More on the Irish origins of kybosh

I have posted before about the supposed Irish origins of the phrase ‘to put the kybosh on something’. In a post called Putting The Kybosh On Cassidy (May 2016) I pointed out that kybosh has often been claimed (long before Cassidy’s idiotic book was published) to be of Irish origin, a corruption of caip bháis or caidhp bháis, meaning death cap. The usual explanation for this is that it refers to the black cap donned by a judge when passing the death sentence.

You can find an interesting discussion of the term kybosh by Anatoly Liberman on the OUP blog:

In my discussion of the supposed Irish origin of kybosh, I mentioned that the earliest discussion of this I had found came from the Cornell Daily Sun in December 1936, where there is an account of a lecture by a man called Conboy about the Irish origin of English words.

“Kibosh,” Conboy said today, “comes from ‘caip,’ which means cap, and bais [sic],’ which means death. “It originated in Ireland about the time of Judge Norbury, who was called the ‘hanging judge.’

The other day, I was doing some unrelated research on the Irish News Archives, an excellent searchable archive of old Irish newspapers. Just before closing the computer and going to bed, I decided to look up kibosh/kybosh and see what I turned up.

The discussion below is based on the results of that search.

In the Kerry Champion of September 6th 1930, we find a letter from a person calling himself Oisín i ndiaidh na Féinne (Oisín after the Fianna) talking about the Irish College at Dingle in Kerry:

I asked him all about the Colaisde. “The Colaisde is it?” said he. “The koybosh (caip bhais) is put on it altogether for the past few years, and this year beat them all.”

At first, when I saw this, it seemed to me a strong indication that koybosh is really a native Irish expression. However, having read the rest of the articles, I am less sure.

On the 21st of April, 1933, in the Irish Press, Seosamh S. Ua Ceallaigh of Richmond in Surrey says that it refers to the black cap the judge puts on and that it comes from caip báis. However, a man called Rice in Leitrim in the Irish Press four days later (25th April 1934) says that it means ‘that portion of the cowl which is pulled down over the face of the dead immediately before interment’.  The claim about the judge’s cap is also made by ‘Ballyduag’ in the Irish Independent of Feb 10th 1943, but below his letter is a letter from John Grogan of Dublin, who states that the caip bais [sic] refers to the pitch cap used by the British in the late 18th century as a torture/punishment. There is no evidence or reference to any published or manuscript source in any of these letters.

However, someone called “Periscope”, writing in the Irish Examiner of January 18th, 1927, says that “putting the kybosh on it” derived from “cabais”, to prate or speak nonsensically or stupidly about a subject. When anyone talks that way he puts the “kybosh” on any further argument. This seems a weak and irrelevant claim, as there is no such word as cabais. There are vaguely similar words like cabaireacht, but nothing I know of closely resembling cabais.

A letter from Canon Maguire, P.P. in the Irish Independent of January 26th 1943, says that the word kybosh has no connection with bosh (rubbish) but that it instead comes from caoi bais [sic], meaning “way of death”. He seems to be alone in this opinion and the phrase is not found in any other source or text.

However, trawling through the different references, I found the earliest were in 1909. They were also by far the most interesting. In an article called An American Professor on England published on November 29th 1909, an anonymous staff author of the Freeman’s Journal wrote:

Many expressions familiar in American-English are clearly translations or adaptations from the Gaelic: not a little slang was good idiomatic Gaelic, and such an extraordinary word as kybosh – “to put the kybosh on a man or a scheme” – takes a very curious interest when, as Mr J.H. Lloyd tells in one of his invaluable vocabularies to Irish poems or stories – it is traced to the extinct phrase “the cap of death” – i.e. the black cap of the hanging judge.

J.H. Lloyd, or Seosamh Laoide, was an Irish language expert. However, Lloyd himself then replied to this on December the 2nd in the Freeman’s Journal, complaining that his views had been misrepresented:

Dear Sir – In your issue of 29th November, one of your leader writers, towards the end of the article “An American Professor on England”, quotes me in connection with the word “kybosh”, to put the kybosh on a man or a scheme. So far, he is correct. When, however, he adds the explanation “the cap of death,” apparently attributing this to me, he is very much astray. 

In the vocabulary to Mac Mic Iasgaire Bhuidhe Luimnigh, published by the Gaelic League, I set down that caidhp bathais, to my surmise an expression of the lost Leinster dialect of Irish, was the probable etymon of “kybosh”.

He goes on to say that caidhp bathais would mean the cap or coif of the crown of the head. He says that kybosh could not come from caidhp báis because the o of kybosh is a short vowel. He states clearly that he has never actually found an example of this phrase in use (“though I have failed to find the word in use in an Irish dress”). He goes on to say that he is quite adamant that there is also a Yiddish/Hebrew expression, with the meaning of 18 pence or something worthless. So according to Lloyd, kybosh has two distinct origins, but he states that the construction “to put the kybosh on something” is typical of Irish syntax and this is a strong indicator of Irish origin. (I have discussed a similar expression from Cork on this blog, namely the phrase “to put the cawheke on something”.)

Where does all this leave us? I am more inclined now to accept the possibility of an Irish origin for this phrase, if the evidence comes to light. However, the mere fact of kybosh using an Irish-like construction is not enough. After all, aren’t there plenty of non-Irish expressions like this? (For example, that put the damper on it). And while there are plentiful uses of kybosh, coybosh and even caidhp bháis in the Irish papers from the second decade of the 20th century until the last few years, there are absolutely no traces of caidhp bháis, caip bháis, caidhp bhathais or caip bhathais (or any of the versions without the séimhiú which modern Irish grammar would require) anywhere before the 1909 references. This is 75 years after kybosh’s first appearance in England. And we need to note that many expressions like spraoi and craic have made their homes in the Irish language and been accepted as intrinsic and ancient parts of that language by its speakers, even though they aren’t.

Also, the association of kybosh with caps of death (whatever explanation you have for that phrase), seems to be completely bogus. It is apparently traceable to a misreading or misremembering of Lloyd’s comment in the vocabulary of an obscure book published in 1909. If so, it is a very early example of the way that fake memes are spread and promoted virally because the factoids sound right and are easy to remember.



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