April’s Twit of the Month – Phil Cousineau

I haven’t had a lot of time recently, so I am posting my April Twit of the Month a bit late.

April’s Twit of the Month is Phil Cousineau, an “award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer and travel leader, storyteller and TV host” who is based in San Francisco’s Bay Area. He is the author of some thirty books on subjects as varied as ufology, synchronicity, the myth of the hero, how to be creative, travel as pilgrimage and etymology.

Why don’t I like Phil Cousineau? Well, the fact that he is a major cultural figure in the Bay Area would make me suspicious but isn’t enough on its own.

I don’t like the kind of junk spirituality that is his stock in trade, especially when it’s linked to products like books, TV shows and courses. For example, trite little epigrams like these make me physically sick: “the uncanny discovery that the seeker is the mystery which the seeker seeks to know”; “writing is easy; all you do is pick the scab crusted over your soul”; “if you don’t risk getting lost, you’ll never be found”; “Stories heal the wounds inflicted by the mercurous knife of stainless steel facts”. Yeugh …

There is an air of bullshit surrounding him and his works. To give you one example, he has a significant article on Wikipedia, which tells of his achievements and quotes some of his famous pearls of wisdom. However, when you look at the history, much of the article was written by someone called Wordpilgrim. I wonder who that was? Could it be Phil Cousineau himself, who has written books on words and pilgrimages?

However, even these wouldn’t justify a Twit of the Month Award on their own. The reason why I’m so hostile to Phil Cousineau is the two crappy books of pop etymology he has written as a logophile (lover of words): Wordcatcher (2010) and The Painted Word (2012).

These books focus on words that the author finds interesting. Much of this information is probably correct and, as it’s taken directly from well-researched sources like dictionaries, this is unsurprising. What is surprising is the sheer number of mistakes in these books. Cousineau attributes Play That Funky Music Right, Boy to Sly and the Family Stone. It’s really by Wild Cherry and of course, it’s really Play That Funky Music WHITE Boy. In an article on the word adumbrate, he talks about a film studies course where he learned the importance of shadow in Hitchcock’s work. He refers to an article by a critic called Letich (really Leitch) who was writing about Hitchcock’s film Odd Man Out. Except Odd Man Out was by Carol Reed, not Hitchcock. There are so many clumsy errors in this book. Slanguage was written by Bernard Share, not Bernard Shaw. The word glaum in Scots has no connection with a device for castrating animals. And of course, How The Irish Invented Slang was by Daniel Cassidy, not David Cassidy of the Partridge Family.

These two books by Cousineau, Wordcatcher and The Painted Word, contain a large number of references to Cassidy and his ludicrous book, though the mistake with the name indicates that there was probably no close relationship between these two crap etymologists.

Wordcatcher (2010) is particularly full of Cassidese nonsense, treated with abject laziness and a total lack of scepticism. He takes Cassidy’s ridiculous made-up phrase comhúdar (misspelling it comh-udar) seriously as the origin of cahoots. He says that Cassidy claimed Irish tuig as the origin of dig (to understand) in Black American English but fails to mention that the Irish association with twig goes back at least a hundred years, while Eric P. Hamp published an article called “On the Celtic origin of English slang dig/twig (‘understand’) in 1981. He takes Cassidy’s dúd origin of dude seriously, though scholars make the eminently reasonable connection with Yankee Doodle. He claims that Cassidy links the word fun to the Irish fonn, though this doesn’t seem to be in the book. (It’s ludicrous anyway!) He recounts Cassidy’s imbecilic theories about the origins of jazz from teas without question. He gives Cassidy the credit for identifying the Irish origins of phoney, when Eric Partridge had already done that a half century ago.

While there is less Cassidese bullcrap in The Painted Word, it is just as bad. His piece on ‘lulu’ from that book is worth quoting in full.


A remarkable person, thing or event. Tracked down by word detective Daniel Cassidy in Irish-American Slang, this two-syllable dandy derives from the Irish word liu luigh, “a howl, a scream, a vigorous scream of joy,” and more, “A lulu can be spectacular or awful, but it’s always a scream.” More surprisingly still, Cassidy’s sleuthing tracked down its earliest recorded mention, in the New Orleans Lantern, on November 10, 1886, where it was used to describe the shenanigans in a local baseball game: “Farrell’s two baser was a lu-lu.” The citation would have delighted the late, great Ernie Hartwell, Hall of Fame broadcaster and baseball historian, who was married to a Lulu of a wife for over sixty years.”

Where do I begin? Well, I don’t really give a toss whether people misrepresent Daniel Cassidy, because Cassidy doesn’t deserve any better, but Cassidy’s book wasn’t called Irish-American Slang. Anyway, let’s move on. Apparently lulu comes from the Irish word liu luigh. However, liu luigh is not a word in English, it’s a phrase. (You’d think a logophile would know that, wouldn’t you?) It’s a completely nonsensical phrase, of course, but remarkably, it’s not even the nonsensical and stupid phrase that Cassidy claimed was the origin of lulu. Cassidy’s equally daft suggestion was that lulu comes from the ‘Irish’ liú lúith. Liú is a word in Irish for a shout. It’s not the most common word in Irish for that concept. Scread or scréach would be far more common, but it does exist. As for lúith, it’s the genitive of lúth, which means vigour, agility, or tendon. It used to mean ‘joy’ in Irish as well but hasn’t for hundreds of years. Cassidy’s “a vigorous yell of joy” actually uses both meanings, but Cassidy also says that it is figuratively “a complete scream, a howler.” Of course, Cassidy made the expression “liú lúith” up. It is a complete fabrication, unknown in the Irish language, and phrases which don’t exist don’t have figurative meanings. However, the Cousineau version (liu luigh) is even less meaningful than Cassidy’s. Liu doesn’t mean anything without the accent and luigh is the past tense or imperative form of the verb meaning to lie or recline.

Cousineau is doing at least three reprehensible things here. Firstly, he is short-changing his own readership by giving them poorly-researched nonsense instead of real scholarship. Secondly, he is helping to spread the made-up nonsense and fake Irish invented by Daniel Cassidy. Thirdly, he is helping to pretend that Cassidy, a pathological liar who became a ‘professor’ without any genuine qualifications at all, was a real etymologist and university lecturer.

It is for these reasons that I am proud to bestow my April CassidySlangScam Twit of the Month Award on Phil Cousineau of San Francisco.




12 thoughts on “April’s Twit of the Month – Phil Cousineau

  1. Marconatrix

    TBH I think your undoubted talents, such as attention to detail, could be far better spent than in calling out these obvious fuckwits. Their followers just enjoy a little fictional entertainment, truth and authenticity are quite beside the point. You might as well criticise and ‘correct’ the historical detail in a fictional film or drama. 🙂

    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      Fáilte romhat ar ais! I think we’ll have to aontú ar an easaontas on that one, sir! Where I disagree with you is the idea that these people consciously like fake facts. I’ll bet that if you asked them, they’d say they like this stuff because they believe it to be true but nobody has ever taught them how to be rational enough to make the distinction between reality and bullshit. And as I said, I’ve been busy making more constructive use of my talents recently, which is why I can only spend a couple of hours at the weekend excoriating fuckwits in California … 🙂

      1. Marconatrix

        ‘Se do bheatha, a chàraid. But TBH I doubt whether they would recognise a true fact if it stared them in the face, let alone having any care for the truth. After all, no one better than the Gael knows the power of a good story 😉

  2. David L. Gold

    Your post having introduced me to Phil Cousineau and his The Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins (published in 2012), I found it online as a Google book, followed my usual modus operandi (searching for the words “Hebrew” and “Yiddish”), and assumed that how well he treated whatever appeared would give me a good idea of how reliable his book was overall.

    The first word that came up was “copacetic,” about which he says, “The linguist Robert Chapman suggests that it ‘may have been acquired by the black customers of a Jewish merchant.’ Origin theories include Latin, Yiddish, […]. Others believe that it derives from the Hebrew kol b’seder, ‘All is in order”” (pp. 83-84).

    There is no even remotely possible Yidish etymon.

    The earliest known use of Hebrew hakol beseder (sic recte) is dated 1906. It is from Jerusalem or nearby. The phrase (a literal translation of German alles in Ordnung) is an example of the neologisms that came into use when Hebrew was being revernacularized (beginning in 1881).

    The earliest known use of “copacetic” is dated 1919 (in the writings of a non-Jew, Irving Bacheller, an American writer).

    How a linguistic item which at the earliest dates to 1881 could make its way to the United States (by what means?) and become so popular in American English that by 1919 at the latest it had come to the attention of a non-Jewish writer would be inexplicable.

    Obviously, someone in our time had heard Israeli Hebrew hakol beseder, followed the only rule that armchair etymologists know (“if x looks or sounds like y, x must be derived from y”), failed to consider chronology (what’s the date of the earliest known use of x? what’s the date of the earliest known use of y?), and failed to ask any questions about transmission.

    Three years before Cousineau’s book appeared, the Yidish and Hebrew suggestions about “copacetic” were examined:

    Gold, David L. 2009. “American English slang copacetic ‘fine, all right’ Has No Hebrew, Yiddish, or Other Jewish Connection.” In his Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages). Alicante. University of Alicante Press. Pp. 57-76.

    One of the points made in that chapter will be useful to debunkers of those who imagine Irish influence on English when there is none, namely, if a certain linguistic item in English is of Yidish origin, we expect to find its earliest use in the English of speakers of Yidish or of their immediate descendants.

    That is, the etymology is never “Yidish > English” but “Yidish > Ashkenazic English > general English.”

    The word “copacetic” does not meet that requirement because all early attestations of it are from non-Jews.

    Applying the foregoing to Cassidy et hoc genus omne, one could say that if they were right, we would expect “dude,” “slum,” and all the other English words they misattribute to the influence of Irish to have first been used in Hibernian English (whether that of Ireland, the United States, or someplace else), that is, we should expect not “Irish > general English” but “Irish > Hibernian English > general English.”

    Since the latter seems never to be the case, you have another argument against their etymologies.

    More on Phil Cousineau’s book later.

  3. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    Hi David,

    It’s strange how many items of vocabulary are contested between Yid(d)ish/Hebrew and Irish. It’s as if any word whose origins are unknown immediately has either a Jewish or a Gaelic origin tacked onto it by people who don’t know very much about either Jewish or Gaelic languages. We’ve already discussed words like kibosh and so long, but there are other examples. One that springs to mind is the offensive term ‘sheenie’, which has been claimed to be a derivative of sheyn or a version of Irish sionnach, fox.

    The Italians have a term etruscheria, which refers to the kind of batty and ill-founded speculations that tend to cluster round the Etruscans and their culture. Perhaps languages like Yid(d)ish and Irish that have relatively few speakers and are a little more mysterious and obscure than most tend to accumulate this kind of baggage.

    The bit about hakol beseder is very interesting. There are a number of examples of this in Cassidy’s work, where an ahistorical view of language means that Cassidy is suggesting meanings for words that they didn’t acquire until much later, as in his ‘origin’ for Plug Uglies, Baill Óglaigh. Óglaigh was not used of the Fenian movement and only acquired the meaning of Volunteer later in the revival of the language, where Irish had to invent neologisms or use old words in neologistic ways (as did Hebrew, of course).

    As for the context within Irish English or Irish-American English, that is very true. There is one phrase, snazzy from Irish snas, polish, which sounds quite convincing. (It’s been around for at least forty years, so nothing to do with Cassidy.) The problem for me is that snazzy isn’t a particularly Irish word and there’s little to link it to Ireland.

    I am looking forward to reading your observations on the rest of Mr. Cousineau’s ‘etymology’!

    א גרויסן דאַנק


  4. David L. Gold

    You write, “It’s as if any word whose origins are unknown immediately has either a Jewish or a Gaelic origin tacked onto it by people who don’t know very much about either Jewish or Gaelic languages.”

    Sometimes the motivation is chauvinism.

    Cassidy is an example.

    Sometimes the motivation is the cynical guideline (never stated and probably subconscious) “If you don’t know where the word comes from, say it’s from [language x] because nobody knows [language x] anyway, so you’ll never get caught.”

    Cassidy is an example if we bear in mind that he published his book in the United States, where few know Irish and even fewer know it well enough to evaluate his etymologies. Had he tried to publish it in Ireland, he would presumably have gotten rejection after rejection.

    Had he tried an academic publisher, the reaction would have been the same.

    The phenomenon is called “ectopic publishing.”

    No pronunciation of Yidish sheyn ‘beautiful, pretty’ has a vowel that would yield the first vowel of English sheenie (/i/) and the semantics are not in order either (‘beautiful, pretty’ > ‘Jew’ is inexplicable).

    Not knowing a word of Irish, I offer the following with no certainty of its being right:

    The Irish suggestion implies that “sheenie” arose either in Ireland (unlikely given the absence of early attestations for the English word there) or someplace else with a significant Irish-speaking population (London?). The latter possibility is not unattractive, but the first vowel is again the problem: sheenie has /i/ (the vowel of English keen, seen, teen, etc.) whereas the Irish for ‘fox’ has /I/ ((the vowel of English bit, fit, sit, wit, etc.) in all three varieties of latter-day Irish (Connacht, Munster, and Ulster). Presumably, the same problem would arise with all the varieties of Irish brought to London.

    There would be a second phonological problem (except with Ulster Irish): Irish /x/ (represented by ) regularly becomes /k/ in English as in leprechaun (< leipreachán) and Limerick (< Luimneach).

    Therefore, since the Irish for 'fox' ends in /x/ in Connacht and Munster but "sheenie" has no /k/, those two varieties of Irish are no longer in the running.

    In Ulster, sionnach has two pronunciations, with /x/ and with /h/. We would therefore have to assume that sheenie, if from Irish, arose either in Ulster or in London among speakers of Ulster Irish who had /h/ rather than /x/ in their pronunciation of sionnach, but the problem of the first vowel would remain.

    There may also be a semantic problem. The suggested Irish etymology implies that the word sheenie reflects a belief that Jews are foxy. The question, therefore, is whether Irish sionnach or any Irish derivative thereof (such as an adjective) has that figurative meaning (''crafy', 'cunning', 'foxy', 'shrewd, 'wily). If not, it's clear that the suggester of that etymology had in mind the irrelevant English word "foxy."

    Unless Irish snas 'polish' has a figurative meaning identical or similar to that of English "polish," as in "a person with polish," the first person to suggest that "snazzy" comes from snas had English "polish" rather than Irish "snas" in mind (see the previous paragraph for the analogous possibility with respect to 'foxy').

    Many etymological suggestions are immediately dismissible because the suggesters are thinking in the wrong language.

    I was planning to look at Cousineau's Yidish etymology for "kitsch." That will come later.

    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      Ectopic publishing! I like it. In fact, the late Mr Cassidy did try to get his ridiculous book published by an academic publisher in Ireland (through the University of Limerick) but they rejected him and he was forced to fall back on his friend Cockburn at CounterPunch!

      The foxy meaning of sionnach is hard to understand (and as you say, the pronunciation is off). However, it’s probably not as bad as Eric Partridge’s suggestion that it’s to do with the oily sheen of the ‘typical’ British Jew. There’s been a lot of talk recently about what is and is not Anti-Semitic but I think we’re on pretty firm ground with that one!

      I look forward to hearing more about kitsch. 🙂

  5. David L. Gold

    Hearing the name “Eric Partridge” is to me like hearing the name “Daniel Cassidy” is to you.

    The good part before the bad part:

    Partridge was good when writing on English cliches, standard English usage, and maybe in some minor ways too because he was a good speaker and writer of Standard Modern English and therefore had a good ear for what’s right and wrong (he would have made a good subeditor in a publishing house).

    The bad part:

    In matters etymological, he was so ignorant that he was ignorant of his ignorance of how etymologists work — like a self-styled physician with no training in medicine, a self-styled architect with no training in architecture, and so on.

    Were those who practice REGULATED professions, such as medicine, dentistry, the law, architecture, and engineering, to commit blunders of the same magnitude as his etymological howlers, they would be barred from practicing, fined, and jailed, but fantasizing about etymologies is not regulated and therefore the door is wide open for all cocktail-party etymologists to broadcast whatever misinformation they like.

    Whatever is right in Partridge’s dictionary of English etymology was copied. Whatever etymologies are original with him are either wrong or unproven. Likewise with respect to the etymologies in his dictionaries of slang. Naturally, all the material of Jewish interest in those dictionaries is unreliable.

    His chosen successor, Paul Beale, was no better. Having been an officer in the British military, he sent Partridge British English military slang from time to time. On that basis alone, Partridge made him his successor. Does that mean that a good English etymologist is ipso facto qualified to be an officer in the British military?

    The problem with sheeny < sheen is that (1) the first known use of "sheeny" is dated 1824, (2) it is in all likelihood older (first known uses are rarely first uses), (3) all the early attestations seem to be in the English of the working class, and (4) the noun "sheen" sounds typical not of the working class of that time but of persons with formal education (of the same order as, say, "luster"). The noun "shine" seems to me more typical of working-class British English speech of the 1820s and earlier than "sheen."

    Partridge espoused the phoney < fáinne etymology (and was the first to propose it?), but, again, as with sheeny, the stressed vowel of the Irish word (/a:/ in Connacht, Cork, Kerry, and Waterford)and /æ:/ in Ulster) would not have yielded the stressed vowel of phoney (/əʊ/).

  6. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    I never imagined he was as bad as that, though I’ll take your word for it. I suppose it was a case of the primacy of the gentleman amateur back in those days!

    I personally think that the transition from fáinne to fawney (as in fawney rig) is pretty much proven. The weakness is the transition from fawney to phoney. I still consider it possible that they are linked but I agree that there is a gap and a serious one between fawney rigs in England in the early 19th century and the American racing world at the end of the 19th century with phoney.

    In reference to the issue of sionnach and sheenie, you are right about the vowel. The vowel of sionnach is basically a schwa and wouldn’t likely give sheenie. However, the examples you give of Limerick and leprechaun are both odd and ch doesn’t routinely become a hard k sound when words are borrowed from Irish to English. The name Limerick comes ultimately from Irish Loimneach or Luimneach but the other examples of this word in Ireland all occur as things like Lomnagh. According to Gearóid Mac Eoin, it’s from the Norse version of the Irish (Hlymrekr), which has a hard k, and not directly from the word loimneach. As for leprechaun, I would never pronounce it other than leprahawn. I imagine the hideous lepraKAWN of the English dictionaries is the result of English speakers outside Ireland guessing how it should be pronounced from the spelling. Names like Ó Gallchabhair became Gallagher in English, not Gallicker.

    You don’t have to go far to find examples of how -ch- is rendered in English translations. Baile Meánach is Ballymena. Muineachán is Monaghan. The surname Callaghan represents Ó Ceallacháin. In other words, sionnach would never have become shunnick in English. It doesn’t alter the facts, of course. Sheenie, wherever it’s from, has nothing to do with Irish foxes. 🙂


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