Cassidese Glossary – Ballyhooly, Ballyhoo, Bally

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

The word ballyhooly has been in existence in English since at least 1837, when it was used in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in a story set in the West of Ireland. The word originally meant a riot, a commotion or a ruckus. It seems to derive from the village of Ballyhooly (Baile Átha hÚlla) near Fermoy in County Cork, which was famous for an incident where a riot broke out at mass in the year 1819 and several people were killed in the ensuing violence. Then in the year 1901, a word which seems to be a shortening of this, ballyhoo, was added to the American dictionaries, with the meanings of

1 : a noisy attention-getting demonstration or talk

2 : flamboyant, exaggerated, or sensational promotion or publicity

3 : excited commotion.

Later in the twentieth century, this was shortened further to the word Bally, which is a busking term for ‘to draw a crowd’.

Cassidy claims that bally comes from the Irish bailigh (the Irish for gather or collect) and that ballyhoo comes from bailiú, the verbal noun of bailigh. Cassidy does not mention ballyhooly, presumably because it cannot be explained in terms of the verb bailigh.

He also says that:

The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology defines ballyhoo as an American word meaning “publicity and blarney,” dating it to the 19th century and deriving it “from the name of a Central American wood, of which some schooners were made that were failures …” (ODEE, 1966, 71)

I do not possess a copy of the 1966 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology but I am doubtful that this is a true reflection of what that book says. Certainly the modern Oxford Dictionaries make it clear that ballyhoo means publicity and is an American word of unknown origin, while ballahoo is a type of schooner from the Spanish ballahú. In other words, Cassidy seems to be misrepresenting the ODEE to imply that professional lexicographers are foolish, out-of-touch people who lack common sense and believe the unbelievable.

Cassidy’s claim of a link with bailigh is unlikely but not impossible. As is usually the case where claims in Cassidy’s book have any credibility at all, it did not originate with Cassidy. The link between ballyhoo and bailiú was first posited by Loretto Todd in her book Green English, published in 1999, nearly a decade before Cassidy’s book was published.


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