The Brotherhood of Gamblers

In his crazy book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy claimed that Jonathan Harrington Green’s book The Secret Band of Brothers (1848) gives a list of words of Irish origin which were used as slang by gamblers in the USA:

Below is a list of the Gambling Brotherhood’s so-called secret words, spelled first in Green’s phonetic English and then in Irish, with matching definitions. It is not surprising that the Irish gambler’s secret cant was as Gaelic as the gamblers themselves.

 

Huska, good, bold, intrepid.

Oscar (pron. h-uscar), a champion or hero; a bold intrepid hero.

Oscartha (pron. h-uscarha), martial, heroic, strong, powerful; nimble.

 

Cady, a highway man.

Gadaí (pron. gady), a thief, a robber. Gadaí bóthair, a highway man.

 

Maugh, profession.

Modh (pron. moh), mode of employment.

 

Caugh, quarrelsome, treacherous.

Cath (pron. cah), battle, fight, conflict. Cathaitheoir (pron. cauhoir), a

mischief-maker.

 

Cully, a pal, a confederate, a fellow thief.

Cullaidhe (pron. cully), companion, an associate, a comrade, a partner.

(Dineen, p. 279)

 

Gaugh: manner of speech

Guth (pron guh): voice, manner of speech.

 

Glim: A light.

Gealaim (pron. galim): I light or brighten.

 

Geister: An extra thief.

Gastaire: A tricky cunning fellow; a person with artifice, skill, ingenuity.

 

When you look at this list of words, you could almost believe that Cassidy has a point here, as some of them appear to make sense. Modh does mean method, and can mean work, so this is not so unlikely as the origin of maugh. As for caugh, if this means fighting or quarreling, this again might be connected with cath and cathach (though trodach would be more common). Others are less probable, such as Cassidy’s explanation for huska. Cassidy invented an interesting rule that when he wanted an Irish word beginning with a vowel to have a h- in front of it, it did. When this didn’t strengthen his case (as in ‘a noogie’ coming from aonóg) there was no ‘h’. In reality, there is no h sound before vowels in Irish. Also, the word oscar is old-fashioned, and why wouldn’t it just be ossker rather than husca?  However, I should point out that none of these words is in any way common. Most of them are not even in slang dictionaries, so even if they were from Irish, they would do little to further Cassidy’s claims of a massive hidden influence from Irish on American slang.

Anyway, as I have said above, some of these look convincing, others less so. However, Daniel Cassidy was a fraudster, so we have to go back and look carefully at the primary sources rather than take Cassidy’s word for it. Cassidy routinely sexed up the evidence. And if we look at the primary sources, it quickly becomes clear that this is what has happened here, and that Cassidy’s claims in relation to this are as flimsy and ridiculous as his claims in relation to every other aspect of American slang.

When you look at Jonathan Harrington Green’s book, he claims that there are secret words and signs used by gamblers. The way this is laid out is confusing, but basically there are six important words: 1. Huska; 2. Caugh; 3. Naugh; 4. Maugh; 5. Haugh; 6 Gaugh. Here are their meanings in the original text.

Huska, a flash word, signifying Good.

Caugh, a flash word, signifying Bad.

Naugh, a flash word, signifying Size and Complexion.

Maugh, a flash word, signifying Profession.

Haugh, a flash word, signifying Disease.

Gaugh, a flash word, signifying Age and Manner of Speech.

Each of these words can have a variety of meanings. There are nine numbered meanings for each word. How the particular number was communicated to the other gamblers is not explained. For example, in the case of the word naugh, it can mean: 1. Large and Tall, 2. Low and Heavy, 3. Tall and Slender, 4. Medium, 5. Small, 6. Sandy Complexion, 7. Light Complexion, 8. Dark Complexion, 9. Colored. In other words, naugh 8 would refer to a dark-complexioned person.

When you see these words laid out like this, Cassidy’s claims of obvious Irish connections evaporate. The words caugh, naugh, maugh, haugh and gaugh sound like a made-up list of rhyming words, not like something taken from a natural language.

The primary meaning of caugh is bad, not quarrelsome, so the association with cath isn’t a good match. And gaugh means Age and Manner of Speech, not just manner of speech. In other words, seven of the nine descriptions for this word refer to the age of the person, while only the last two refer to whether someone is fast or slow in speech. It’s hard to see how Irish guth (voice) could be relevant when this is primarily about age. The association of haugh with othar isn’t convincing either. Once again, there’s that h- sound, and a word with two syllables is supposedly the origin of a one-syllable word. Also, othar means sick person or patient – there are many words like galar, tinneas, breoiteacht to refer to disease and these would be more appropriate in the circumstances.

Later, Green gives a list of flash or cant words which he claims are also used by the brotherhood of gamblers, but he seems to have cribbed these from 18th century flash dictionaries from Regency England, and it is unlikely that they were used in 19th century America. Cassidy selected a handful of words from this list that he thought were good matches for Irish, but on examination, these also evaporate.

Cady doesn’t sound much like gadaí and William Cady was a famous highwayman in 17th century England. Cully probably isn’t from cuallaí (the pronunciation is totally different and cully is thought to come from an earlier word like cullion). Glim is a shortening of glimmer, not a weird use of an Irish word meaning ‘I shine’. And geister is probably from Yiddish or German geist (ghost). Cassidy’s definition of gastaire is made-up – gastaire basically means a smartarse, and is in no way appropriate for the meaning of geister.

In other words, this is yet another example of Cassidy’s dishonesty and incompetence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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