Tag Archives: Charles Mackay

Cassidese Glossary – Feud

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 absolutely no doubt about the origin of the English word feud. You can find the facts here:

https://www.etymonline.com/word/feud

Daniel Cassidy, in his book of false etymologies, How The Irish Invented Slang, drew on the work of another phoney etymologist, the 19th century writer Charles Mackay. Mackay is interesting in that he is one of the first people to identify crankdom and the kind of fake nonsense that now pervades the internet, in his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841. Unfortunately, by 1877, Mackay had published a bizarre ‘etymological’ dictionary which claims Gaelic origins for all kinds of words in dozens of European languages.

These claims were every bit as silly as Cassidy’s. In other words, Charles Mackay was not a ‘Gaelic scholar’, any more than Cassidy himself.

As Cassidy states, Mackay derives the word feud from Irish and Gaelic fuath, which means hatred. Cassidy goes one better by adding the word ard (meaning ‘high’) to the fuath, so that his version of the origin of feud is fuath ard, ‘high hatred, great enmity’. I need hardly say that there is no evidence of anyone ever using this phrase in Irish or Scottish Gaelic.

Cassidese Glossary – Blow (1)

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.

With the English word blow, we are really dealing with at least two words. One is the verb and noun referring to the buffeting of the wind. This is plainly of Germanic origin. It can be traced, not only to Middle English blowen but further back to Old English blāwan. It has cognates in other Germanic languages.

The other blow is the noun that means a strike or hit, which dates back at least to the 15th century in English. It is true (as Cassidy says) that the OED says that the origin of this word is unknown. However, the OED is conservative and cautious. Other sources are less cautious. Wiktionary, for example, states that it is also of Germanic origin and points out as evidence the similarity of Middle Dutch blouwen, meaning to hit or to beat up.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book How The Irish Invented Slang, claims that blow in the sense of ‘to hit’ comes from the Scottish Gaelic buille and Irish buail and bualadh. He claims that this was also claimed by Charles Mackay (an etymological crank of the 19th century who tried to do for Scottish Gaelic what Cassidy tried to do for Irish), though Mackay only mentions buille in relation to blow. As I have pointed out before, buille, buail and bualadh are spelled identically and have pretty much the same meanings in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic. Cassidy was clearly ignorant of this fact. (Mackay did mention bualadh in other contexts. For example, to Mackay, a thimble was a dìon bualadh, because it was a roof or protection, dìon, from the stroke, bualadh, of the needle. In reality, of course, thimble goes back to Old English þȳmel, a ‘thumb-stall’.)

In other words, Cassidy is simply wrong about this. There is no mystery about the origin of the ‘blow’ words in English and the words buille and bualadh are far too dissimilar to be good candidates. They also go back far too long, to a period when there was very little borrowing between English and the Gaelic languages.

It should also be pointed out that Cassidy’s claims in relation to Mackay’s book are badly researched. “Mackay’s etymological dictionary was dedicated to the Duke of Edinburgh, who had sponsored and financed it. But a few blows from the Irish Fenian Movement in the 1880s and Mackay’s thesis of a substantial Irish and Gaelic influence on English was unthinkable – like Irish Home Rule.”

To the best of my knowledge, the Duke of Edinburgh did not fund the book and the Dictionary of National Biography states that Mackay lost £300 as a result of the book’s publication. As for the Fenians, while there was a campaign of violence in the 1880s, the most important atrocity in Britain was the Clerkenwell Bombing in 1867 which killed 12 people and injured over 50. If this didn’t cause the Establishment to turn against Gaelic, why would the Fenian activities of the 1880s have such a profound effect? Cassidy is simply trying to explain away the fact that the very top of the British Establishment was prepared to back a work which claims Gaelic etymologies for words in English in 1879, when, according to Cassidy, they should have been deeply hostile to the Gaelic languages and everything associated with them.

More on Charles Mackay

In a post a number of months ago, I wrote about the strange case of Charles Mackay, a journalist, author and poet of Scottish descent. Mackay is of great interest for several reasons. As a writer of verse, he was a forerunner of Kipling. As an author, he is well known for one of the first works of debunking, Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. He was also famous (or infamous) for a book which claimed Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic) origins for hundreds of words in English, French and even Hebrew. In other words, Mackay was both a crank-buster and a crank.

Daniel Cassidy, another major crank who proposed a very similar set of fake derivations from Irish in his How The Irish Invented Slang, gives a nod to Mackay in the book.

“In his Gaelic Etymology of the languages of the world, published in Edinburgh in 1879, Charles Mackay derived the mysterious word blow from the Scots-Gaelic buille and the Irish verb buail and its verbal noun bualadh. Mackay’s etymological dictionary was dedicated to the Duke of Edinburgh, who had sponsored and financed it. But a few blows from the Irish Fenian Movement in the 1880s and Mackay’s thesis of a substantial Irish and Gaelic influence on English was unthinkable – like Irish Home Rule.” 

This is typical Cassidy nonsense. For one thing, it shows his dire lack of knowledge of Irish or Scots Gaelic, as buille, buail and bualadh are all identical in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It also shows an ignorance of linguistics and a shocking laziness, as blow is obviously linked to cognates in German and is plainly a Germanic word. There is no mystery about it!To the best of my knowledge, the Duke of Edinburgh did not fund the book and the Dictionary of National Biography states that Mackay lost £300 as a result of the book’s publication. As for the Fenians, while there was a campaign of violence in the 1880s, the most important atrocity in Britain was the Clerkenwell Bombing in 1867 which killed 12 people and injured over 50. If this didn’t cause the Establishment to turn against Gaelic, why did the Fenian activities of the 1880s have such a profound effect? The fact is, Cassidy is simply trying to explain away the fact that the very top of the British Establishment was prepared to back a work which claims Gaelic etymologies for words in English in 1879, because according to Cassidy they should have been completely opposed to it! (Brendan Patrick Keane also repeats this nonsense about Mackay’s book and Anglophilia in the comments to his IrishCentral article).

The reality is very different. In fact, Mackay’s book was given negative reviews in the year of its publication by a fellow lover of the Gaelic language, Andrew D. Mackenzie. It is instructive to read the article, which was written in the Celtic Magazine of 1879, as it shows the eternal struggle in intellectual life between cranks like Mackay, Cassidy and Brendan Patrick Keane and rational human beings like the author of the article, Grant Barrett and myself.

 The style is very different from modern English, of course, but the arguments used are the same arguments used by the rational critics of Cassidy. The author states that sometimes no answer is better than a crazy answer.  “Where a definite conclusion cannot be reached, better were it to leave the word alone, and that on the plain principle that better far is no beacon than a false one and no guide than a blind one.”

He then mentions a book which he has on his shelves in which an Irish man called Arthur O’Connor indulged in the same kind of etymology by sound as Mackay. This raises a very valuable point – where etymology is based on sound research, different scholars will come up with the same derivations. Where it is based on fanciful nonsense, the results are all different. He demonstrates this with words in Mackay’s book which are also given by O’Connor, but the two authors give totally different derivations for them! 

The same is also true for Mackay and Cassidy, of course. Although Brendan Patrick Keane claims in an article about Irish that Mackay has been unjustly criticised because of prejudice, the fact is that many of the derivations as given by Mackay are quite different from the derivations given by Cassidy. For example, Mackay claims that boss comes from the Gaelic bas meaning palm, while Cassidy claims that it comes from Irish bas meaning boss. And Mackay’s explanation for the cant word blowen is quite different from Cassidy’s.

The author of the article criticises the fact that Mackay’s derivations are purely based on accidental correspondences of sound, and not on an examination of the different branches of Indo-European and the way that different words are expressed in them. “Too often have the weapons of sarcasm been flung, and flung to some purpose, against what is styled phonetic etymology; but here the reader every now and then encounters in sound and in sense alike the most unaccountable violations of probability.”

Isn’t it remarkable that this individual, writing 130 years ago, expresses the same rationality and scepticism that drives people like me, while Daniel Cassidy and Brendan Patrick Keane are driven by the same crankdom which guarantees that almost anything they say will be wrong? Isn’t it amazing that the eternal battle between wish-fulfilling fantasy and good sense is still being played out in cyberspace just as it was in the pages of the Celtic Magazine in 1879!

 

The Strange Case of Charles Mackay

Charles Mackay (1812 – 1889) is one of the strangest writers and thinkers of the 19th century. He was born in Perth, Scotland, and educated in London. In his youth, he worked as a journalist through French in Belgium. He was a poet and a lexicographer. His fame today rests on the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), which is one of the first accounts of pseudoscience and crazy beliefs. Bizarrely, in addition to this book, he also wrote an eccentric work of fake etymology called Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe. In this book, his methodology is almost exactly that of Cassidy. He looked at words in other languages and then tried to find a word which could correspond vaguely in sound and meaning. This then became the ‘origin’ of the word, regardless of the evidence of the word’s roots in other languages or any other common sense considerations. The paradox of Mackay’s life is that he was both a great sceptic and a major crank.

Cassidy, of  course, was just a major crank. There was no upside to his work. Unsurprisingly, Cassidy quotes Mackay’s ‘etymology’ sometimes as if he were a believable source, as in the case of the word feud, which has nothing to do with the Celtic languages.