The Tyranny of Narrative

One of the most noticeable aspects of Cassidy’s work (and indeed of much pseudoscience and pseudohistory) is that it is driven far more by narrative than by facts. The story takes over and if it doesn’t fit the evidence, it’s the evidence that is sidelined and ignored.

And of course, it’s easy to regard Cassidy’s book as a story (or a myth, if you prefer). All great stories begin with some revelation: a bottle with a message in it; a door to another dimension; a letter delivered by an owl. In this case, it was a book willed to Cassidy by a dying friend, an Irish dictionary.

The book was nearly thrown into the bin. For a second, the whole future of American linguistics teetered on the brink! But – phew! – Cassidy decided to keep the dictionary and read a word a night (maybe something with pictures would have been more appropriate?) Anyway, Cassidy, the loner, the maverick, the little man from the slums of Brooklyn, had an epiphany and realized that English is full of Irish. He took on the villains (academic linguists and Anglophiles) using his magic powers of street smarts and self-belief. After all, academic linguists and lexicographers don’t know street words (they sing madrigals and attend hunt balls with people called Lucretia and Sebastian in their spare time – they NEVER watch DVDs of The Wire or Goodfellas) and this is their weakness, their Achilles’ heel.

Eventually, our hero defeats his enemies with these magic powers (along with his flying monkeys like Peter Quinn and Joe Lee). He demonstrates his worth with the sheer volume of his examples and his sales and ‘proves’ that Irish America did not lose its language. No, rather the Irish language BECAME American English. So hurrah, the language and culture were not lost, merely misplaced until they were rediscovered by one plucky little motor-mouth from the Big Apple. Admittedly, it’s a great story, even if it is the purest of horseshit.

I was thinking of this recently when I received another comment from Cassidy’s sister, Susan Cassidy Connors, an old friend of Cassidyslangscam. Among several interesting points she raised was that she had never quite believed Cassidy’s story about how How The Irish Invented Slang came to be written.

As his sister says, everything Cassidy claimed is suspect. He was a liar and dishonesty was his default position. However, there are more substantial reasons to doubt Cassidy’s story about the origins of How The Irish Invented Slang.

For one thing, there are two versions of the story. In one of them, Cassidy was bequeathed a box of books by someone called Kevin O’Dowd in 2000. “He left me a box of Irish books in his will. One of the books was a pocket Irish dictionary, a focloir poca. I was in Ireland making a film at the time and thought ‘I’m too old to learn Irish, it’s too hard.’ But I told my wife, Clare, ‘I can’t throw that away. It was a sacred gift from Kevin.’”

Here’s the other version. In the book, it says that Cassidy was about to bin the book when his wife said “You can’t throw that book out, Danny. It’s a gift from Kevin. Why don’t you put it on your nightstand and look up a word a night?”

OK, memory is fickle but which of these two versions is correct? (If either of them is!)

Another bit I’m a little suspicious of is that according to the first account, Cassidy was in Ireland making a film in the year 2000. What film was this? Did it ever get finished? We know he produced a couple of documentaries in the mid 1990s. But what was this film in 2000?

Then there are the numerous examples he gives in various sources of the words which started to make him think that Irish had had such a major effect on English. Some of them are believable enough. You might well think that slug comes from Irish slogadh, to swallow. And I personally think it’s possible that snazzy comes from Irish snas meaning polish. Also, these are both basic words and would be in a learner’s dictionary. However, though I don’t have a copy of the Foclóir Póca that Cassidy had, I’m quite sure there is no word camag meaning a trick in it (camag is Scottish Gaelic, not Irish). I would also doubt that rare words like dorc and duirb are in a pocket dictionary. Perhaps if anyone does have a copy of the Foclóir Póca, they could check it and let us know. It seems to me that Cassidy is talking about words he found later, when he started looking at larger dictionaries. These are not the words he initially noticed in his pocket dictionary.

In short, it seems to me that Susan Cassidy Connors is right. This little story about the origins of Cassidy’s theory is not an accurate description of what really happened. Like everything Cassidy wrote and said, it has been doctored and manipulated carefully to produce the desired effect – parting suckers from their money.

8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Narrative

  1. anwnicorn

    One of the things that baffles me the most about the narrative is “the secret Irish roots of American slang were being suppressed by Anglo-American linguists with a grudge.”

    If you want to look at a subset of Americans that have historically been (and still are being) treated like second-class citizens, look at African-Americans. They were subject to government-endorsed segregation for nearly a century (before that, they were regarded as chattel with zero humanity by half the country, and only barely tolerated by the other half). This wasn’t just simmering distrust in ethnically divided neighborhoods of metropolises–this was literally the law of the land.
    If you want to talk about talk about exclusion from academia over the last century or so, black people experienced plenty of that, too. The university where I’m completing my Master’s didn’t allow its first black student until 1963, and he had to sue for admission under the Civil Rights Act. (Some campuses were even worse; the federal government had to mobilize National Guard troops to handle the 1962 anti-integraton riots at Ole Miss, and two people were killed.)

    Yet American linguists are perfectly willing to give black slang its due in influencing American English–cf. “with it,” “hip,” “homeboy,” “jukebox,” and “rap” among many others–and ironically, Cassidy may have been denying some of their contributions by claiming “dig” and “jazz” as Irish when they were first recorded in black slang.

    I’m not saying there wasn’t some resentment among “established” Americans about immigrants from Ireland (and anywhere else, really–whenever there’s a flood of refugees into the US, there’s always a cry of ‘they’ll take away our jobs and corrupt our good old American values with their weird foreign ways!’), but if you’re really going to tell me that Irish-Americans have been persecuted more than black Americans in the past 150 years of American history, you’re an idiot.

    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      Absolutely right! Cassidy is on record as saying that ‘there ain’t no vitamins in being white’, whatever that means. I assume Cassidy was basically saying that being an oppressed minority is a great thing and that all groups that were ever on the outside looking in have a right to their little piece of victimhood. As you say, the Black American experience is a very different matter from the low-level anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice which undoubtedly existed in many areas. I know that Cassidy didn’t come from a swanky background but it wasn’t grinding poverty either. He attended NY Military Academy, alma mater of Stephen Sondheim and Donald Trump, amongst others. (On a scholarship, but the scholarship was available to Irish Americans. I doubt if there were many black alumni at that time!) Cassidy basically made it all up as he went along and then slung allegations of racism at anyone who objected but in my view, nobody who takes a prominent job without the necessary qualifications has a right to lecture anyone about equality. Isn’t it bizarre that Counterpunch are involved in this? Aren’t they ashamed of associating themselves with such an obvious hoax?

  2. Faoladh

    My copy of the Foclóir Póca dates on the copyright page to 1993, though I think that I got it a few years later than that (probably between 1996 and 1998). None of those words – camag, dorc, or duirb – are in it, though cleas cam is given as “dishonest trick”.

    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      Go raibh míle maith agat as sin, a chara! As I thought, if it really happened the way Cassidy said, with his suddenly realising that words resembled English, these are not the words! I wonder if it was the thread on the Daltaí Boards which really provided the inspiration for the book!

      1. Faoladh

        Alright, in an effort to be thorough on these I had to look around to see what he thought camag became in English. “Gimmick”, really? That can’t have been from the Foclóir Póca. The closest that An Gúm’s pocket dictionary comes is the following entry:

        cam² kam m1, npl ~a bend; crooked object; crookedness, fraud a1 bent, crooked; distorted, wrong, cleas ~ dishonest trick vt & i bend, distort, ga solais a chamadh to refract a ray of light

        The closest I can come for dorc in that dictionary, which according to the NYT he claimed as “a small lumpish person”, is this entry:

        fadharcánach fairka:nəx a1 gnarled; callous; lumpy

        I have my doubts that a non-linguist (or at least a conlanger, which wasn’t really a notable hobby in the time period in question) could have pulled anything like dorc from that.

        For “dwarf”, which is what the NYT article says was Cassidy’s source for “twerp” (from, as you say, duirb), the complete list of words as Gaeilge that the FP gives for that English word is found in the following entry:

        dwarf n abharc a cranda, abhcach vt crandaigh

        Just as you’d expect, and not giving any hint of duirb.

      2. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

        Maith thú, a chara! As I suspected, these didn’t come from the little book that Cassidy inherited. If you get a chance and if you can be bothered (I know December is always a busy month), could you take a look for glám as well?I’m a bit dubious about that one too. I’ve never heard anyone say it. It could be a Munsterism, of course, but perhaps it’s just an obscure or old-fashioned word. 🙂

      3. Faoladh

        You asked, “could you take a look for glám as well?”

        If that’s the one that gives English “glom”, that is in the Foclóir Póca:

        glám gla:m m1, pl ~anna grab, clutch vt & i grab, ag ~adh ar rud pulling and tearing at sth

        However, that one is not really new, as my print copy of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition (and retained, for the most part, in the most recent Fifth Edition, which can be found online) gives the derivation of “glom” as “probably from Scots glam, to snatch at, from Scottish Gaelic”, so it’s not like Cassidy discovered anything there.

  3. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    Thanks for that! Strange, because if you put glámadh into Google you get very few hits compared to sciobadh. No, you’re absolutely right that he didn’t discover the probable Gaelic roots of glom, and in fact, he ignored what was already in the dictionaries. A very slippery customer! 🙂


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