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.
This is a slang term for a magistrate, judge, constable or headmaster – basically it has been used for any figure of authority. As Cassidy says, there is no convincing explanation for its origin. People have suggested that it comes from a Dutch term for a boss (I am unable to find any trace of this word), or a word for a gold ornament which was an ancient symbol of authority, or because such people wear robes that make them look ‘bird-like’. Apparently the earliest forms of this word in the 16th century are beck, not beak.
Cassidy’s suggestion is that this comes from beachtaí or beachtaire. Beachtaí is defined by Ó Dónaill as ‘a critical, captious person’. Beachtaí would be pronounced bakhtee (with the kh representing the ch of Scottish loch or the j of Spanish jamón) which is quite unlike beak and beck. The meaning is only a partial match. While a judge may be a critical or captious person or a person given to captiousness (beachtaíocht) this is not the word for a judge. A judge or magistrate is a breitheamh or giúistís.
In short, Cassidy’s claim is not a good match in terms of phonetics or of meaning and is unlikely to be the origin of this word.