I haven’t had a lot of time recently, so I am posting my April Twit of the Month a bit late.
April’s Twit of the Month is Phil Cousineau, an “award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer and travel leader, storyteller and TV host” who is based in San Francisco’s Bay Area. He is the author of some thirty books on subjects as varied as ufology, synchronicity, the myth of the hero, how to be creative, travel as pilgrimage and etymology.
Why don’t I like Phil Cousineau? Well, the fact that he is a major cultural figure in the Bay Area would make me suspicious but isn’t enough on its own.
I don’t like the kind of junk spirituality that is his stock in trade, especially when it’s linked to products like books, TV shows and courses. For example, trite little epigrams like these make me physically sick: “the uncanny discovery that the seeker is the mystery which the seeker seeks to know”; “writing is easy; all you do is pick the scab crusted over your soul”; “if you don’t risk getting lost, you’ll never be found”; “Stories heal the wounds inflicted by the mercurous knife of stainless steel facts”. Yeugh …
There is an air of bullshit surrounding him and his works. To give you one example, he has a significant article on Wikipedia, which tells of his achievements and quotes some of his famous pearls of wisdom. However, when you look at the history, much of the article was written by someone called Wordpilgrim. I wonder who that was? Could it be Phil Cousineau himself, who has written books on words and pilgrimages?
However, even these wouldn’t justify a Twit of the Month Award on their own. The reason why I’m so hostile to Phil Cousineau is the two crappy books of pop etymology he has written as a logophile (lover of words): Wordcatcher (2010) and The Painted Word (2012).
These books focus on words that the author finds interesting. Much of this information is probably correct and, as it’s taken directly from well-researched sources like dictionaries, this is unsurprising. What is surprising is the sheer number of mistakes in these books. Cousineau attributes Play That Funky Music Right, Boy to Sly and the Family Stone. It’s really by Wild Cherry and of course, it’s really Play That Funky Music WHITE Boy. In an article on the word adumbrate, he talks about a film studies course where he learned the importance of shadow in Hitchcock’s work. He refers to an article by a critic called Letich (really Leitch) who was writing about Hitchcock’s film Odd Man Out. Except Odd Man Out was by Carol Reed, not Hitchcock. There are so many clumsy errors in this book. Slanguage was written by Bernard Share, not Bernard Shaw. The word glaum in Scots has no connection with a device for castrating animals. And of course, How The Irish Invented Slang was by Daniel Cassidy, not David Cassidy of the Partridge Family.
These two books by Cousineau, Wordcatcher and The Painted Word, contain a large number of references to Cassidy and his ludicrous book, though the mistake with the name indicates that there was probably no close relationship between these two crap etymologists.
Wordcatcher (2010) is particularly full of Cassidese nonsense, treated with abject laziness and a total lack of scepticism. He takes Cassidy’s ridiculous made-up phrase comhúdar (misspelling it comh-udar) seriously as the origin of cahoots. He says that Cassidy claimed Irish tuig as the origin of dig (to understand) in Black American English but fails to mention that the Irish association with twig goes back at least a hundred years, while Eric P. Hamp published an article called “On the Celtic origin of English slang dig/twig (‘understand’) in 1981. He takes Cassidy’s dúd origin of dude seriously, though scholars make the eminently reasonable connection with Yankee Doodle. He claims that Cassidy links the word fun to the Irish fonn, though this doesn’t seem to be in the book. (It’s ludicrous anyway!) He recounts Cassidy’s imbecilic theories about the origins of jazz from teas without question. He gives Cassidy the credit for identifying the Irish origins of phoney, when Eric Partridge had already done that a half century ago.
While there is less Cassidese bullcrap in The Painted Word, it is just as bad. His piece on ‘lulu’ from that book is worth quoting in full.
A remarkable person, thing or event. Tracked down by word detective Daniel Cassidy in Irish-American Slang, this two-syllable dandy derives from the Irish word liu luigh, “a howl, a scream, a vigorous scream of joy,” and more, “A lulu can be spectacular or awful, but it’s always a scream.” More surprisingly still, Cassidy’s sleuthing tracked down its earliest recorded mention, in the New Orleans Lantern, on November 10, 1886, where it was used to describe the shenanigans in a local baseball game: “Farrell’s two baser was a lu-lu.” The citation would have delighted the late, great Ernie Hartwell, Hall of Fame broadcaster and baseball historian, who was married to a Lulu of a wife for over sixty years.”
Where do I begin? Well, I don’t really give a toss whether people misrepresent Daniel Cassidy, because Cassidy doesn’t deserve any better, but Cassidy’s book wasn’t called Irish-American Slang. Anyway, let’s move on. Apparently lulu comes from the Irish word liu luigh. However, liu luigh is not a word in English, it’s a phrase. (You’d think a logophile would know that, wouldn’t you?) It’s a completely nonsensical phrase, of course, but remarkably, it’s not even the nonsensical and stupid phrase that Cassidy claimed was the origin of lulu. Cassidy’s equally daft suggestion was that lulu comes from the ‘Irish’ liú lúith. Liú is a word in Irish for a shout. It’s not the most common word in Irish for that concept. Scread or scréach would be far more common, but it does exist. As for lúith, it’s the genitive of lúth, which means vigour, agility, or tendon. It used to mean ‘joy’ in Irish as well but hasn’t for hundreds of years. Cassidy’s “a vigorous yell of joy” actually uses both meanings, but Cassidy also says that it is figuratively “a complete scream, a howler.” Of course, Cassidy made the expression “liú lúith” up. It is a complete fabrication, unknown in the Irish language, and phrases which don’t exist don’t have figurative meanings. However, the Cousineau version (liu luigh) is even less meaningful than Cassidy’s. Liu doesn’t mean anything without the accent and luigh is the past tense or imperative form of the verb meaning to lie or recline.
Cousineau is doing at least three reprehensible things here. Firstly, he is short-changing his own readership by giving them poorly-researched nonsense instead of real scholarship. Secondly, he is helping to spread the made-up nonsense and fake Irish invented by Daniel Cassidy. Thirdly, he is helping to pretend that Cassidy, a pathological liar who became a ‘professor’ without any genuine qualifications at all, was a real etymologist and university lecturer.
It is for these reasons that I am proud to bestow my April CassidySlangScam Twit of the Month Award on Phil Cousineau of San Francisco.