Tag Archives: cracker

Cassidese Glossary – Crack, Cracker

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.

Many people believe (wrongly) that craic is an ancient Irish word and that it was borrowed into English as crack. In fact, the reverse is true. Craic is a recent borrowing into Irish from English.

Daniel Cassidy in his book How The Irish Invented Slang says that cracker (a boaster) comes from similar Irish or Scottish Gaelic words meaning boaster or jester. Cassidy is right that there are terms for boaster or jester in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic which sound like cracker (cracaire or craicire in Irish, cracaire or cnacair in Scottish Gaelic).

However, just because there are similar words in English and Gaelic doesn’t tell us anything about why they are similar. There are four possible explanations.

One is that this is pure coincidence. This is less unlikely than you might think (look at Irish daor and English dear, both meaning expensive, both pronounced similarly and completely unrelated). However, it is still pretty unlikely, so we will leave this possibility aside.

Secondly, there is the possibility that the two words are cognates, words which derive from an earlier language which was ancestral to both sets of languages. However, there is no history to explain the words craicire in Irish or cnacair in Scottish Gaelic and these words can only be traced back a couple of hundred years in the Gaelic languages, so this is unlikely.

The third possibility is that the similar words result from borrowing and that that borrowing was from the Gaelic languages to English. As crack meant a loud noise and then boastful talk in English and cracker for boaster dates back at least to the 16th century in English, it makes more sense to regard cracker in English/Scots as being the original and the Gaelic words as borrowings, particularly given that there is a pattern of borrowing from English to Irish and no pattern of extensive borrowing from Irish to English. The word craic may be treated as an Irish word now but it is very definitely a borrowing from English or Scots and therefore can’t be the origin of craicire. Cracaire in Irish (modern spelling craicire) is first found (as far as I can ascertain) in O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary of 1817, where it means a boaster. I cannot find any reference to it in Corpas na Gaeilge (a collection of poems, prose works and songs in Irish from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with over seven million words of searchable text). It is not in the Electronic Dictionary of Irish Texts.

In other words, the fourth possibility is by far the most likely – that this word originates from English or Scots cracker (derived from crack meaning loud noise, conversation) and then was borrowed into Irish and Scottish Gaelic in the 18th century. The word seems to be derived from the Middle English cnac, or crak, which originally meant the sound of the cracking of a whip and later came to mean loud or bragging talk. Cracker goes back a long way in English. It is found in Shakespeare’s King John (1595): “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?”

In his book, Cassidy mentions that some slang dictionaries claim that cracker is linked to the sound of slave-masters cracking their whips and says that Dwelly’s dictionary confirms this. However, when we look at the original quotation from Dwelly, it directs you to the word cnacair:

“Cnacair, sm Talker, (Scot, cracker). 2 Cracker. 3 Cracker of a whip. 4 Knocker. (see: http://www.dwelly.info/index.aspx)”

In other words, it does mention ‘cracker of a whip’, as Cassidy says. However, it also says that this is not really a Gaelic word at all, but a borrowing from Scots (not Scottish Gaelic, but the Lowland Scots cousin of English).

Cracker

I recently bestowed my December Twit of the Month Award on Michael Krasny for an appalling radio interview with the late Daniel Cassidy. At one point, Krasny mentions the word cracker to Cassidy. Cracker is a slang term, originally referring to the poor whites of certain southern states, and now used as a disparaging term for a white man. A letter to the Earl of Dartmouth dated to the 1760s says: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”

In the interview, Cassidy laughs smugly and says that he is certain that the word cracker is derived from Irish. In his insane rubbishy book, Cassidy says that it comes from similar Irish or Scottish Gaelic words meaning boaster or jester. Cassidy is right that there are terms for boaster or jester in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic which sound like cracker (cracaire or craicire in Irish, cracaire or cnacair in Scottish Gaelic).

However, just because there are similar words in English and Gaelic doesn’t tell us anything about why they are similar. There are four possible explanations.

One is that this is pure coincidence. This is less unlikely than you might think (look at Irish daor and English dear, both meaning expensive, both pronounced similarly and completely unrelated). However, it is still pretty unlikely, so we will leave this possibility aside.

Secondly, there is the possibility that the two words are cognates, words which derive from an earlier language which was ancestral to both sets of languages. However, there is no history to explain the words craicire in Irish or cnacair in Scottish Gaelic and these words can only be traced back a couple of hundred years in the Gaelic languages, so this is unlikely.

The third possibility is that the similar words result from borrowing and that that borrowing was from the Gaelic languages to English. As crack meant a loud noise and then boastful talk in English and cracker for boaster dates back at least to the 16th century in English, it makes more sense to regard cracker in English/Scots as being the original and the Gaelic words as borrowings, particularly given that there is a pattern of borrowing from English to Irish and no pattern of extensive borrowing from Irish to English. The word craic may be treated as an Irish word now but it is very definitely a borrowing from English or Scots and therefore can’t be the origin of craicire. Cracaire in Irish (modern spelling craicire) is first found (as far as I can ascertain) in O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary of 1817, where it means a boaster. I cannot find any reference to it in Corpas na Gaeilge (a collection of poems, prose works and songs in Irish from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with over seven million words of searchable text). It is not in the Electronic Dictionary of Irish Texts.

In other words, the fourth possibility is by far the most likely – that this word originates from English or Scots cracker (derived from crack meaning loud noise, conversation) and then was borrowed into Irish and Scottish Gaelic in the 18th century. The word seems to be derived from the Middle English cnac, or crak, which originally meant the sound of the cracking of a whip and later came to mean loud or bragging talk. Cracker goes back a long way in English. It is found in Shakespeare’s King John (1595): “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?”

Just a word about a couple of other pieces of dishonesty in Cassidy’s idiotic book. In the book, Cassidy mentions that some slang dictionaries claim that cracker is linked to the sound of slave-masters cracking their whips and says that Dwelly’s dictionary confirms this. However, when we look at the original quotation from Dwelly, it directs you to the word cnacair:

“Cnacair, sm Talker, (Scot, cracker). 2 Cracker. 3 Cracker of a whip. 4 Knocker. (see: http://www.dwelly.info/index.aspx)”

In other words, it does mention ‘cracker of a whip’, as Cassidy says. However, it also says that this is not really a Gaelic word at all, but a borrowing from Scots (not Scottish Gaelic, but the Lowland Scots cousin of English). How did Cassidy miss this vital piece of information? Well, I don’t believe he did. He continually doctored and edited the information he found in his sources in order to make the best case possible for whatever piece of nonsense he was trying to prove. He had no respect for the truth or for the values of genuine scholarship.

I should also point out that this word is mentioned in Green English, Loretto Todd’s May 2000 book on the Irish influence on English. I have discussed this before. It is a rather slapdash affair, though nowhere near as flaky as Cassidy’s ‘research’. I am convinced that Cassidy used it as a source, though there is no acknowledgement of his indebtedness in the book.

Incidentally, there was also an historian of Celtic influences on the Old South called Grady McWhiney who insisted (erroneously) that cracker derived from craic. I don’t know if Cassidy had come across this book or not.

Once again, Cassidy’s claims turn out to be self-serving, dishonest, badly-researched baloney.

Some Loose Ends

Over the past ten months, I have done my best in these posts to demolish the theories of a charlatan called Daniel Cassidy, who wrote a ridiculous book in which he claims that thousands of English words derive from Irish. He claims this on the basis of slight phonetic similarities but takes no account of the usage of Irish words or of the known history of the English words he discusses. I have decided to move on and do something more creative with my time. However, before doing that, I would like to give a brief thumbnail account of some of the words I haven’t had time to deal with in detail and explain why Cassidy’s derivations are ridiculous in these cases as well.

Hip – This is a term first used in American slang in the early twentieth century. To be hip to something originally meant to be informed about it. Cassidy claims that it comes from the Irish aibí, meaning mature, ripe or sensible. This doesn’t sound much like hip (it is pronounced something like abbey or appy) and being ‘mature to the trip’ doesn’t really work, does it?

Cracker – This is a term meaning a white person. There are various theories about its origin. Cassidy selectively quotes sources to ‘prove’ that it comes from the Irish word craicire, meaning a boastful person. (This word is not given at all in Ó Dónaill, though it is given in Dinneen.) Craicire, like craic, is an obvious borrowing from dialect English or Lowland Scots. In fact, the term cracker is used by Shakespeare in the sense of boastful person, and in spite of some other crazy people’s claims, Shakespeare was not Irish.

Bummer – Cassidy claims that this comes from the Irish bumaire. In fact, the origins of this word are very complex and there are certainly a number of different meanings and derivations involved. There is the English word bum meaning backside, which is an ancient Germanic word. Then there is bum-bailiff (borrowed into Irish as bum-báille) which apparently comes from bum meaning backside (because he comes up behind people and catches them). Then there is the word bum meaning to boast or brag, which is still very common in Irish English. (He’s always bumming and blowing about that new motor!) The word bumaire is an obvious borrowing from this dialect word. And lastly, there is a word for a tramp or hobo in American slang, which comes from German. It is this that gives rise to expressions like ‘a bum steer’ or ‘it’s a bummer’.

Boiler room. In slang, this is the nerve centre or HQ of a racket like illegal gambling. It is perfectly understandable as a metaphor. Like water in a central heating system, all the money comes in and goes out of this central point, which is a hotbed of activity. According to Cassidy, it comes from bailitheoir, meaning collector. Yeah, that’ll be right! How could anyone be taken in by this rubbish?

Racket – Cassidy derives racket from raic ard, a high noise. In fact, racket is an English expression, a version of an earlier term rattick. The word raic in Irish is probably a borrowing from some related English word or perhaps from (w)rack, a dialect version of wreck (as in the ‘rackers’ who used to break into people’s houses and smash them up during agrarian disturbances in Ireland), or perhaps it’s just coincidence?

Racketeer – Again, this claim involves a complex set of words. The truth is probably quite simple. At some stage, racket as in to make a sound became linked to words like rack (to put someone on the rack) and rack-renting (to extort rent from someone) and thus a racket came to mean a criminal enterprise. This then gave rise to racketeer. Cassidy ransacks dictionaries looking for obscure Irish and Gaelic terms like reicire, which means a seller and in one obscure dialect also meant an ‘extortioner’, according to Dinneen (the alternative form reacadóir isn’t given with this sense, in spite of what Cassidy says). There is also a Scottish Gaelic term ragair, which apparently means an extortioner or bully, but how many Hebridean gangsters were there in 19th century New York, I ask myself?

Sketch – A sketch is a term for a humorous skit, so there is really no mystery about the use of phrases like ‘he’s an absolute sketch!’ However, Daniel Cassidy decided that this had to be Irish too, so according to him it comes from scairt, meaning a scream. If people ever said Is scairt é of a funny person, or if sketch didn’t mean something funny in English, this might be half-believable. They don’t and it isn’t.

Then there are the many examples where Cassidy is essentially right or may be right about an Irish or Gaelic derivation but he was not the first one to make such a claim.

Slew – Nothing new here. This word is from Irish slua. This is accepted by the ‘dictionary dudes’ and is completely uncontroversial.

Whiskey – Who’d have thought it? Whiskey comes from Irish uisce (beatha). There’s a surprise, mar dhea!

Twig – This is the slang term for understand, not branch. Twig in this sense is probably from Irish tuig and many different sources give this, including Brewer’s. This just goes to show that where there is a genuine similarity, other people can see it apart from Cassidy. Only Cassidy saw the similarity between hoodoo and uath dubh because before Cassidy, the phrase uath dubh didn’t exist!

Dig – Cassidy claimed that dig also comes from tuig, or more specifically from phrases like An dtuigeann tú? (Do you understand?) This is possible, but it didn’t originate with Cassidy. It is already given as a source in the Dictionary of American Slang.

Cock-eyed. Cassidy claimed that this comes from caoch-eyed, blind-eyed. This is not a ridiculous suggestion, though the other explanations to do with cocking a gun or the general notion of something being skew-whiff when it is cocked (to cock your hat) need to be investigated too. The fact is, even if Cassidy is right about this, all he did was copy other sources like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which mention Irish or Gaelic as a possible origin.

Honky, Hinky, Hunky and Cranky

The word aingí (pronounced an-gee) is not that common in Irish. It means peevish or bad-tempered. To Daniel Cassidy, author of the absurd How The Irish Invented Slang, it was the origin of honky (as in cracker or white person), as well as hunky (a term for an Eastern European immigrant), part of honky-tonk (aingíocht tarraingteach), not to mention hinky (dodgy or suspicious) and the –anky part of cranky (crá aingí according to the Great Fraud). There doesn’t seem to be a word henky in English. If there were, we would probably have the full set of all the vowels. Obviously aingí is a far more useful and common term in the world of crap etymology than it is in genuine Irish conversation.

There is some doubt about the origin of these words in English slang but there seems to be no good reason to regard them as related to the word aingí or indeed any word in the Irish language.

If you’d like more information, here’s a link to a piece about the origins of honky and its links to hunky:
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/756/whats-the-origin-of-honky

Here’s a link about the origins of hinky: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2006/11/whats-the-origin-of-hinky.html

And here’s a Wikipedia article on the origins of crankdom:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crank_(person)

Watch out for this line: Although a crank’s beliefs seem ridiculous to experts in the field, cranks are sometimes very successful in convincing non-experts of their views. Aren’t they just?