Tag Archives: an Ghaeilge

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: https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com.

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.

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!

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig

St Patrick’s Day will soon be here, so it seems like a good opportunity once again to attack Cassidy’s rubbish book of fake Irish, to encourage people to learn a little of the real thing, and to say a couple of words about the philosophy of language learning.

At this time of year, many people in the Irish diaspora take an interest in their culture and history. Because of the irresponsible behaviour of a number of prominent members of the Irish-American establishment like Peter Quinn, Joe Lee, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Tom Deignan and countless others, who recommended and continue to recommend this nonsense to gullible people, this book is still in print and still being sold. This is a disgrace. Cassidy’s ‘research’ is a cruel and disgusting hoax and IMHO no decent person would support it. However, thanks in part to this blog, people are now much more aware of how dishonest and foolish this book is, so the newspaper articles about Cassidy’s linguistic ‘revelations’ which used to appear at this time of year have been considerably fewer over the last couple of years. The only major organ (yes, I’m aware of the innuendo) of the diaspora which still supports this raiméis is the egregious IrishCentral. They continue to republish a semi-literate ‘review’ of Cassidy’s book by some 9/11 Truther called Brendan Patrick Keane.

Anyway, it seems appropriate to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with some handy (and GENUINE) phrases in our beautiful Ulster dialect of the Irish language.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig duit! (OR Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort!)

Ban-akh-tee na fayla pahrig ditch!

Blessings of St Patrick’s day to you!

Go raibh míle maith agat.

Go roh meela moy oggut!

A thousand thanks! (Thanks very much)

Tá sé iontach deas inniu.

Tah shay intah jass inyoo.

It’s very nice today.

Sláinte mhór agus saol fada agat!

Slahn-chya wore ogus seel fadda oggut!

Good health and long life to you!

If you want some more information on these things, there are hundreds of resources on line. Focloir.ie is particularly good and has audio files for common words. Just don’t trust anything you read on IrishCentral, in any language, and don’t use Cassidy’s book as a source for learning Irish!

As for the philosophy of language learning, here’s a few points for people thinking of learning Irish:

DO

  • learn a little every day – start NOW!
  • label things you use every day – fridge, cooker, car, door
  • write common words or phrases on cards and carry them round with you
  • learn a few proverbs or songs by heart
  • use apps and words of the day and the Kindle and other new technology
  • get output by TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta and listen to the language as much as possible (without bothering about understanding it) just to get used to the sounds and intonation

DON’T

  • go to a class once a week and forget about it the rest of the time
  • try to learn everything at once and get disheartened when you can’t
  • use Google Translate to translate INTO Irish (it’s useful to get an idea of what a text means in a language you don’t speak well or at all but, for example, if you put I cycled a lot into Google Translate, you get Rothar mé go leor, which is garbage!)
  • make up sentences which are too complicated for you – stick to the structures you know to be correct. Walk, then run! There’s no point in practising elaborate structures which are wrong. Stick to simple sentences which are right! 

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig daoibh!!

More on the Tally Stick

A while back, I wrote a short piece in answer to Maureen Hurley. At the end of that article, I said that I would try to write a piece on the bata scóir, so here it is.

What was the bata scóir? Well, the word bata means stick in Irish, while the word scór is a borrowing of the English word score. It means a score or notch and comes ultimately from the Old Norse skor, meaning a notch or (because of its use in tallying) a count of twenty. In other words, it means a tally stick, a device used for counting or tallying. Usually, this was a small wooden block of various forms, which was usually able to be marked with notches indicating various values and then split lengthwise so that the two parts would tally. (Also, you could place the two parts together temporarily to mark new notches on it.)

In Ireland, historically, the bata scóir has had several meanings or uses. It was principally used in the nineteenth century as a kind of time card, used by labourers to prove how many hours they had worked. For example, an tAthair Peadar in his book of 1915, Mo Sgéal Féin, says this about the bata scóir used by labourers and farmers:


Bhíodh an bata scóir acu, agus choimeádaidís araon an cúntas ar an mbata scóir.
Is amhlaidh a bhíodh an bata scóir ‘n-a dhá leath ar a fhaid, agus leath acu ag an bhfear oibre agus an leath eile acu ag an bhfeirmeóir. Nuair a bhíodh an cúntas acu
le cur síos, do thagaidís i bhfochair a chéile agus a leath féin de’n bhata ag gach duine acu. Ansan, cuir i gcás go mbéadh chúig lá oibre déanta ag an bhfear oibre, do shínfidís an dá leath-bhata suas le n-a chéile, agus do ghearfadh duine acu chúig scóir le sgiain ar an dá leath-bhata, scór, nó fáibre, i n-aghaidh gach lae oibre d’ár deineadh. Do gearfaí na fáibrí i dtreó go luighfeadh an sgian ar an dá leath-bhata i n-aonfheacht, agus go mbéadh gach fáibre geartha isteach ionta araon. Ansan do choimeádfadh gach aoinne a leath féin de’n bhata scóir, agus níor bh’fhéidir d’aoinne
acu éagcóir a dhéanamh ar an nduine eile, mar níor bh’ fhéidir scór do ghearadh amach ‘ná scór do chur isteach gan an dá leath-bhata do shíneadh le chéile airís, agus nuair a sínfí le chéile iad do chaithfeadh na fáibrí teacht isteach le n-a chéile cruinn, fé mar a gearadh iad ar dtúis.

They used to have the tally-stick, and they would both keep the account on the tally stick. It so happened that the tally-stick used to be split lengthwise into two halves, one half kept by the workman and the other half by the farmer. When they had to record the account, they would come together, each of them with his own half of the stick. Then, suppose the workman had done five days of work, they would lay the two half-sticks up against each other, and one of them would cut five scores with a knife on the two half sticks, a score, or a groove, for every day of work that was done. The grooves would be cut so that the knife would lie on both of the half-sticks together, and so that each groove would be cut into both of them. Then each one would keep his own half of the tally-stick, and neither of them could cheat the other one, because it was not possible to cut a groove out or to put a score in without laying the two half-sticks together again, and when they were laid together the grooves had to match each other accurately, just as they had originally been cut.

However, many Irish people will be aware of a more sinister meaning to the phrase bata scóir, as a device used to punish Irish-speaking children for using their native language in school. This was particularly associated with the National School system which was brought in in 1831 but the custom seems to have been used to force children to learn English before then in the hedge schools (scoileanna scairte or scoltacha scairte), unofficial local schools run in barns or outdoors by a teacher paid directly by the parents.

This practice was used in many countries where an indigenous language was supplanted by a more powerful language like English or French. The best-known example was probably the famous Welsh Not. This was a badge that was hung on the neck of a child who was heard speaking Welsh. When another child was heard speaking the language, the Welsh Not was transferred to them and so on. At the end of the day the child wearing the Welsh Not was punished. Many years ago, I was told that this was also the pattern in Donegal.

However, most accounts of the bata scóir in Ireland tend to emphasise the scoring or notching aspect. For example, a child called Pádraig Ó Cuirrín from Waterford gave the following account (collected from his father) in the collection of folklore called Bailiúchan na Scol in the 1930s (my translation):

When my grandfather was going to school he used to speak Irish and a Bata Scóir was placed around his neck. He spoke ten words of Irish and ten notches were put in the stick for every word and then he was put outside the door. When he went home, his father gave him a blow for every notch that was in the stick.

Another account is in an Irish translation of an essay by William Smith O’Brien (written in 1893 but translated in 1905):

Ba mhinic, le deich mbliadhna is dachad do labhradh go trom ar lucht cnáide leanbh Gaedhealach scoile nuair a bheirtí ortha ag labhairt na teangan do thugadar leó ó lacht chíche a máthar, agus níl amhras ná gur bh’aithiseach an bheart í. Ní hé an cipín scóir do cuireadh ar chrochadh fé bhrághaid leanbh labhartha na Gaedhilge, mar tharcuisne ar a dteangain, fé ndeara dhi bheith ar gcúl, acht teicheadh na ndaoine thar sáile.

People have frequently spoken critically for the last fifty years about those tormenters of Irish-speaking school children when they were caught speaking the language they were given from their mother’s milk, and there is no doubt that this was a shameful act. It was not the tally-stick which was hung around the neck of children who spoke Irish to scorn the language which was the reason for its decline but the emigration of people overseas.

(The original version is: Bitter things have been said of those who in the last fifty years were used to chide Irish school children caught lapsing into their own mother-tongue; and no doubt it was a sorry spectacle. But it was emigration, not the ferule of the old pedants, that drove the Irish language out of fashion.)

An article called The Hedge Schools of County Limerick by Tony Lyons states that the bata scóir did not originate in the National School system but in the earlier hedge schools. In some places, according to Lyons, the individual schoolmasters were favourable to the Irish language but in others, they used bataí scóir or ‘tally sticks’ to discourage pupils from speaking the language. These were sometimes called by other names. In Kerry it was known as a cingulum or singulum.

Sir William Wilde in 1853 mentioned seeing a man hearing his child speaking Irish and marking a tally around his neck (called a scoreen or scóirín) so that he could be punished.

All this is very interesting but very contradictory. Anybody examining this and other evidence will quickly realise that there is a very clear difference between the standard nationalist polemic about the bata scóir and the reality.

The polemic has it that the English came into Ireland and as part of a concerted campaign of cultural genocide, they imposed compulsory education in English and cruelly punished any children who spoke their own native language, regardless of their parents’ wishes, by hanging a badge of shame around their necks called a tally or a bata scóir and beating them accordingly.

How do the facts differ from the polemic version?

1. The use of the tally stick began in the hedge schools, which were nothing to do with the English.

2. The tallies were certainly used in the National Schools but the National Schools were not compulsory, Compulsory education was not brought in in Ireland until 1893, sixty years after the National Schools. Many schools in Ireland had begun teaching Irish by this time.

3. The idea that the very word bata scóir struck shame and anger into the hearts of Irish speakers throughout the nineteenth century is false. The main use of the term was for a kind of device for counting the hours or days worked by a labourer.

4. Not only did parents not have to send their children to a National School, they were often part of the system of punishment, carrying out the beatings. In some cases, it is stated that the tally was used to prevent children speaking Irish outside school, not inside it. The painful truth is that Irish-speaking parents bowed to strong cultural and economic pressures (many derived from the English – they aren’t blameless in this) in trying to prevent their own children from speaking Irish. They did this because they feared that their children would end up starving in Boston or Birmingham because they couldn’t get a job in an English-speaking environment.

5. We have no idea what the original bata scóir would have looked like and as far as I know, there are no examples of a bata scóir in existence. Pictures purporting to be bataí scóir on the internet are fakes, tally sticks with a different purpose from Germany or Canada.

Cassidese Glossary – Pussy (Weak male)

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.

In his etymological hoax, how the Irish Invented Slang, the late Daniel Cassidy claimed that pussy in the sense of a vulva comes from the use of pusa in the plural to mean vagina in Irish. (He was unable to provide any proof that this expression pusa actually existed in Irish with the meaning of vagina.) Pussy in the sense of ‘Don’t be a pussy’ is apparently (according to Cassidy), nothing directly to do with vaginas and not directly linked to his imaginary word pusa, meaning vagina. It comes from pusachán or pusaire meaning a cry-baby or a whimperer. Not only is there no evidence at all in support of this theory, strangely, there is no reference to people being referred to as a pusser or a pussahawn in American slang, and the phrase ‘Don’t be a pussy’ was unknown in Ireland until Hollywood made us aware of it.

Pussy is an ancient English expression for a vagina, and in America males who are regarded as weak or effeminate are traditionally insulted by comparing them to a vagina. (In fact, in Irish the same is true – the term piteog, which literally means a little vagina, is used by ignorant Irish speakers of males considered effeminate or gay.)

Cassidese Glossary – Oliver

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.

Daniel Cassidy informs us in his etymological hoax How The Irish Invented Slang, that the obsolete slang term for the moon, oliver, comes from the Irish oll ubh óir, a great golden egg. This is one way (a wrong way – it should be ollubh óir) of saying big golden egg in Irish, though certainly not the usual way (ubh mhór óir) but why óir? Why golden? Surely the moon is always regarded as silvery, in contrast to the golden quality of the sun? I don’t know the real origin of oliver though folklore apparently links it to Oliver Cromwell and his bald pate. But I don’t believe it comes from oll ubh óir, which makes no sense at all.