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 claimed that the English word ‘babe’ for a girl comes from the Irish báb.
Babe, n. A girl, a sexually attractive young woman, a term of affection. Origin unknown.
Báb, (gen báibe, pl. bába) a baby, a young woman, a maiden, a term of affection …
The English word babe dates back at least to the fourteenth century and is believed to be a shortening of baban, which is found at least a century earlier and is thought to be onomatopoeic, from the babbling sound made by a baby. Baby is a diminutive of babe.
Báb is a borrowing of the English word babe. In Middle English, the word babe would have been pronounced bahba or bahb, not as bayb. Báb is found from the 18th century onwards in Irish. Interestingly, it is almost always used in Irish to refer to a woman who is an object of affection, not to a real baby.
In English, baby came to be used in this way in the early 19th century, while babe only dates back to 1915 in this sense of a girl.
Does this mean that this is correct and that this is an example of Irish influence on English? It is not out of the question that there is a link. However, there is no evidence and it does not automatically mean that this is the only possibility. For one thing, there is no evidence of the route of transmission we would expect, namely through Hiberno-English. We do not find babe used in this way in ballads or plays composed in the English of Ireland. Also, the extension of meaning from a beloved child to a beloved adult is not such a stretch and there is no reason to suppose that such an extension of meaning could not have happened independently in 18th century Ireland with báb and also in 19th and early 20th century America with baby and babe.