Tag Archives: anacal

Cassidese Glossary – (Say) Uncle

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.

There is no consensus about the etymology of the term uncle in the expression ‘Say uncle!’ (Equivalent to ‘Pax!’ in English or ‘Méaram!’ in Irish.)

The most likely explanation is an oft-repeated joke about a parrot: A gentleman was boasting that his parrot would repeat anything he told him. For example, he told him several times, before some friends, to say “Uncle,” but the parrot would not repeat it. In anger he seized the bird, and half-twisting his neck, said: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar!” and threw him into the fowl pen, in which he had ten prize fowls. Shortly afterward, thinking he had killed the parrot, he went to the pen. To his surprise he found nine of the fowls dead on the floor with their necks wrung, and the parrot standing on the tenth twisting his neck and screaming: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar! say uncle.’ ”

Apparently, this joke (however unfunny it seems to modern taste) was often printed in newspapers in the 1890s in Britain and in the USA. Another explanation is that Say uncle! comes from a Latin phrase used by Roman children, who customarily said “Patrue, mi Patruissimo,” or “Uncle, my best Uncle,” in order to surrender to a bully. I have failed to find any confirmation at all of this claim.

According to Daniel Cassidy, this comes from the Irish anacal, meaning ‘mercy, quarter; fig. surrender’. I need hardly say that the surrender bit was added by Cassidy and isn’t a real definition of the word. There is no evidence of anyone asking for mercy using the old-fashioned and rather literary word anacal in playground games.

In any case, this claim was made first in American Speech vol 51, 1976, though Cassidy doesn’t mention this in his book. In other words, the claim of a link between anacal and uncle dates back thirty years before Cassidy’s book.

Hall of Shame Christmas Special – America’s Secret Slang

Less than two weeks ago, I said that I was going to give up posting on Cassidyslangscam and do something better with my time, though I did also say that if the occasion demanded I would do some more blogging. I really didn’t think I would be back on this blog before Christmas but I simply couldn’t ignore this one. It turns out that The History Channel has produced a series of programmes called America’s Secret Slang, presented by someone called Zach Selwyn. Episode 5 of this truly dire programme repeats many of Cassidy’s idiotic claims as if they were fact. For example, it says that baloney comes from the Irish béal ónna, meaning ‘stupid mouth.’ Followers of this blog will realise that there is no such phrase as béal ónna, that ónna isn’t even given in the most important modern dictionary of Irish and that there is no evidence that anyone before Cassidy ever put the two words together. And of course, ónna means simple, not stupid. They also repeat the daft idea that ‘say uncle’ comes from the Irish anacal, a word which primarily means protect and defend. In other words, it’s more appropriate for someone asking a third party for help rather than someone asking mercy from the person who has them in a head lock, unless they are appealing to whichever of the bully’s multiple personalities is nurturing and in touch with its feminine side. However, in this crap programme, anacal becomes ‘Gaelic for mercy’. It also repeats the ridiculous claim that dothóigthe is the Irish for ‘a sick calf’. In fact, dothóigthe (modern dothógtha) is an adjective meaning hard to fatten and has no specific connection with calves. While the programme mentions that Cassidy’s book is controversial, unfortunately it doesn’t actually point out that it’s crap or question any of Cassidy’s absurd and childish claims.

At first, I was shocked that something called The History Channel would produce such rubbish, but then I looked at their schedules. It is obvious that history is history on the History Channel. These days, they mostly do programmes about rednecks and the aliens who probe them, so it isn’t entirely surprising that they have bought into this cobblers.

However, I have another reason for posting again so soon. I got to thinking, perhaps Cassidy and his supporters are right. Not about Irish and slang, of course. I would need to bang my head off a lot of walls very hard before I would be stupid enough to believe the shit in How The Irish Invented Slang. No, perhaps – and this is a serious question of philosophy – if someone states an attractive theory with enough confidence and it is then touched by the gilded hand of the media and believed by the masses, surely this virtual fact can then become as real as reality? In Medialand, perhaps fake is the new real?

Then I had a brainwave. What if we could test this experimentally? I think this is a really interesting idea. What if we got all the sloppy journalists who have flogged this dead horse of Cassidy’s, all of his despicable cronies who have plugged this trash, all of the commissioning editors of the History Channel, the people at Counterpunch, Brendan Patrick Keane and Peter Quinn and all the rest of them and we persuaded them to state, confidently and with total belief, that gravity is a myth which has been promulgated by the upper classes to prevent the poor from realising their dreams of rising above the mundane. Then we get them all to go up to the top of a very, very, very tall building and … I think you can probably guess where I’m going with this …

Ah well, what’s the point? The lunatics have obviously taken over the asylum. At least it’s Christmas and my little Irish house is an oasis of sanity! Well … some of the time, anyway.

Nollaig Shona daoibh agus go n-éirí go geal libh san athbhliain!