Tag Archives: debunking

How Daniel Cassidy Invented Etymology, Part Two

About a week ago, Eoin P. Ó Murchú published an interesting review of Cassidy’s work on an Irish-language site called An Tuairisceoir. Ó Murchú’s attitude to Cassidy’s book was very similar to mine. He thought that Cassidy was an appalling charlatan and he strongly recommended people to avoid Cassidy’s book. I reblogged Ó Murchú’s article a few days ago but for the benefit of those who don’t speak Irish, I have produced a rough translation here.

Interestingly, there have been a few comments about the review. Breandán Delap supported the views expressed by myself and Ó Murchú, while several others (Ciarán Dunbar and someone calling themselves Fear N Fearn) made some attempt to defend Cassidy’s book. However, it is worth pointing out that there is a big difference between the debate expressed in these comments and the debate as found among English speakers and especially among Irish-Americans. The debate as found in the Anglo world tends to be between people who believe that there was a kernel of truth in Cassidy’s work, which according to them was slightly ‘overreached’ but still contains a core of valid etymologies, and those of us who think that Cassidy was a pernicious, half-crazy liar. The Irish-language debate on An Tuairisceoir is between people who think that Cassidy’s work was a harmless bit of fun and that Cassidy was just joking and those who think he was a pernicious, half-crazy liar. In other words, the view from within the Irish language is that Cassidy didn’t discover anything and made no valid contribution to human knowledge. This is the view even among Irish speakers who are favourable to Cassidy and perhaps this should be a wake-up call to Irish-Americans who support this nut-job’s theories and take them at face value.

Anyway, here is a rough translation of Ó Murchú’s excellent review:

HOW DANIEL CASSIDY INVENTED ETYMOLOGY

I came home the other day to find a substantial book. It was a present. Although I had heard tell of it I couldn’t say that I derived much pleasure from it as a present. It was How The Irish Invented Slang by Daniel Cassidy. What Cassidy sets out to demonstrate in this book is that large swathes of American English slang, and consequently of the slang of the whole world, come from Irish. He believes that there was a conspiracy by English speakers to suppress this information.

This will surprise many of us, because it was thought that we had not given much more than ‘smithereens’ and ‘banshee’ to English. Anyone who has even a slight interest in word etymologies will suspect very quickly that there is no basis to Cassidy’s opinions. Anyone with a fleeting knowledge of etymology will realise that it is essential always to be sceptical about the little stories which people spread. For some strange reason, people have the habit of believing strange little stories in spite of the evidence which would prove them wrong. This book is questionable for a number of reasons.

The main thing which planted the seed of doubt in my mind was that Cassidy goes with very unlikely Irish explanations when it would be much easier to find an explanation within the English language. He thinks the term ‘crusher’(a term for a policeman) is the same as an expression which comes from ‘cuir siar ar‘ (sic) Now, isn’t it strange that an Irish saying without much meaning would stick to the police and isn’t it odd that there should be no connection between ‘crusher’ and the English word ‘crush’?

Cassidy says that ‘S lom é’ is the origin of the English ‘Slum’. Isn’t that a really strange expression to borrow. Can you really imagine that that expression would slip from the mouth of an Irish speaker into speech? Can it be found as a common saying to describe slums? No. Not only that, Cassidy gives definitions and pretends that they come from the Irish dictionaries when that is not true at all. He loves to slap fig. onto things, saying that this is an additional meaning but in reality it is simply his own invention. (’teas ioma’ – an abundance of heat and passion; figuratively semen) I cannot find any source which demonstrates this additional meaning of ‘teas ioma’(sic). It seems likely that Cassidy couldn’t either.

‘As if that wasn’t enough, he uses whatever version he likes of any word. Joint’ an Bhéarla? Well, there is díon in Irish. What’s the plural of that? Díonta, great, that’s more like it. He goes even further, imposing whatever sound he wants on words. ‘Jeenta’, perfect!

Irish left few words in the English of Ireland in reality, so how would this language of paupers, which it was, have such a great influence on the speech of the USA? Cassidy has no satisfactory explanation for this. How did these not develop in Ireland too, how come the Gaels decided not to give these words to us too? He has no explanation for this either. If bizarre words which a competent Irish speaker of the present day would not recognise form the basis for many expressions, why aren’t common Irish words to be found in American speech too? Yet again, poor Cassidy has no explanation for this.

The kind of method he uses is to take a phrase. ‘Daniel Cassidy’ for example, then he decides that it comes from Irish. Then off he goes on his little spree of creativity. Daniel -‘Dath- ‘n-aoil’ lime-faced, white-faced, fig. white supremacist. ‘Cassidy’. Cas-a-dí The turning of her drink, surname of a bartender, mixologist, figuratively mixer, nixer. So, Daniel Cassidy means ‘white supremecist cocktail maker? Well, it means that in his own universe of lies and fraud. (I made up the bit above, just in case of any misunderstanding).

Unfortunately, many people are still supporting Cassidy. Where’s the harm, some people say, it’s only a bit of fun. In reality the opposite is true, linguistics is a difficult thing and when idiots are allowed to tackle it as they will the whole thing becomes as clear as mud. Because of the influence of the internet Cassidy’s ‘etymologies’ are there forever, they will be believed (some of them at least) in perpetuity. We should show interest in the words which the Irish gave to English but not give in to a numbskull like this who distorts the truth completely.

Cassidy was a consummate liar. A 300 page book which is full from cover to cover with fake etymologies, nonsense and lies. There is no doubt that Cassidy understood that the vast majority of these etymologies are phoney. It seems that he sought out phrases in Irish dictionaries which looked like English expressions and then he set out to forge a link.

There is an excellent blog here which pulls Cassidy’s arguments apart. https://cassidyslangscam.wordpress.com/ Whoever wrote it was driven to distraction by Cassidy and they have done an unabashed, clinical dissection of Cassidy’s lies. Cassidy is dead now, and it is my fervent hope that these lies will disappear with him. Do not buy this book and do not support nonsense like this.

Queer

The liar Daniel Cassidy, in his ridiculous attempt to ‘queer the pitch’ of Irish linguistics, How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the word queer was of Irish origin.  

As usual with Cassidy’s claims, this is fanciful, childish nonsense. The word queer is first recorded in English about 1500. It is thought to be derived from Scots and to be a cognate of the German quer, which means ‘oblique, perverse, odd’. It acquired the modern meaning (originally pejorative but now reclaimed by gay and lesbian activists) of ‘gay’ in the 20th century.

Cassidy derives it from the Irish word corr, meaning odd. The problem is that corr doesn’t sound anything like queer. It is pronounced kor or kore. 

This is just another bit of stupid made-up nonsense from the pole-nosed Pinocchio of Irish Studies.

Knick-Knacks

Daniel Cassidy, in what is certainly one of the worst books ever written, How The Irish Invented Slang, claims that the English word knick-knack comes from Irish. It doesn’t. It is derived from the English knack, which now means a trick but formerly meant a trinket or small object. John Heywood used the word knack in 1540: “Needles, thread, thimble, shears, and all such knacks.” Shakespeare also used it in The Taming of the Shrew in 1596. (Cassidy claims that knack comes from Irish gnách but gnách doesn’t mean a trick or special skill and it only marginally has the sense of custom or habit – gnás or nós would be much more common in this sense.) By 1618, John Fletcher was talking about knick-knacks as tricks: “If you use these knick-knacks, This fast and loose.” But by the end of the 17th century, a knick-knack was exclusively used of a trinket. In Scotland, the word became nig-ma-nag.  

Cassidy disagrees that knick-knacks is a rhyming jingle based on the word knack. To him, knick-knacks come from the Irish word neamhghnách meaning unusual. There are many reasons for objecting to this. Firstly, neamhghnách is an adjective and cannot be used as a noun. Secondly, the sound is very unlike the English word knick-knack. And thirdly, why wouldn’t an Irish speaker use one of the many words which really mean knick-knacks in Irish, like giuirléidí, mangaisíní, áilleagáin, deasagáin or gréibhlí, rather than misusing an adjective? They wouldn’t, of course. It’s just more old knick-knack paddywhackery from this boring, childish idiot.

Shoo

This is another utterly crazy claim made by Daniel Cassidy in his trashy book, How The Irish Invented Slang and one that is very easy to disprove. Cassidy claimed that shoo comes from the Irish sitheadh.

Sitheadh is pronounced shee-hoo or shee-ha it is defined by Ó Dónaill as ‘rush, dash, onrush, swoop’. The connection between these meanings and shooing someone or something is not very close and sitheadh is certainly not used when shooing chickens out of the door or telling children to go away. You might use fuisc or amachaigí in cases like this and the action would be described as an ruaig a chur ar dhuine.

So if shoo doesn’t come from Irish, where does it come from? Well, it’s an English word and it’s always been an English word. It is found in English from at least the 15th century and it has a clear cognate in German scheuchen, which means to shoo. Which means that after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the first Saxon-speaking settlers arrived in England from north Germany and Jutland, they used a version of this word to shoo their chickens out of the way, just as their forebears had done in Germany. And in time, this word became shoo in English and scheuchen in German. Where is there any room for Irish influence in this scenario? There isn’t any, of course, because Cassidy was a liar and this is another of his many lies.

Why The Hostility?

Some people seem to find the hostility shown to Cassidy inexplicable, or they ascribe it to the mythical cabal of powerful Anglophile dictionary-makers who, apparently, are in some mysterious conspiracy to prevent Irish America from realising that obscure and obsolete slang terms for prostitutes, drinking bouts and policemen were really Irish. Why these shadowy Anglophiles wouldn’t delight in confirming that the Irish were responsible for a slew of terms related to crime, prostitution, violence and drunkenness is beyond me but then, as I’ve said before, this is not a matter of logic. People can be very protective of completely crazy belief systems and Cassidy is a perfect example of how modern, educated people can put their trust in something as pointless and irrational as a cargo cult.

Because of this, some of the arguments used by his supporters are every bit as stupid and indefensible as Cassidy’s own work. Some of them talk about how Cassidy made it quite clear that he was speculating. In reality, the book is a humility-free zone. Cassidy is continually dismissive of scholars and sources who are worth a thousand of him. Others talk about giving a voice to those who have been silenced. The truth is that what Cassidy did was make up nonsense and attribute it to Irish speakers. Cassidy’s book is about denying a voice to everyone but Cassidy – native speakers, scholars, historians, everybody but this odious little jerk.

In reality, my hostility is perfectly rational and quite justified. Cassidy was clearly dishonest, he was deeply disrespectful to genuine scholars who had done absolutely nothing to deserve this apart from disagreeing with his opinion, he was (I am almost certain of this) given to attacking people using fake sock-puppet identities and these attacks frequently show a low level of literacy and general knowledge as well as a deep meanness of spirit.

I owe Daniel Cassidy nothing. Cassidy owes me. He owes me the price of this ridiculous book or at least the share of it that went to his estate. He owes me for the valuable hours I have had to spend providing some kind of answer to his ludicrous claims so that the public can at least have access to the true facts. He owes me and the rest of the human race for spreading lies deliberately in order to gain money and kudos for himself. This was not a nice man or a good scholar. Cassidy was a vile, arrogant con-man and in my opinion, anyone who supports him is morally suspect.

Neither does it make a blind bit of difference to me that the man is dead. If he were alive, I would be doing exactly the same thing and unfortunately, his work is far from dead. His ridiculous book and his idiotic ideas are still virally replicating themselves in cyberspace. In my opinion, if the people who control his estate had any decency, they would remove this book from sale, quietly apologise to the public and give any money they have acquired from this shabby enterprise to charity. In so doing, they might actually preserve a few shreds of this man’s tattered dignity and reputation, because the voices criticising this book and its ideas are only going to get louder and anyone attempting to defend him is really helping to destroy his reputation even more thoroughly by prolonging a debate which Cassidy’s supporters have already lost.

Scram

This is another completely moronic claim made in Daniel Cassidy’s obscenely ridiculous trashfest, How The Irish Invented Slang. Cassidy claims that the word scram comes from the Irish scaraim, meaning ‘I get away, I escape, I depart, I separate.’

According to the dictionary, the verb scar means part, separate, divide or spread. Here are some examples of how the word is used in Irish: 

Scaradh na gcompánach. The parting of companions, ‘the parting of the ways’.

Tá siad scartha anois. They are separated now.

Ní maith leis scaradh lena chuid airgid. He doesn’t like parting with his money.

Is deacair scaradh leis an ulpóg sin. It’s hard to get rid of that flu.

Rinne siad aoileach a scaradh ar an pháirc. They spread manure on the field.

It really wouldn’t be used the way Cassidy is claiming, as the equivalent of split in modern American slang, to mean run away or leave. If it were, why would anyone say scaraim, which means I separate. Why I? How can one person separate or spread on their own? Why not you, or yous, or let’s? The answer is, of course, because if you don’t say scaraim it doesn’t sound anything like scram! 

Back in the real world, scram is almost certainly a contraction of scramble, which dates back to at least the 16th century in English and refers to ‘moving or climbing hurriedly, especially on the hands and knees’ or ‘an unceremonious scuffle or struggle.’

Cantankerous

Cantankerous is an interesting word. It means crabbit, peevish, disgruntled.The Online Etymological Dictionary says that it occurs first in English in 1772, that it is said to be “a Wiltshire word,” and that it is ‘probably from an alteration (influenced by raucous) of Middle English contakour “troublemaker” (c.1300), from Anglo-French contec “discord, strife,” from Old French contechier (Old North French contekier), from con- “with” + teche, related to atachier “hold fast” (see attach).’  The Oxford English Dictionary says that it is “perhaps a blend of Anglo-Irish cant ‘auction’ and rancorous (see rancour) With -ous.’

I am not particularly keen on these suggestions (the dictionary dudes do their best but there are lots of words and it must be hard) but they certainly make more sense than Cassidy’s suggestion that the word derives from ceanndánacht ársa, which Cassidy defines as ‘old obstinacy, aged wilfulness, elderly stubbornness.’ This is nonsense because this is a noun phrase, while cantankerous is an adjective and also because the ársa primarily means ancient as in long, long ago. Admittedly life was probably hard back in the days of yore but I’m sure our ancestors lightened up occasionally. It certainly doesn’t mean ‘typical of old people’, which is the meaning Cassidy had in mind here. Of course, nobody in Irish ever talks about ‘ancient stubbornness’ when they talk about the miserable old biddy next door who is always complaining. The phrase originated with Cassidy, who didn’t speak any Irish and didn’t know what he was talking about so why would anyone place any trust in what Cassidy said?

My own personal belief (and I may well be completely wrong) is that cantankerous is a blend of the words contentious and cankerous, possibly influenced by Irish words  like cancrach, cancrán, which are related to words like cankerous (either as borrowings from English or from French) and show a different meaning of these words. Cancrán is defined by Ó Dónaill as ‘cantankerous person or crank’. I don’t think cantankerous comes directly from Irish because there is no such word as cantancarán and cancrán sounds very different, though it is certainly the word you would use of a grouchy person, so the meaning is a really good match.

Gams and Gombeens

Gams is an obsolete slang term for legs, the kind of thing that a gumshoe would come out with. “She had gams that went all the way up to the top … and all the way back down again. They were the kind of gams that could drive a man to drink, and she didn’t even have a licence for them…”

According to the liar Daniel Cassidy in his lying piece of trash How The Irish Invented Slang, this is Irish. Of course it is. According to Cassidy, half the words in the English language had an Irish origin lurking behind them, usually a dodgy-looking piece of work with a Noo Yoik accent which no Irish-speaker would recognise. In this case, Cassidy’s candidate is gamba, which means a lump or a chunk.

There is some doubt about the immediate origin of gams, but there is no doubt that it comes from a Romance (i.e. a Latin root) word which means leg. There are many related words. The word camba in Catalan, jambe in French (gamba in Old French), gamba in Spanish (which means the bottom part of an animal’s leg as well as a prawn). At some point, probably in the Middle Ages, the French word was borrowed into Irish as gamba, meaning a lump. As I have said before, when an Irish noun ends in an –a, it is usually a sure sign that it is a borrowing from another language (siopa, pota, cóta, cárta, nóta.)  In other words, the slang word gam comes from French or Italian, and the Irish word gamba comes from the same root. But there is no evidence that Irish had anything directly to do with the English slang word gam.

Incidentally, the word gaimbín means a little piece or (financial) interest in Irish, and a gombeen-man in Irish English means a loan-shark. My wife’s family use gombeen in English to mean an idiot as well, probably because it sounds right, like goof or geek or dork. I had always assumed that gaimbín was simply a diminutive form of gamba but apparently the situation is more complex than that:

http://bill.celt.dias.ie/vol4/pdf/displayObject.php?TreeID=1693

You learn something new every day, if you keep an open mind and listen to the experts.

Yellow

The phrase ‘to be yellow’ or ‘to be yellow-bellied’ (to be a coward) seems to enter English first in the 19th century in America. The origin of the phrase is unknown.

 In his ridiculous trashfest, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy claimed an Irish origin for the expression. He said that it comes from the Irish éalú, which is a verb meaning to escape, to abscond or to steal up on. This is ridiculous. Irish has perfectly good ways of talking about cowardice. You can call someone a cladhaire, or a meatachán. But you wouldn’t talk about someone being ‘an escape person’. Not in English, not in Irish. Probably not in Urdu or Swahili or any other language.

By a strange irony, this is probably one of the rare instances where the origin of the expression is to be found in the Irish language. Probably … But it has nothing to do with éalú. The fact is that in Irish, you can say of someone who is a coward that they have ‘yellow clay in them’ – tá cré bhuí ann. I have always assumed that this means that the pot or whatever you are making is weaker if an inferior kind of clay is found in it, so it breaks up when fired. There is a pretty good case for saying that this phrase explains the origin of the expression yellow for cowardice in English. If Cassidy had known any Irish, he would perhaps have been able to make a good argument for this one.

But Cassidy didn’t know any Irish and he couldn’t be bothered learning any before setting himself up as some kind of expert.

 

Geek and Kike

There is a pair of interesting words in Daniel Cassidy’s incredibly stupid book, How The Irish Invented Slang, the words geek and kike. Geek is defined by Cassidy as a fairground term for a long-haired person, which is pushing it – the geek was frequently the ‘wild man’ in a fairground (think of Sideshow Bob on the Simpsons) but this seems to be a relatively late meaning.  The word kike is a racist insult used by ignorant bigots to refer to Jews. The reason why they are placed together in this post is because Cassidy derived both of them from derivatives of the Irish word ciabh, meaning tress or curl.

Cassidy’s claims about these words are just as absurd as the rest of this crazy book.

Leaving aside the fact that ciabhóg and ciabhach are quite similar but they supposedly gave rise to two words which sound very different in English, and that neither word sounds much like either geek or kike, it is a measure of how random and arbitrary Cassidy’s Irish explanations for American slang were that he decided to assign kike to ciabhóg but geek to ciabhach. If you accepted an Irish derivation for these words, it would be just as reasonable to argue for it the other way round, with kike coming from ciabhach and geek coming from ciabhóg, or derive both from ciabhach or both from ciabhóg, or derive one or both from caidheach (a bit like kayak but with the final k sound like the ch in Scottish loch) which means filthy or from caoch meaning blind or from gíoc (pronounced geek) meaning a squeal or a chirp. I’m not actually suggesting that any of these are the origin of these terms. I am merely showing how unreliable and shoddy and dishonest Cassidy’s methods were and how unlikely it is that methods like this will reveal anything of value, even by accident.

Back in the real word, geek is from a Germanic word meaning a fool, geck, which was actually used in the 18th century in the Austro-Hungarian empire for people in travelling freak shows. As for kike, there are various explanations, the most likely of which is that it comes from the Yiddish word for circle, because illiterate Jewish immigrants used to sign with a circle rather than with the cross used by Christian immigrants.