Cassidese Glossary – Blow (1)

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.

With the English word blow, we are really dealing with at least two words. One is the verb and noun referring to the buffeting of the wind. This is plainly of Germanic origin. It can be traced, not only to Middle English blowen but further back to Old English blāwan. It has cognates in other Germanic languages.

The other blow is the noun that means a strike or hit, which dates back at least to the 15th century in English. It is true (as Cassidy says) that the OED says that the origin of this word is unknown. However, the OED is conservative and cautious. Other sources are less cautious. Wiktionary, for example, states that it is also of Germanic origin and points out as evidence the similarity of Middle Dutch blouwen, meaning to hit or to beat up.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book How The Irish Invented Slang, claims that blow in the sense of ‘to hit’ comes from the Scottish Gaelic buille and Irish buail and bualadh. He claims that this was also claimed by Charles Mackay (an etymological crank of the 19th century who tried to do for Scottish Gaelic what Cassidy tried to do for Irish), though Mackay only mentions buille in relation to blow. As I have pointed out before, buille, buail and bualadh are spelled identically and have pretty much the same meanings in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic. Cassidy was clearly ignorant of this fact. (Mackay did mention bualadh in other contexts. For example, to Mackay, a thimble was a dìon bualadh, because it was a roof or protection, dìon, from the stroke, bualadh, of the needle. In reality, of course, thimble goes back to Old English þȳmel, a ‘thumb-stall’.)

In other words, Cassidy is simply wrong about this. There is no mystery about the origin of the ‘blow’ words in English and the words buille and bualadh are far too dissimilar to be good candidates. They also go back far too long, to a period when there was very little borrowing between English and the Gaelic languages.

It should also be pointed out that Cassidy’s claims in relation to Mackay’s book are badly researched. “Mackay’s etymological dictionary was dedicated to the Duke of Edinburgh, who had sponsored and financed it. But a few blows from the Irish Fenian Movement in the 1880s and Mackay’s thesis of a substantial Irish and Gaelic influence on English was unthinkable – like Irish Home Rule.”

To the best of my knowledge, the Duke of Edinburgh did not fund the book and the Dictionary of National Biography states that Mackay lost £300 as a result of the book’s publication. As for the Fenians, while there was a campaign of violence in the 1880s, the most important atrocity in Britain was the Clerkenwell Bombing in 1867 which killed 12 people and injured over 50. If this didn’t cause the Establishment to turn against Gaelic, why would the Fenian activities of the 1880s have such a profound effect? Cassidy is simply trying to explain away the fact that the very top of the British Establishment was prepared to back a work which claims Gaelic etymologies for words in English in 1879, when, according to Cassidy, they should have been deeply hostile to the Gaelic languages and everything associated with them.

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