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.
Nobody knows where gawk and gawky come from. Its original meaning was “awkward, ungainly,” 1759, and this seems to come from gawk hand, which meant “left hand” (1703) in certain dialects of English. There is a universal association between left-handedness and clumsiness in languages all over the world.
Cassidy, of course, claims that gawk comes from the Irish language:
Gawk, n., a young awkward person, an immature, clumsy, person.
Géag (pron. g’æg, g’íŏg), n., a youth; a young person; a young woman; fig., someone immature and awkward; a young scion; an offspring; a limb, a branch.
Firstly, let’s just dissect Cassidy’s account of the definitions of the Irish words géag. Here’s what Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary has to say:
géag, f. (gs. géige, npl. ~a, gpl. ~). 1. Branch, limb. (a)~a duine, a person’s limbs. ~ láimhe, choise, arm, leg. Do ghéaga a shíneadh (uait), to stretch (out) one’s limbs. S.a. beatha11(a).(b)~ crainn, branch, bough, of tree. ~a a chur uaidh, (of tree) to branch. (c)~ den mhuir, arm of the sea. (d)Mec. E:~ (deirice), (derrick-)jib. (e)(Of starfish) Ray. (f)(Of hair) Tress. 2. Fig:(a) Genealogical branch. ~a ginealaigh, (branches of) family-tree. (b) Offshoot, offspring; scion, (young) person. ~a Chathaoir Mhóir, (the various branches of) the descendants of Cathaoir Mór. ~ den uaisle, scion of the nobility. An ghéag gheal, the beautiful youth, maiden. Is olc an ghéag é, he is a bad lot. (c) Image of girl (made for festival).
So much for géag having the primary meaning of a young person or someone immature or awkward! Still, perhaps Cassidy got this definition from Dinneen’s early 20th century Irish-English dictionary. Here’s the entry for géag from Dinneen:
Géag, -éige, pl.-a, f., a branch, a limb, a member; butt of a branch; the hand, the arm; a branch of family descent; a person; a scion; a young woman, a youth; an image of a girl made on Patron day (Aug. 10) and the May festival …
In other words, both these dictionaries agree that the primary meaning of géag is a limb, an arm or leg. It also has a subsidiary meaning of a branch on a family tree, a scion, a young person. The ‘young person’ meaning is poetic and emphasises beauty and elegance, not ungainliness. Cassidy’s version of this is typically deceitful and lacking in accuracy.
And then, of course, géag is pronounced gyayg, like yay sandwiched between two hard Gs. It sounds nothing like gawk.