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 history of the terms scally and scallywag is complex and these complexities are not made any less complicated by Cassidy’s cavalier handling of the etymological facts. Because Cassidy regarded both words as deriving from the same root(s) in Irish, I will write a composite article here covering both scally and scallywag, which I will post for both terms.
The term scally is mostly known as a slang term in Northern England, especially around Liverpool, meaning a rogue or a chancer. It is often contemptuous but as is the case with many such expressions (rascal, for example), it is sometimes used with a hint of admiration or indulgence. The term scallywag or scallawag may be related to the English scally but the link (if any) is unclear.
Scallywag is an American slang term which may or may not be of Scottish origin. It is first found with the meaning of “disreputable fellow” in 1848 but an early recorded sense (in 1854) was “undersized or worthless animal”. Etymonline suggests that it may be derived from Scottish scallag (equivalent to our scológ) “farm servant, rustic”. Others link it to Scalloway, one of the Shetland Islands, with the reference being to little Shetland ponies. Others link it to another Scots term, “scurryvaig,” which is apparently erived from the Latin “scurra vagas,” meaning roughly “wandering fool or buffoon.” This “scurryvaig” means “a vagabond or wanderer.”
Cassidy claimed that scally comes from an Irish word scolla or perhaps from scollaire or scallaire or perhaps from scallóir. Scolla is a word given in Dinneen’s dictionary, meaning a feeble or contemptible person or animal. (It is not given in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary.) It is unclear where scolla comes from. Scollaire and scallaire (neither of which sound close enough to scally) are essentially the same word (according to Dinneen) and are both from scalladh, a verb meaning to scald or to scold. In other words they do not refer to weak cattle or to rogues, loveable or otherwise. Scolla does relate to at least one of the stated meanings of scallywag (not of scally), the idea of weak or feeble cattle.
So, is Cassidy correct in regarding the English words scally (and scallywag) from the Irish scolla? The problem is that a similarity is just a similarity and it can be explained in a number of ways. It could be pure coincidence (not as improbable as you might think – see the similarity of daor and dear). It could be because the word is originally an English term and was borrowed into Irish. It could be a word derived from some other language such as Old Norse and borrowed into both English and Irish. Or, as Cassidy suggests, it could be from Irish and borrowed into English.
The latter is very unlikely because almost all nouns in the Irish language ending in a consonant and -a are borrowings from Norman French or from Middle English. It is easy to think of examples: seomra (from chambre); cóta (from coat or coate); rolla (from roll or rolle); pota (from pot or potte); siopa (from shop or shoppe).
We may not know the exact details of where scolla was borrowed from but it seems likely to have been a borrowing. Just because there is a gap in our knowledge in relation to this word does not mean that we should fill the gap up with any random nonsense proposed by people with poor standards of scholarship.