I have commented on Dymphna Lonergan before. She is Irish-born but she has carved out a career for herself as an academic at Flinders University in Australia. A few years ago, she published an entire book about the Irish influence on Australian speech. I have tried to obtain a copy of her book but it is not easy to find a second hand copy and I am not prepared to spend a large amount of money on this. However, some claims made by Lonergan are well represented and covered in other sources on line, so I feel that I am being fair by limiting myself to these claims where I have sufficient information to make a clear judgement.
Interestingly, she has commented on Daniel Cassidy’s work (https://researchnow.flinders.edu.au/en/publications/global-irish-words-submitted):
The American writer Daniel Cassidy in his book How the Irish Invented Slang claims most American slang comprises Irish words in disguise. His claims have been challenged, but I suggest his work is still of value in seeing Irish words existing outside that language and in American English, Australian English and Newfoundland English where they sometimes serve new purposes.
It is quite extraordinary that anyone studying the area of Irish influence on English would choose to ignore the hundreds of made-up Irish expressions in Cassidy’s work but it is quite clear that Lonergan’s research in this field falls well short of the standards that a genuine academic would expect.
Anyway, I will divide my posts on Lonergan into three parts. The first will cover a rag-bag of minor absurdities. The second will cover the foolish claims made by Lonergan about the origins of the term didgeridoo. The third will cover her equally dodgy claims about the origins of the Australian term ‘sheila’ for a woman.
So, why do I think Lonergan is such a poor researcher? Well, let’s start with a couple of very clear examples.
For example, on a blog called Tinteán, we find a comment from Lonergan on the term pampootie. The pampootie or pampúta is a type of moccasin worn traditionally by the people of the Aran Islands in the west of Ireland. They are usually known as bróga úrleathair (rawhide shoes) in Irish but the term pampúta is also found. The origin of the word is unknown but it is worth noting that almost no native Irish words begin with the letter p.
Here is Lonergan’s claim:
In a similar vein the Irish pampúta, ‘a moccasin or primitive shoe made from two pieces of leather’, originating on the Aran Islands, has made its way into Australian Aboriginal English as pampuu, meaning ‘a shoe’.
Do you see the problem with this argument? Basically, the problem is that it isn’t an argument. It’s a random assertion without any attempt to provide evidence. While it’s possible that an Aran Islander made his or her way to remote parts of Australia and that the Aboriginal speakers adopted the term from them, this isn’t the only possibility, or indeed the most probable. The word pump means a flat shoe in English. It has had that meaning in English since the 16th century and the English word isn’t derived from pampootie or pampúta. Doesn’t pampuu sound more like pump than pampúta? Of course it does!
If this were an occasional lapse on Lonergan’s part, you could forgive it, but unfortunately, this kind of garbage is far from occasional in her work. In the same source, we find this claim about the word doodeen. Doodeen is a familiar Hiberno-English term, a transliteration of the Irish dúidín, which refers to a short clay pipe. However, here’s another gem from Lonergan in relation to this word:
Another Irish word that has travelled globally is the word dúd ‘a stump’ in its diminutive form dúidín. It can still be heard in Irish English as doody, the word for a baby’s pacifier.
Why do I object to this? Well, there are lots of terms like this for a baby’s dummy or pacifier in lots of areas. Here in the north of Ireland, we call it a dodie. They also call it a dodie in the north of England, where Irish influence is very unlikely. These terms resemble also the word diddy, which is a common term for a nipple in various dialects of English. It’s not completely impossible that Lonergan is right about this but … where’s the evidence? There isn’t even a decent examination or discussion of easily available evidence, never mind a search for more obscure sources. Lonergan thinks it comes from dúidín, therefore it comes from dúidín!
One source I found was a lecture given by Lonergan in TCD in Dublin. I was astounded at a couple of instances she gives of phrases quoted from Irish people in Australia that she thinks prove that they were thinking in Irish. The first is from a prisoner called Paddy Galvin who was being whipped to make him rat on his fellow conspirators and who said that:
You may as well hang me now, for you will never get my music from me.
Lonergan says that this has been supposed to be poetic but according to her, it really reflects the fact that Galvin was thinking in Irish, because the word music can mean information in Irish. Really? Her only ‘evidence’ is from the Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, which cites the expression ‘beidh ceol faoi seo’ as meaning ‘there will be talk about this’. That isn’t the same as saying that ceol (music) means information. It doesn’t. There is no evidence of anyone using ceol in this way. Does a song mean a row because you can say ‘don’t make a song and dance about it’? No. If Galvin said something like ‘Bheadh sé chomh maith agaibh mé a chrochadh anois, mar ní bhfaighidh sibh mo chuid ceoil asam go deo na ndeor,’ that sounds every bit as poetic and unprosaic in Irish as it does in English. Her claim that Galvin’s utterance represents a normal Irish expression that sounds poetic when translated is simply nonsense.
She also quotes a comment about a priest, who was said to have ‘the swiftest and sweetest tongue of Irish that I ever heard’. This, according to Lonergan, shows that the person who said this was thinking in Irish because the term sweetest tongue evokes the Irish term blasta, meaning tasty but often applied to language. The problems with this are so obvious it hardly seems necessary to point them out. For one thing, there are other terms in Irish that correspond more closely to sweetest tongue. What about briathra meala, honeyed words, or binnghlórach, sweet-voiced? And then, of course, you would have to prove that the image of words being sweet or honeyed is not used in other languages like English. Again, this is nonsense. You only have to think of words like mellifluous, honey-flowing, a term often applied to language.
But Lonergan doesn’t bother working this out. ‘I knew they were Irish speakers, because of the way they spoke English’. No, you really don’t know that, because there is nothing in these utterances that suggests their original language of composition was Irish.
Before leaving this initial look at silly claims made by Lonergan, let’s look at the expression brumby. She seems to be quite proud of having conned compilers of dictionaries into taking her claim seriously but it really is quite stupid. The term brumby is used to refer to feral horses in the Australian outback. The most likely explanation is that brumbies descend from horses originally belonging to James Brumby who left some horses when he relocated to Tasmania in 1804. Lonergan thinks that brumby really comes from bromaigh, the plural of the Irish word bromach, which means a colt, a young male horse. Quite apart from the fact that Brumby is a well-attested character who can be proven to have existed, there are several problems with Lonergan’s claim. One is that words tend to be borrowed in their most simple form in language contact, so you would expect it to be borrowed as bromagh and the plural to be bromaghs. Which sound even less like brumby. The other is that of all the words for horse, why would it be bromach? Why not a generic term for a horse like capall or beithíoch? Why would a word for a young male horse become the term for all wild horses? I can’t see any reason why it would!
In other words, I think Lonergan is a terrible researcher and I have demonstrated as much above. However, the worst myths she has been guilty of promoting are the ones about the slang term Sheila for a woman and the utterly ridiculous idea that didgeridoo comes from Irish. I will deal with each of these in an individual post. Watch this space!