Tag Archives: bad etymology

More on Smashin’

I have frequently used this blog to criticise the tendency of people who know nothing about language or languages to set themselves up as experts on the subject. I am not just talking about Cassidy here but also about thousands of ordinary people who contribute ‘interesting’ little factoids to internet discussions, informing the world that the Celtic languages are of Phoenician origin or that Shakespeare’s language shows Irish features or that Jamaican slang is all Gaelic in origin. The instant internet expert is one of the worst aspects of the digital age. And however annoying I find it, I realise that for doctors, trying to save people’s lives while immature, dim-witted arseholes undermine their efforts at every turn, it must be so much worse than annoying!

Anyway, I recently heard an interview on RTÉ with an ‘expert’ on the Irish language in Liverpool. Most of this interview was reasonable enough, dealing with well-trodden ground relating to the history of the Irish community in Liverpool. However, the final bit was a typical piece of fake etymological nonsense which I have dealt with before. According to the expert, tara whack comes from tabhair aire, a mhac. (in reality, tara is a local variant of ta-ta, which is found all over England, while the original form of whack was whacker, and it was only shortened to whack in the 1960s!) He also quoted the tired old chestnut about smashing coming from the Irish is maith sin.

While I have also dealt with this question before, it is perhaps worth going through it again here.

Firstly, why do so many people believe that the English slang word smashing comes from the Irish is maith sin? Well, there is a phrase ‘Is maith sin’ which is found in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic (though it really isn’t very common) and which is pronounced much the same as smashin’ and which means ‘That’s good!’  Many people with no training in linguistics will automatically assume that that is enough to prove the connection. Case closed!

However, as we’ve mentioned before, there is an old maxim among etymologists, “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology”. In other words, a formal similarity is only ever a starting point for further research. In and of itself, it means nothing, because when a word in language A resembles another word in language B, this doesn’t automatically mean that A borrowed that word from B. There are other possibilities, such as that B borrowed it from A, or that both A and B borrowed it from C, or that A and B are related languages which developed from an earlier language and inherited a similar word from that parent-language (i.e. the two words are cognates). Or, of course, that the similarity is pure coincidence.

Coincidence is not as uncommon as you would think. We have already discussed a good example here, the fact that daor in Irish and dear in English are both adjectives, both mean expensive and they sound very similar. However, if we follow their etymologies back, they are completely unrelated, and any similarity is a matter of random chance.

Such random similarities are even less likely to be significant when the meaning is somewhere in the same ball-park but not identical. For example, we have had the example here of someone (not Cassidy) who claimed that the English word muck and the Irish muc (pig) must be related because pigs are mucky. Again, when you research the etymology of these words in their respective languages, there is no connection at all.

So, what about smashing and is maith sin? Well, firstly let me say, for the sake of transparency, that it is not impossible that smashing comes from is maith sin. I cannot categorically prove that there is no link. However, if we look at the facts objectively, it is highly improbable that there is any connection.

For one thing, the word smash meaning to break or destroy exists, and there is nothing odd about using a term meaning to hit or break with the meaning of excellent. Smash was first used in English (as a noun meaning a blow) in 1725 and it was first used to mean a success in the early 20th century. There are many metaphorical expressions using terms for breaking and hitting in the sense of success. We have a thumping good film, a hit,, a belter, or bostin’ (busting, a Midlands English expression) and of course, cracking, a term which has been used in just the same way as smashing since the 1820s. In other words, smashing coming from English smash is perfectly reasonable as an explanation.

There is no evidence of an Irish or Gaelic origin. Smashing does not occur first in Irish or Scottish contexts and there are no conscious references to it as an Irish or Gaelic expression. This is not what we find with hubbub, or shebeen, or banshee, or Tory, or claymore, or slogan.

Another problem is the way the two expressions are used. In English, smashing is used in lots of ways that do not correspond to the use of is maith sin. When smashing is used as a stand-alone phrase (Smashing! I like it!) then it’s reasonably close to the way is maith sin is used. However, a bilingual Irish or Gaelic speaker would not say “That’s really is maith sin!” or “We had an is maith sin time!” These make no sense. And when we look at the history of the word smashing, it is used as an adjective first and as a stand-alone phrase later, which we would not expect to find if this were a word of Irish or Gaelic origin.

I realise that this will disappoint a lot of people, because the claim about Is maith sin and smashing has been around for a long time and was certainly well-known long before Cassidy came along. There are many other folk etymologies like this, for example that shanty comes from seantí or that so long comes from slán or that mucker comes from mo chara or that longshoreman comes from loingseoir. None of these derivations is likely to be true, in spite of the fact that they are widely quoted and believed by people in Ireland and in Irish America.

Still less is there any chance of Cassidy’s claims being true, because we need to remember that Cassidy lied about virtually everything. Most of the phrases he gives are outright invention and where he does quote from dictionaries and other authoritative sources, he usually doctored and rewrote the material to make it sound more convincing. Almost nothing in Cassidy’s book is trustworthy and it is safer to simply assume that anything he said is untrue.

Cassidese Glossary – Juke

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.

A juke joint is an old word for an inn or drinking-house in North America. It is believed to derive from the American English dialect of African origin known as Gullah, where juke or joog apparently had the meaning of wicked or unruly. In other words, it’s a rowdy or disorderly house.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book of false etymologies How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that this comes from the Irish word diúg, which means to drain, to drink or to suck. There is absolutely no evidence for this and nobody in Irish has ever talked about a pub or inn as a teach diúgtha or teach diúgaireachta, so why would a phrase that doesn’t exist in Irish have been borrowed from Irish? It’s simply nonsense.

Cassidese Glossary – Booby

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 in his book, How The Irish Invented Slang, claims that the word booby as in ‘Daniel Cassidy is a complete booby’ or ‘this book is a booby trap for the unsuspecting reader’ comes from Irish. In reality, the word boob or booby in the sense of a dunce or simpleton is first recorded in English in 1599. It is thought to derive from the Spanish word bobo, which in turn derives from Latin balbus (cognate with Irish balbh). This seems to have been borrowed into Irish as búbaire and a couple of other forms.

Here is Cassidy’s claim:

“Boob, booby, n., a nincompoop, a cry-baby, a loud-mouth dolt. Doubtful origin. (OED.)

Búb; búbaí, búbaire; búbán, búbail, n., vn., bellow, roar, yell; a person that blubbers, a booby, a coxcomb, a bittern bird; roaring, bellowing, blubbering, yelling. (Dineen, 136; Dwelly, 137; Ó Dónaill, 155.)

Chapman’s American Slang derives the loud boob from a German dialect word bubbi, meaning a woman’s breast. (Chapman, American Slang, 38.) But breasts do not blubber like boobs.”

This is typical of Cassidy’s work in a number of respects:

  • It treats Scottish Gaelic and Irish as if they are the same language. They are not. Irish speakers have to learn Scottish Gaelic and vice versa.
  • The words above are all thrown together without any indication of which words are associated with which meaning.
  • He misrepresents the position of dictionaries to set up a straw man argument. I do not have a copy of Chapman’s American Slang, but I would assume that it is the unrelated word boob or booby for a breast that comes from bubbi. The OED online says that booby probably comes from bobo.

Anyway, it is instructive to untangle Cassidy’s version of the definition of these words.

Ó Dónaill’s dictionary only gives the word búbaire, with variants búbaí and búbán.

“búbaire, m. (gs. ~, pl. -rí).(Of person) Booby. (Var:búbaí m, búbán m)”

Dinneen’s earlier Irish dictionary gives the following information:

Bub, -a, pl. id. m. a roar, a yell; hubbub.

Bubáil , -ála, pl. id., f., a roaring, yelling or bellowing.

Bubaire, g. id., pl. -rí, m., bubaire. A bittern (bird).

Bubán, -áin, pl. id., m., a coxcomb.

None of these words has an accent in Dinneen’s version, which means that they would be pronounced bubb, not boob. Cassidy’s búbail is not attested in any source, though Dwelly mentions bùbail. (Note that Scottish Gaelic always uses grave accents, Irish always uses acute accents.) However, in fairness, I should say that eDIL gives the version of búbaire for a bittern. It does not give the other words mentioned by Cassidy.

While roaring and bellowing are mentioned in the Irish sources, blubbering, weeping and lamenting are not. These are only found in Scottish Gaelic. There is no evidence that any of the búb – or bub – words in Irish sources has any association with blubbering or crying. The Scottish Gaelic sources do give blubbering as a meaning. Here is the relevant extract from Dwelly:


pr pt a’ bùbail, vn Bellow, roar. 2* Blubber, as a child. 3 Weep in a most melancholy way.


-a, sm Roar, bellow, yell. Leig e bùb as, he uttered a roar.


-e, -ean, sf Roaring, bellowing, yelling, blubbering, continued bellowing. 2 Lamenting. A’ bùbail, pr pt of bùb. Ciod a’ bhùbail a tha ort? what are you bellowing for? bùbail tairbh, the roaring of a bull.”

In other words, booby came into English first from Spanish, then was borrowed into Irish and Scottish Gaelic in various forms. There may also be an unrelated term, bub, which means an explosive sound. Boob or booby as in breast is a separate word with a separate origin.

Cassidy’s definition given above is not only incompetent, it is a deliberate attempt to deceive by mixing two completely different languages.

More On The Motherfoclóir Podcasts

In a recent post, I criticised the Motherfoclóir podcasts associated with Darach Ó Séaghdha’s book Motherfoclóir. I am broadly in favour of Motherfoclóir. I like the Twitter feed it came from and the book itself was generally good, even if its research was sometimes shoddy (especially around etymological issues.)

After listening to a handful of the podcasts, I am afraid they are not for me. This is not entirely because of Motherfoclóir itself. It has more to do with a general dislike of the medium. Podcasts tend to be a bit of light-hearted chit-chat about some topic, with an incredibly low ratio of facts to padding. Many of them (Motherfoclóir’s included) remind me of the worst language-learning courses, where a simple phrase like “My name is” somehow occupies a whole lesson, while we are also introduced to characters and a situation and a jingle etc.. I have been immersed in languages and Irish and linguistics for decades. While the chit-chat on the podcasts is sometimes interesting, it rarely discusses anything I haven’t heard before and as I said in the last post, the material is sometimes suspect and even completely wrong (as in the Abhartach piece).

I was listening recently to the podcast about claims of a link between Irish and the Lost Tribes of Israel. (An interesting guest but I think they could have made the thing a lot more informative by asking the right questions. As a linguist, Hebrew is not Indo-European. Irish is Indo-European. Therefore they are not closely related and any supposedly similar words are probably coincidental. QED)

However, towards the end of this post, Ó Séaghdha suddenly starts talking about those of us who are very convinced that certain words DO NOT come from Irish. He argues that people who are dismissive of a particular Irish derivation “because of the way the burden of proof works, they can often be even more extreme than people who say it does.”

I don’t really know what he’s trying to say here with ‘because of the way the burden of proof works”. You could take it to mean that linguists and other people who actually present proof for their claims are a bunch of nasty, mean-spirited pedants who won’t let people delight in the odd fake factoid at dinner parties, but to take it like that would probably be the action of a nasty, mean-spirited pedant. What he probably means is that the burden of proof tends to work in favour of the consensus or most accepted opinion. This is undoubtedly true. There is less written material from the Irish language in the 19th century than there is for English, so Irish is less likely to leave evidence. However, using that as an excuse to stop demanding evidence isn’t making things better. It results in poor research and facts that aren’t facts.

Bizarrely, he uses the example of people saying that crack (craic) definitely doesn’t come from Irish. The reason why this is so bizarre is that there is plenty of evidence that crack was originally a northern English and Scottish term for conversation and that this was then Gaelicised as craic. I personally have no objection to people spelling it craic or using it as an Irish word. It is an Irish word. It’s just not a word of Irish origin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craic

However, the thing that really got my goat was when he started talking again about the Irish origin of the English word mucker. I presume part of this was probably aimed at me, though he must have been referring to some other critic as well because I never mentioned the Second World War. I have already dealt with this word and shown that the derivation from Irish is nonsense. However, here, rather than accepting that he got it wrong, Darach Ó Séaghdha goes further by saying that there are two words here, both pronounced mucker and both meaning mate, but having two completely separate etymologies. So when people say mucker in Ireland, it comes from Irish, but there is also a totally unrelated word with the same sound and meaning in England but ‘they’re different words and they’re different entries in the dictionary.’ Really? Which dictionary is that? Wiktionary arbitrarily gives different definitions for the military and civilian uses but gives the same English etymology for both. (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mucker) The OED is quite clear that the military and civilian uses are the same and that they both (probably) derive from muck: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/mucker

The truth of the matter is there is no evidence that mucker derives from Irish mo chara, however many people believe this to be the case. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that mucker does not come from Irish:

• Mucker is not principally or exclusively found in Ireland or in Irish communities in other countries. It is found in various parts of England and is attested there first. (In the 1940s)
• Mucker is often used in Ireland (and in England as well) to address people (how’s it going, mucker?) but mo chara is never used in this way by real Irish speakers. It’s always ‘a chara’ if you are addressing someone.
• Mo chara, if pronounced correctly, rhymes with Sahara. This would not be anglicised as mucker.
• The OED says that this is likely to come from the idea of mucking in or mucking about and does not recognise any Irish derivation.
• If mucker really came from Irish, you would expect this to be a long-held claim in Ireland. In fact, the earliest reference on Google (on Urban Dictionary) only dates back to 2007. No book on Hiberno-English or slang mentions any Irish link.

He then goes on to discuss the term shamus for a gumshoe, which has been claimed for both Irish and Yiddish. This is an interesting question. I’m inclined to agree with the article here (https://forward.com/articles/5064/bogie-speaks-yiddish/), but I think a proper, considered examination would be useful. (And I think David Gold’s input would be welcome!)

My advice to Ó Séaghdha would be this:

• Do your research carefully so that you avoid falling into any holes.
• If you do fall into a hole, climb out. Don’t start digging.