complete horse feathers. Leaving aside the nonsense about Shakespeare being Irish, it is true that the word pus in Irish means a sulky expression or a protruding mouth. This is well known as the origin of expressions like sourpuss in English. It is commonly used in Irish dialects of English as well as in American dialects.
However, there is no evidence that pussy in phrases like ‘don’t be a pussy!’ derives from Irish words like pusachán or pusaire or pusach. Where’s the evidence? Why don’t people in communities in Ireland where the tide of Irish retreated only a couple of generations ago say things like ‘don’t be a pussy?’ They don’t because these are Americanisms, not Irishisms. And what about the tendency of borrowed words to follow the syntax of the language they came from? People say ‘don’t be an ommadawn’ because they realise that amadán (fool) is a noun. If they borrowed amaideach (foolish), they would say ‘don’t be amaideach!’ not ‘don’t be an amaideach!’ So, if they said ‘don’t be pussy’ or ‘don’t be a pussahawn’ or ‘don’t be a pusser’, Cassidy might have a case. They don’t and he doesn’t.
Furthermore, the author seems to be throwing things in here which are not even claimed in the book. He claims that pusa is Latin for the labia. It isn’t. The Latin for the labia is … labia, stoopid! There is a word pusa in Latin. It means a girl, not a vagina. Cassidy claimed (wrongly) that pussy in the sense of vagina comes from the plural of pus in Irish, pusa – not Latin – and thus means lips and figuratively vagina, so Cassidy’s claim was that pusa, pusaire, pusach and pusachán are all related anyway, which, if it were true, would invalidate the argument made above.
In fact, Cassidy was wrong about this as well. (After all, Cassidy was wrong about nearly everything.) There is no evidence of anyone using the word pusa in Irish to mean vagina or labia and the fact is, pussy for vagina is clearly of Germanic, not Celtic or Latin origin. The usual word for vagina in Irish is pit or pis (pronounced pitch or pish). Even more damningly for the incompetent attempt at an argument above, a common pejorative word for an effeminate man and (in more recent usage) for a gay man in Irish is the word piteog. The –eog part is a feminine diminutive, so it literally means ‘a little vagina.’ In other words, an ignorant native speaker of Irish might well attack someone they consider to be weak or effeminate with a phrase like ‘ná bí i do phiteog!’ which literally means ‘don’t be a little vagina!’ (And allow me to get up on my soapbox here. As in English, the use of words like piteog in Irish is a mark of stupidity and bigotry. It says a lot about the deficiencies of the person using it and nothing at all about the victim of the homophobic abuse. It should be avoided by anybody with a brain.)
Of course, Cassidy wouldn’t have known any of this because Cassidy didn’t speak any Irish. He didn’t know anything about the language or the culture surrounding it or the historical context or the methods used by real academics. He was a total arse and that’s pretty much all there is to say about the matter.