In the past I have criticised Sean Williams (aka Captain Grammar Pants) a blogger on matters of language. She published a book on Irish traditional music a number of years ago which was full of nonsense taken from Cassidy’s book. In a comment on one of my posts, she admitted that she no longer believed in these derivations and that she had got it wrong. However, since then, she has lapsed a couple of times, making silly and indefensible claims about supposed Irish derivations of English words. Just recently, on the 25th of December last year, she claimed that the English word cuddle comes from Irish codail (sleep).
Is this true? No, of course it’s not! We don’t really know where the English word cuddle comes from. It’s a apparently a nursery word (which tend not to be recorded). It may or may not be linked to other terms like coddle, mollycoddle and huddle.
Where did the claim of a connection with codail come from? In this case, it wasn’t from Cassidy. Loretto Todd, in her book Green English, mentions that cuddle might be linked to codalta [sic – it should be codlata), the genitive of codladh, meaning sleep. I have already written about Todd’s book, which is dubious but not as bad as Cassidy’s.
Anyway, could codail really be the origin of cuddle? After all, cuddling and sleep are sometimes linked and they are both about warmth and enfolding … and soft furnishings are often involved.
The answer to that is “no”! We need to think rationally about these things, about the processes involved. It’s not enough for a word to be somewhere in the same vague semantic ballpark. When a word is borrowed from one language to another, there is always a bilingual situation (usually involving a community of bilingual people) who tend to do what linguists call code-switching. This simply means that people use words and sometimes phrases and structures from one language while speaking another. In other words, some group of people who were bilingual said “Would you look at the pus on that child?” because the original would have been “An bhfeiceann tú an pus ar an leanbh sin?” And thus, after the word had been used many, many times in this community, the young monoglot English-speaking generation came to use the word pus(s) as a slang word in American contexts like sourpuss, glamourpuss and a dig in the puss.
So, the implication is that someone, somewhere, said something like “The child was crying and Máire gave him a codail”. Why would they, when nobody would say “Bhí an leanbh ag caoineadh agus thug Máire codail dó?” Codail isn’t the Irish for cuddle. And you don’t give someone sleep, especially not the word codail which is an imperative verb (an instruction to sleep) not the noun for sleep, which is codladh. And of course, hugging is not always, or not even primarily, about sleeping. It’s about warmth, intimacy, closeness. There is no plausible connection between codail and cuddle. If Captain Grammar Pants could be bothered doing the most elementary fact-checking, she would realise that.