Caunfort Ladran

The late Daniel Cassidy, in his absurd book of fake etymology, ‘How The Irish Invented Slang’, claimed that there were hundreds of Irish expressions hidden in American slang. We have already seen that in the vast majority of these cases, the Irish expressions cited by Cassidy do not exist and were invented by Cassidy himself.

We do find occasional traces of the Irish language in American slang. This phrase, caunfort ladran, is one of the most interesting examples. Cassidy failed to spot it, either because he was too lazy to read all the slang dictionaries, or because he read this and failed to spot that it was Irish. (Cassidy didn’t speak any Irish at all.)

The phrase caunfort ladran is given in a criminal slang dictionary of 1908 called ‘Criminal Slang’ by a certain Joseph M. Sullivan, a lawyer at the Boston Bar. On page 5 of this book, we find:

Caunfort Ladran Master thief (Irish); same as head of a mob.

The (Irish) is a reference to language rather than location. Caunfort Ladran represents the Irish ceannfort ladrann, meaning commandant of thieves.

Was this a genuine expression used among Irish-speaking criminals? There is no way of knowing. There are a few Irish and Hiberno-English expressions in Sullivan’s book. Thus we find things like Souper, a fellow who works the churches to advance himself, – an insincere convert, or Sthreel, a slouchy woman (from Irish sraoill). Shebeen and shoneen are also mentioned.

However, the usual modern Irish term for thief is gadaí, not ladrann (a borrowing from Latin, resembling Spanish ladrón). In other words, I wonder whether Sullivan simply got a translated term for a leader of thieves from some Irish scholar in his community and pretended that it was current in the criminal underworld.

One thing is sure. The existence of this phrase does nothing to strengthen Cassidy’s case. For one thing, Cassidy actually missed it. Secondly, this is a genuine Irish phrase. It means what it is supposed to mean and it is labelled as Irish in the source text. It bears no relation to the rubbish given as Irish in Cassidy’s book.


Mhaígh Daniel Cassidy, nach maireann, ina leabhar áiféiseach den tsanasaíocht bréige, ‘How The Irish Invented Slang’, go raibh na céadta focal de bhunús Ghaeilge na hÉireann le fáil i mbéarlagair Bhéarla Mheiriceá. Mar a chonaic muid roimhe seo, sa chuid is mó de na cásanna seo, ní raibh na frásaí ‘Gaeilge’ a luaigh Cassidy ann ar chor ar bith. Ní raibh iontu ach raiméis a chum an Casaideach féin.

Níl i leabhar Cassidy ach amaidí. Ach bíonn corr-rian den Ghaeilge le fáil i mbéarlagair na Stát Aontaithe. Tá an frása atá i gceist anseo, caunfort ladran, ar cheann de na samplaí is suimiúla. Níor thug Cassidy faoi deara é. B’fhéidir go raibh sé rófhalsa na foclóirí béarlagair uilig a léamh, nó b’fhéidir gur léigh sé é agus nár aithin sé gur Gaeilge a bhí ann. (Ní raibh Gaeilge ar bith ag Cassidy, ar ndóigh.)

Tugadh an frása caunfort ladran i bhfoclóir den bhéarlagair coiriúil a foilsíodh sa bhliain 1908, ‘Criminal Slang’ le fear darbh ainm Joseph M. Sullivan, dlíodóir ag Barra Bhostúin. Ar leathanach 5 den leabhar sin, tá an méid seo scríofa:

Caunfort Ladran Master thief (Irish); same as head of a mob.

Tá an (Irish) sin ag tagairt don teanga, ní don tír. Is ionann caunfort ladran agus ceannfort ladrann, nó ceannaire na ngadaithe.

An fíor go raibh ceannfort ladrann in úsáid i measc gadaithe Gaelacha? Níl a fhios againn. Tá roinnt focal a tháinig ón Ghaeilge nó ó Bhéarla na hÉireann i leabhar Sullivan. Tá leithéidí Souper, a fellow who works the churches to advance himself, – an insincere convert, nó Sthreel, a slouchy woman ann (ó sraoill na Gaeilge). Tá shebeen agus shoneen luaite ann fosta.

Agus sin ráite, is é gadaí an focal is coitianta ar thief an Bhéarla, ní ladrann (focal a fuair an Ghaeilge ón Laidin, agus atá gaolta le ladrón na Spáinnise). Lena rá ar dhóigh eile, b’fhéidir nach bhfuil ann ach gur iarr Sullivan ar scoláire Gaeilge i mBostún téarma Gaeilge a chur ar fáil ar ‘master thief’ agus nach raibh sé riamh in úsáid i measc na gcoirpeach féin.

Rud amháin atá fíor. Ní neartaíonn sé cás Cassidy go bhfuil a leithéid de fhrása ann. Ar an chéad dul síos, chaill Cassidy é, in ainneoin an diantaighde a rinne sé don leabhar, dar leis féin. Ar an dara dul síos, is fíorphíosa Gaeilge é seo. Tá sé ag teacht leis an bhrí a luaitear leis sa téacs, agus tá sé lipéadaithe mar Ghaeilge sa bhuntéacs. Níl baint ar bith aige leis an amaidí a tugadh mar Ghaeilge i leabhar Cassidy.

9 thoughts on “Caunfort Ladran

  1. David L. Gold

    A collection of stories originally told in Irish in the northwest of County Wexford appeared in English translation under the title “The Old Fireside Stories of Wexford” in The Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal (vol. LXIX, January 1867).

    In one of them, “Jack the Cunning Thief,” the protagonist says, “My name is the Caunfort Ladran (master thief). My business just now is to find apprentices and workmen” (p. 10, where the parenthetical definition is the translator’s).

    The translated sentence is no evidence for “Caunfort Ladran” in English and, if the story is fiction, may not be for everyday Irish either.

    Faithful reflections of everyday usage and authors’ embellishments are often hard to distinguish in fiction.

    The stories may be seen here:

    Where Sullivan got “Caunfort Ladran” is unclear and you are therefore right in asking whether his entry reflects everyday American English. For all we know, he may have picked it up from “Jack the Cunning Thief.”

    Eighteen years after Sullivan’s dictionary appeared, James J. Finerty self-published his Criminalese: A Dictionary of the Slang Talk of the Criminal (Washington DC, 1926), almost half of the entries of which are identical or nearly so to Sullivan’s, one of them being “Caunfort Ladran Master thief (Irish) same as head of a mob.”

    Given Finerty’s heavy “reliance” on Sullivan, his entry is to be disregarded.

    In sum, there is evidence for caunfort ladran in print, but to what extent it is evidence for the expression in everyday spoken Irish and in everyday spoken English is unclear.

  2. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    Hi David, I take my hat off to you! You’re a marvel! The fact is, there would probably be a number of possible ways of rendering the Irish ceannfort ladrann into English phonetics. Cawnfort ladron, caunfort ladran, canfort ladrann. The fact that the spelling is identical in the 1867 story and in Sullivan’s glossary in 1908 is a strong indication that this is where Sullivan found it. While ladrann to me is a literary term, the Corpas na Gaeilge ( shows that the term ladrann was still being used in documents in the 19th century, so it was perhaps longer in use than most of the terms glossed as Lit. in the Irish dictionaries. However, there is no evidence that the term ceannfort ladrann was ever used as a term by the Irish criminal classes, as you say. These criminal dictionaries seem to trawl for material in a variety of sources (mostly in other criminal dictionaries!) Anyway, thanks again for stopping by and giving us the heads up on that. 🙂

  3. David L. Gold

    You are right that idiosyncratic spellings may be a sign of uncritical copying.

    Here’s another example of “Caunfort Ladran”:

    “[…] the man who can crack that, deserves the title of Caunfort Ladran—which means a top-notch boss, A-one person of quality.”

    The sentence (put in the mouth of a burglar speaking about the difficulty of breaking into a heavily fortified building) appears in Richard Allan England’s “The Steeled Conscience,” a work of fiction published (in instalments?) in The Railroad Man’s Magazine (the sentence is on page 569 of the number dated December 1910).

    England was an American writer (1877-1936), who so far as I can see had no connection to Ireland or the Irish language. Possibly, he read Sullivan and remembered his definition just vaguely.

    Misspellings and misinterpretations can give rise to standard usages. See, for example, James A. H. Murray’s “Derring Do, Derring-Do, etc.” in The Nation of 3 October 1895 (vol. 61, no. 157), pp. 238-239.

    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      And, of course, there is no standard orthography for words copied from Irish into English, and the dialectal variation within Irish can be quite major at times. Just out of interest, did you go looking for examples of caunfort ladran after you read the post, or have you encountered this term before in the course of your research?

      1. David L. Gold

        I searched with Google. More websites came up, which I did not examine. Students of Irish have to take over here.

      2. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

        Interestingly, when I looked for it, it didn’t come up. Maybe my settings are different on Google? I think we’ll be lucky if much more evidence turns up. Unfortunately there is a severe lack of sources for the history of the Irish language. However, anyone looking for this term will be able to learn a lot more about its history, thanks to you and me, which is fantastic! It’s a great example of what cooperation on the internet can achieve, providing real information and resolving questions with facts. Maith thú, a chara!

  4. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    I would love to comment on this fraud’s ramblings but I decided long ago that I would blog anonymously, so I am reluctant to comment where it could make it easy for someone to identify me (because nearly all of Cassidy’s supporters are barking mad and I would rather they didn’t know where I live …) 🙂

  5. David Louis Gold

    Good morning, A book of some 168 pages has appeared on the etymology of kibosh. It’s just as outlandish as Cassidy’s garbage (the authors say the word comes from Arabic) but more outrageous in that a “serious” British publisher (Routledge) has brought it out.

    A linguistics journal has asked me to review it. I will also present my defense of an Irish origin. Much speaks in its favor (some of my points have never been made by anyone before; for example, an Irish origin explains how kibosh also came to mean ‘Portland cement’). The fact that no Irish name for the pitch-cap is known is no obstacle to SUGGESTING an Irish origin. Linguists often reconstruct etymons (not in the outlandish way that Cassidy did but according to stringent criteria). I would be happy to send you a draft for comment, if you have time (I always acknowledge help in the published versions of my writings). At the moment, I have a few easy questions (in boldface) of a bibliographical nature: unsigned.2009. “An AmericanProfessor on England.” The Freeman’s Journal.29 November. P.??

    I did locate the newspaper in UK Newspapers Online but no matter how I tried to search for that issue, nothing came up. For example, searching for “Professor” in the issue of that date turned up nothing. I want to give the Irish portions of the following reference in the Gaelic script since the book was published in that script (even the National Library of Ireland does not use it in its record for this book):

    Laoide,Seosamh[Englishname: JosephHenry Lloyd].1909. Macmic iasgaire bhuidhe Luimnighe: sean-sgéalas Tír Amhalghaidh.BaileÁtha Cliath. Connradh na Gaedhilge.

    I can see a facsimile of the book online but knowing no Irish, I don’t want to rely on my own attempt to copy the Gaelic script.

    Didhe use his Irish or his English name here?.1909. anyheading or titlehere?[letter to the editor]. TheFreeman’s Journal . 2December. P.??.     If you do not have time for this, tell me frankly and I will not be angry. Sincerely,David L. Gold


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