In his ludicrous book, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy claimed that the English words slum and scam come from the ‘Irish phrases’ ‘s lom (é) and ‘s cam (é) where the ‘s is short for the copula is. I have taken issue with these claims before but I have never gone through the evidence against these claims fully, so that is what I intend to do in this post.
Firstly, the phrases is cam (é) and is lom (é) are strange, to say the least. I’m not saying you would never find them in an Irish conversation, but there is something oddly truncated about them. I’ll try to explain what I mean. Suppose you have signed up for some show on Irish-language television (TG4) where would-be designers do up a room in your house. Someone paints your living room in forty shades of green. There you are, looking at your green room. Do you say, Is glas é or Is glas? Absolutely not. You might say Tá sé iontach glas, nach bhfuil? (It’s very green, isn’t it?) But you are not likely to say Is glas é. Short phrases with the copula like this are only likely to be used to echo another, more informative comment, like the English It sure is or So they say. They are phrases that belong in a particular context and don’t have much meaning outside of that context.
The same applies to is cam é and is lom é. They are odd and really don’t mean a lot. Furthermore, even if these phrases meant anything, why would they be used as nouns? Could you really see someone in English saying He pulled an it is crooked on me? Because I can’t.
In the case of slum, there is another major reason for doubting Cassidy’s claim. The word lom does mean bleak, but its basic meaning is bare or empty. Think of the favelas of Brazil, the slums of Mumbai, the East End in the days of Jack the Ripper. Do they really make you think of emptiness and bareness? To me, slums are teeming, heaving, full of activity, people, animals. A desert is lom. A slum is anything but lom.
Then again, Cassidy talked about “cutting through two hundred years of academic baloney” in this book. In fact, what Cassidy did was cut out and discard anything at all which didn’t fit in with the particular idiotic claim he was making at the time. Because of this, he simply says that scam and slum are claimed to be origin unknown. In fact, while there is no certainty about their origins, there is no shortage of contenders.
In the case of slum, the word first makes its appearance in English in England in the early years of the nineteenth century. At that time, it meant a cheap lodging, so it is probably a shortened form of slumber. In modern Irish, the two words for slum are plódcheantar (a throng-area) or sluma, a borrowing from English. What would an Irish speaker in the 19th century have called a slum? It’s hard to say, but they might have called it ceantar bocht (a poor area), coinicéar (a rabbit warren), na brocaisí (the hovels, the smelly places), or cathair ghríobháin (a griffin-city, a labyrinth). Not is lom é!
As for scam, this word first occurs in America in the 1960s. There are many possible explanations. It could be from scamp, meaning a swindler. Or from scheme. Or from a group of related words in French, Spanish and Portuguese meaning to disappear or to swindle. The most likely of these is escamotear in Spanish. Me han escamoteado mil dolares means “they stole a thousand dollars from me. “ Cassidy’s suggestion is so unlikely that it really isn’t worth bothering with, just like the rest of the insulting nonsense in this book.