Author Archives: Danielomastix

Dymphna Lonergan’s Bad Etymology

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 (

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!

A Wren Pissing In The Sea

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called Gosh Darn It, Danny in which I said that a bit more nonsense on IrishCentral would be – as we say in Irish – like a wren pissing in the sea. (Mar mhún dreoilín san fharraige.) Jeremy Butterfield, an expert lexicographer and linguist, commented that it was a great expression and that he would squeeze it into English conversations whenever he had the opportunity. Then, a year or two later, I learned that the Welsh use the same idiom (fel piso dryw bach yn y môr). This started me wondering where the expression originally came from, so I decided to do a little research.

Strangely, one of the oldest known proverbs in history is very similar to this idiom. It is found in the Sumerian language: The fox, having urinated into the sea, said: ‘The depths of the sea are my urine!’

However, this Sumerian expression doesn’t seem to have left any direct mark on the world’s languages and it is not until a few hundred years ago that we find it in contexts where it is more likely to have spread into Irish or Welsh. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, a similar expression is found in a 1590 work (Deviz Familiers) by the French writer Gabriel Meurier:  peu ayde, disçoit le formy, pissant en mer en plein midy’. (A little helps, said the ant, pissing in the sea in broad daylight’.) Within a few years, a similar expression was recorded in English, in a letter from a man called Philip Gawdy to his brother, but in the Gawdy version, the ant has become a wren and he omits the word piss (bycause the wrenn sayde all helpte when she … in the sea).

In other words, this is an expression that seems to have formerly existed in a number of European languages that interacted regularly with one another: French, English, Irish and Welsh. However, it seems to have been lost in English and probably in French. Why this should be is a mystery, as it is a good expression.

When I looked at this question, it reminded me of another phrase which I found beautiful when I began learning Irish in my early teens, the phrase bóín Dé (little cow of God) which is the usual term for the insect known as a ladybird or ladybug in English. I later learned that phrases with the same meaning are found in many of the Slavic languages (boża krówka in Polish, Божья коровка in Russian) and I wondered why. The answer is, of course, that this was formerly widely spread throughout many European languages. In English, it was known as Godyscow in Middle English and in French it was vache de Dieu. Gradually, other expressions, mostly to do with the Virgin Mary, have supplanted these names in many European languages, leaving Irish and the Slavic east with what looks like a special connection, whereas in reality what we have today are just the remnants of something far more extensive.

If you are the kind of person who enjoys etymology and word history, you will find a lot more of it (and much better researched) over at Jeremy Butterfield’s blog:

Coming up on CassidySlangScam

I have had very little time to contribute to Cassidyslangscam recently but I am not completely finished with the blog. There are a number of loose ends that I have not tied up yet and I intend to get them all done some time this year. Hopefully!

What kind of material will be included? Well, I would like to start (soon) with a brief article about an interesting Irish idiom (mún dreoilín san fharraige) and its links to similar idioms in other languages. Watch this space for that one!

I also plan to publish a review of the fascinating research of Barbara Freitag into the Sheila-na-gig, statues which are found on churches and castles in Ireland (and in other countries) of naked female figures displaying their genitalia. Are they pagan fertility symbols or Christian warnings against licentiousness? Where does the expression Sheila-na-gig come from and what are its origins in the Irish language? I hope to be able to provide some information on these questions and others here.

I would like to write a proper debunking of the abysmal ‘research’ of the Australian academic Dymphna Lonergan, originator of the notion that didgeridoo is derived from an Irish phrase, whose work is almost as amateurish and phoney as Cassidy’s.

And I would dearly love to have a go at a man called Bob Quinn and his ridiculous theories about the north African origins of the Irish. That has been on the cards for a long time but I would like to research it properly and do the subject justice (even if Quinn couldn’t be bothered doing that!)

In other words, I do plan to post here when I have the time to do so. I will also answer questions or comments when they warrant an answer. That is, when the comment or question is coherent and actually raises a sensible issue. Believe me, many of the comments I have had here are completely incoherent and absolutely not worth answering!

A Note on the Word Geis

I had a message recently from David L Gold, a true language scholar and a long-term online friend of this blog. It was David who suggested providing a glossary devoid of invective against Cassidy and his enablers. David’s message is worth quoting in its entirety:

Who says that the compilers of the OED try to play down the influence of Irish on English? Here’s one of the entries from the edition of 1933, recently revised:

geis, n.

Pronunciation: /ɡɛʃ/ /ɡeɪʃ/ /ɡiːʃ/
Forms: Also gaysh, geas. Pl. geasa, geise.
Etymology: Irish.

In Irish folklore: a solemn injunction, prohibition, or taboo; a moral obligation.

1880 S. Ferguson Poems 63 This journey at this season was ill-timed, As made in violation of the gaysh.

1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 344 He thought he saw Gradh son of Lir upon the plain, and it was a geis (tabu) to him to see that.

1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 373 Every man who entered the Fenian ranks had four geasa (gassa, i.e., tabus) laid upon him.

1928 Observer 22 Jan. 5/4 Apparently a man could be either:—(1) Born under a ‘geis’ prohibiting certain actions on his part, or (2) Laid under ‘geis’ either at birth or any time during his life, either by divine or human agency.

1965 New Statesman 23 July 129/2 In a sense which most Irish people will know, this put Fallon under a geas, a moral compulsion, to say his bit.

David is entirely correct about this. The word geis is an interesting one, as it is a survival of ancient ideas about supernatural injunctions or taboos placed on people. The most famous example is probably Cú Chulainn, who was weakened sufficiently by being tricked into eating dog-meat that his enemies were able to destroy him. The word for a superstition in my dialect of Irish is geasróg, which comes from geis. (The more common word in southern Irish is pisreog, which is also common in Irish English as pishrogue.)

As David points out, there are many words like this in the mainstream dictionaries. There is no conspiracy to hide Irish influences on the English language, no sinister cabal of Anglophile academics trying to play down the role of the Irish in the linguistic history of America. It’s all pure nonsense!

A Welcome Message

I had a message from Mr. Richard Wolfe the other day:

“I recently bumped into Mr. Cassidy on C-SPAN while watching the 27th (2007) Annual Book Award sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation. Cassidy was among many being honored for their contribution to multicultural literature. He began with a quote from H. L. Mencken: “Puzzling the Irish have given the English language indeed very few new words…” He spoke very briefly but entertainingly about his proof of Mencken’s mistake, and moved on. And I went shopping. I was about to click BUY on Cassidy’s book when I decided to Google “reviews” instead.
“Buyer beware,” they say.”

I am very glad that reviews of Cassidy’s work like this blog were able to prevent you from wasting your money on this rubbish. That is what this blog exists to do. It’s a pity there aren’t more sensible people around like you who check before they click.

The Belfast Hills and Gulliver’s Travels

In this blog, my primary target has been the fake etymology of Daniel Cassidy but I have touched on a number of other phoney memes about Ireland and Irish such as the silly claim that Swift was inspired to write Gulliver’s travels by the appearance of Belfast’s Cave Hill, which looks like a sleeping giant. Extensions of this myth say that Swift also took the name Lilliput from a farm in North Belfast as the name for his nation of tiny people and that Lilliput Street commemorates this farm. According to many sources, the name Lilliput in Belfast goes back to before the time when Swift lived in the area.

The truth is quite different, as I have said before. Swift did live in Kilroot near Carrickfergus for about two years between 1694 and 1696, and had a relationship with a girl called Jane Waring from Waring Street in Belfast, so he undoubtedly travelled into the town through the area around Lilliput Street, and Cave Hill does look a little like a sleeping giant. However, he did not write Gulliver’s Travels until the 1720s (it was published in 1726) and there is absolutely no evidence that Swift had Cave Hill in mind when he wrote about his giants.

In fact, the idea that Swift was inspired by Cave Hill is very recent. The earliest reference to it that I can find is from an article in the Scotsman in 2004. Experts on Swift and his work tend to make the point that Swift was influenced by the French writer Rabelais, whose satirical works about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel are much more obvious as inspirations. For example, Oxford Quick Reference says about Rabelais that he had a widespread influence on English literature, particularly on S. Butler, Swift, Sterne, Peacock, and Joyce. Whole articles have been written on the subject, such as Eddy’s 1922 essay, Rabelais, a Source for Gulliver’s Travels. And then there is Marion Graz Carr’s 1924 work, A Comparison of the “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel” of Rabelais with Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” Just Google Swift and Rabelais and you will find hundreds of references.

As for the idea that Lilliput Farm in Belfast was the inspiration for the name Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, this is only possible if Lilliput Farm was called that in the 1690s. This is often claimed on the internet and by self-appointed local historians in Belfast but if we look for evidence, there is none. The earliest reference to Lilliput as a place in the Belfast area seems to be (it’s not absolutely certain that it’s the one in the Belfast area but seems likely) a reference in the Belfast Newsletter to an auction of furniture at the house of Hercules Heyland in Lilliput in 1786. There are quite a few references to Lilliput House and its garden in the early 19th century too, and this is definitely in the right area of the city. It seems to have been a nursery or garden and seed suppliers at that time.

However, 1786 is sixty years after Gulliver’s Travels was published. It seems likely to me that someone chose to build a house and call it Lilliput because they were a fan of Swift or because they were small or the house was small – for some whimsical reason which hasn’t been recorded. If that’s the case, it wasn’t the only one. There was a Lilliput Lodge in Limerick in the early 19th century. There is also a Lilliput House at Nure in County Westmeath which was named after Swift’s creation in the 18th century. There are probably many other Lilliputs named after Gulliver’s Travels rather than the other way round.

There is also the question that Lilliput doesn’t sound like an Irish placename. There aren’t any places anywhere in Ireland (apart from the occasional Lilliput) with the element Put in them, to the best of my knowledge, and the same goes for Lilli. They aren’t common elements like kill or maghera or bally or knock…

So, if Swift didn’t get the name of Lilliput from a place in Belfast, where did he get it? Well, experts on Swift have speculated about that one. The answer seems to be that the Lilli- is a childish rendering of little, which makes perfect sense. As for the put, this word was a common slang term meaning a stupid fellow or a blockhead in Swift’s day. Swift was an opponent of slang and actually mentioned the word put as one of the words people shouldn’t use in an article he wrote in the Tatler in 1710! In other words, Lilliput would be the kingdom of the little fools.

And, just as the Irish language doesn’t need a Cassidy to make it interesting or important, the Belfast Hills have more than enough going for them without a fake association with Swift. They are stunningly beautiful and they are full of genuine history. So let’s just ditch all this newly-manufactured fakery and stick to the facts!

Saoire Nollag Keats agus Chapman

Bliain amháin, tamall i ndiaidh na Géarchéime, fuair Keats agus Chapman leid fá chapall ag rásaí Bhaile na Lobhar agus bhain siad leadhb mhór airgid an duine. Dar le Keats gur chóir dóibh dul áit éigin thar lear le linn shaoire na Nollag. Bhí Chapman ar nós cuma liom fán phlean seo. “Nach mbeadh deireadh seachtaine fada i mBinn Éadair lán chomh deas?” arsa seisean. Ach bhí Keats leagtha amach ar dhul chun na hAilgéire agus ní shásódh an saol é ach dul ann agus sa deireadh, ghéill Chapman dó.

Mar sin de, chuir siad turas chun na hAilgéire in áirithe. Chuaigh siad chun na Fraince agus chuaigh go hAlgiers ar bhád farantóireachta ó Chathair Marseilles. Bhí siad tuirseach go leor i ndiaidh an turais ach cuireadh fáilte mhór mhaith rompu san óstán. Chaith siad tráthnóna breá ag siúl thart. Bhí an chathair galánta, bhí a lán le déanamh agus le feiceáil, bhí an aimsir ar dóigh agus an oíche sin, bhí féasta den bhia Arabach acu. Bhí an t-óstán clúiteach as an triúr cócairí a bhí ag obair sa chistin ann, Faruq, Mustafa agus Ahmed. Bhí Keats agus Chapman sona sásta agus iad ag dul a luí an oíche sin.

Chaith siad an lá ag amharc ar iontais na háite agus cé go raibh lá maith acu, chuala siad an focal ‘peste’ ó roinnt daoine (nach raibh ag trácht ar an fhealsúnacht ná ar an eisiachas, de réir cosulachta) agus bhí iarsmalann amháin druidte mar gheall ar an ghalar sin. Nuair a d’fhill siad ar an óstán, bhí cuid de na haíonna i ndiaidh imeacht agus thug siad faoi deara nach raibh Faruq ann ach bhí an bheirt eile ag obair leo agus bhí béile breá eile acu.

An lá dar gcionn, bhí na sráideanna tréigthe agus ní raibh mórán siopaí ar oscailt. Nuair a bhain siad an t-óstán amach, fuair siad nach raibh ach deichniúr aíonna fágtha agus ar chúis éigin, bhí Mustafa as láthair fosta. Agus sin ráite, rinne Ahmed a dhícheall agus bhí béile den scoth acu.

An tríú lá, bhí an margadh druidte ag na húdaráis agus ní raibh áit ar bith le dul sa chathair. Chuaigh siad ar ais san óstán agus ní raibh ag stopadh ann ach iadsan agus duine amháin eile. Mar bharr ar an donas, nuair a tháinig am dinnéara, tháinig an bainisteoir amach le roinnt rudaí fuara ar thráidire – ológa, cáis, arán agus feoil agus buidéal fíona. Bhí brón air, ar seisean, ach bhí Ahmed tinn fosta agus ní bheadh ach seirbhís theoranta ar fáil amach ansin. Bhí díomá an domhain ar Keats bocht. Eisean a mhol dóibh an turas seo a dhéanamh agus anois, bhí gach rud curtha ó mhaith agus an turas ar fad ag dul chun siobarnaí.

Ach dá olcas an cás, bhí Chapman ábalta barr a chur ar an donas lena chuid imeartas focal. Ghlac sé bolgam fíona agus d’amharc uaidh le hosna fhada.

“Tá deireadh na ngiollaí ar lár,” ar seisean, go sollúnta. “Cad é mar a dhéanfaimid féasta gan Ahmed?”

Nuair a chuala Keats na focail sin, thosaigh seisean a mhothú tinn chomh maith, an créatúr!

A Reply to Amy Kelly

I have had a message from someone called Amy Kelly on my post on Captain Grammar Pants. You may remember that the Captain (a.k.a. Seán Williams) is a blogger on matters of grammar who happened to endorse a large number of Cassidy’s idiotic claims in a book she wrote on Irish traditional music. She later contacted this blog and said that she had got it wrong about Cassidy but since then she has published several silly claims about the Irish origins of English words on her blog. Anyway, here is the message from Amy Kelly:

You made some errors of your own.

…not one of the morons who insist [one who insists, not morons who insist]

You do not seem to make use of the Oxford comma, which I understand is a matter of choice, but it is almost always needed and I am of the opinion that it is needed in the following, as well as a colon after opinions:

to express all kinds of opinions: true, false, benign, or repugnant

What Amy Kelly seems to be saying here is that I make mistakes. This is not news to me. It is impossible not to make mistakes and what pedants tend to ignore is that it really doesn’t matter, because language is a tool, not an ornament, and it is quite robust. While grammar bores tend to pretend that they are trying to improve people’s powers of expression and stop the rot, the fact is that there is no evidence that any civilisation ever collapsed because people got sloppy about their accusatives and to the best of my knowledge, nobody was ever murdered by a psychotic panda because they misused the odd comma.

So, what is it really all about? Well, call me an old cynic, but it seems to me that what it’s really about is condescension, ego-tripping, snobbery and nit-picking. Which is why, if you’re the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, you need to do your homework and make sure your ‘corrections’ are themselves correct.

Amy Kelly is trying to say that I am wrong to say that Captain Grammar Pants ‘is not one of the morons who insist that a prestigious institution is one which practices illusion and deception’ because one insists. This is plainly nonsense. If this were a sentence like ‘one of the children was sick’ then she would be right, because ‘were’ would be inappropriate. However, the two structures are not the same. In this case, ‘insists’ would be wrong, because I am talking about the morons who insist that a prestigious institution is one which practices deception and as I say, Captain Grammar Pants is not one of them.  If Ms Kelly can’t spot the flaws in her own argument without my assistance, she is obviously not as clever as she thinks she is. In my experience, grammar bores usually aren’t.

As for the Oxford comma, it is very kind of her to enlighten me on her opinions about punctuation. They have been duly noted and will be studiously ignored because … well … because I think my punctuation is clear and comprehensible enough and I really couldn’t give a rat’s arse if Amy Kelly disagrees.