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.
John was apparently a slang term in America long ago for a steady boyfriend. Now it is used of the client of a prostitute or for a sugar daddy (apparently – the latter meaning is one I’ve never heard even though I watch a lot of American films.) Anyway, I would have thought this was quite an easy term to explain. John used to be the most common name in English. People signing into a hotel room would sign as Mr and Mrs John Smith. There are John Does and Dear John Letters and Johnny-Come-Lately. It is just a natural word to use of a regular guy, a person you don’t know much about.
Daniel Cassidy, in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, came up with an Irish language explanation for this. Here is Cassidy’s claim:
“Teann (pron. t’ann, ch’ann, j’ann, joun), n., a champion; a firm man; fig. a well-to-do-man; a support; a resource; adj., wealthy, well-to-do, strong, well-established, steadfast. Cara teann, a steadfast, constant friend; feirmeoir teann, a well-to-do farmer. Teannaim sparán, I fill a purse well. Teanntóir, n., a backer, a helper, a support. (Dineen, 1191.)”
Dinneen’s (Cassidy consistently misspelled this name) dictionary is a strange and eccentric book. Most people who work with the language tend to prefer Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, so let’s look at the definition of teann there.
As a noun, teann is defined as: 1. (a) Strength, force; (b) stress, strain; 2. (a) support, backing resource (b) assurance, confidence, boldness. 3 Power, authority 4 (In prepositional phrases) (a) ar theann a dhíchill, he is doing his very best (b) i dteann a réime, at the height of his career, (c) le teann oibre, by dint of hard work.
As an adjective, it is: 1 Tight, taut; 2. (a) Firm, strong, (b) steadfast, constant, 3. Well-established, bold, assured, (b) well-to-do, 4 Forceful, emphatic, confident, assured. 5 Hard, severe.
There is nothing here about champions, firm men or well-to-do men. Let’s look at Dinneen’s version.
As an adjective, it is “Teann, -a, -einne, a., tight, firm, stiff, taut, rigid, plump or well-filled (as a bag, etc.), well-set, stout, powerful, hardy, forward, well-contested, well-to-do, downright, decisive, strict; teann as, confident in; teann ar, severe on; teann le, filled or packed with; feirmeoir teann, a well-to-do farmer; fear teann, a stern man, al. a burly man; sursaing theann, a tight-pulled or well-filled belt; chomh teann le lamhnán, as firm (distent) as a bladder; comh teann géar is do b’fhéidir leis, as quickly as he could; láir sheang nó cairiún teann, a slender mare or a firm-set nag (are the best of the kind); teann le bainne, filled with milk (as an udder); is teann mar sin é, that is very forward of you (S.N.); ach mur’ teann ar charaid chan teann ar námhaid, if you cannot rely on a friend you cannot rely on an enemy; aimh-theann, not austere (Contr.)”
As a noun, Dinneen says this: “Teann, g. teinn, tinn, pl. –ta, m., strain, distress, support, strength, resource, effort, violence, supremacy (over, ar); a firm man,a champion; teann na nGall, foreign oppression; teann i dteann, might for might; teann re teann id.; le teann deifre, feirge, 7c., through sheer haste, anger, etc.; ar theann a dhíchill, doing his level best, ar theann a anama, id.; re teann truaighe dhó, through sheer pity for him; gabhaim neart agus teann i, I obtain strength and support in, assume dominion in; níor ghabhadar teann ná treise i, the failed to conquer; do-ghním teann as, I take pride in, make much of; ó nach tarrthaidh an buille teann air, since the blow did not take effect on him; tá teann ar a chúlaibh aige, he has strong resources.”
The only part of this which corresponds with the meaning which Cassidy is giving to teann is Dinneen’s ‘a firm man, a champion’. I suspect that this is a very old and poetic expression, not the kind of thing you would find in normal conversation, and I have certainly never heard it used in this way. As others have pointed out, Cassidy took complex terms and cherry-picked the obscure meanings which suited him without taking into account the way these words are really used in the language.