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.
Another oft-quoted piece of Cassidese is the phrase béal ónna. According to Cassidy, béal ónna is the origin of the American slang word baloney, meaning nonsense or rubbish.
Béal ónna (pron. bæl óna), silly loquacity, foolish talk; blather; blarney; stupid gossip.
The phrase béal ónna is not an Irish phrase. It does not exist. It is composed of two words: béal, which is very common and means mouth, and ónna, which is so uncommon and obscure that it doesn’t even get a mention in Ó Dónaill’s 1300 page dictionary of Modern Irish. Corpas na Gaeilge, a searchable database of over seven million words, shows that ónna was used up to the early 18th century in poetry. If we look up béal ónna on Google, we find that all the references are to Cassidy and his theories. This is not the case with genuine terms for nonsense in Irish like seafóid or raiméis. (Try it yourself!) Of course, we cannot prove that béal ónna never existed and as the old maxim says, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That much is true – but absence of evidence IS absence of evidence. You cannot prove that baloney comes from béal ónna if there is no evidence for the existence of béal ónna in Irish.
The truth is, the phrase baloney almost certainly derives from an anglicised version of Bologna, and was used of a sausage resembling luncheon meat that was originally made in that city. By the 1860s, people were referring to Bologna sausage as baloney in America. The earliest reference to its metaphorical use to mean ‘rubbish’ was in the 1920s. This extension seems to be an example of an interesting linguistic phenomenon called the minced oath. This is quite common. A minced oath is simply where an obscene or blasphemous or unpleasant word is disguised by cutting bits off it, or by saying a word which sounds a bit like it. In other words, people probably said baloney instead of balls, bollocks or bullshit.
Cassidy’s ‘pronunciation guide’ is also very strange. There are basically two ways to construct a pronunciation guide in books on language. The usual way is to use an ad hoc system based on English. For example, you could transcribe béal as bayl or seafóid as shaffoyj. The other way is to use the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is more precise but harder for people without a background in linguistics to interpret and understand. Cassidy mixed up bits of the IPA, bits of Irish orthography and bits of English in a random mess which could hardly be described as a system at all. For example, in this case, he used bæl óna as his version of the phonetics of this (invented) phrase. The æ is from the IPA but Cassidy assumed that it was pronounced as in the vowel of aesthetic, as the ay of bay or the ee of tree. In reality, it represents the vowel sound of ‘cat’. The ó is found in Irish orthography but it is not found in any version of phonetic transcription that I have ever encountered.