In a recent post, I criticised the Motherfoclóir podcasts associated with Darach Ó Séaghdha’s book Motherfoclóir. I am broadly in favour of Motherfoclóir. I like the Twitter feed it came from and the book itself was generally good, even if its research was sometimes shoddy (especially around etymological issues.)
After listening to a handful of the podcasts, I am afraid they are not for me. This is not entirely because of Motherfoclóir itself. It has more to do with a general dislike of the medium. Podcasts tend to be a bit of light-hearted chit-chat about some topic, with an incredibly low ratio of facts to padding. Many of them (Motherfoclóir’s included) remind me of the worst language-learning courses, where a simple phrase like “My name is” somehow occupies a whole lesson, while we are also introduced to characters and a situation and a jingle etc.. I have been immersed in languages and Irish and linguistics for decades. While the chit-chat on the podcasts is sometimes interesting, it rarely discusses anything I haven’t heard before and as I said in the last post, the material is sometimes suspect and even completely wrong (as in the Abhartach piece).
I was listening recently to the podcast about claims of a link between Irish and the Lost Tribes of Israel. (An interesting guest but I think they could have made the thing a lot more informative by asking the right questions. As a linguist, Hebrew is not Indo-European. Irish is Indo-European. Therefore they are not closely related and any supposedly similar words are probably coincidental. QED)
However, towards the end of this post, Ó Séaghdha suddenly starts talking about those of us who are very convinced that certain words DO NOT come from Irish. He argues that people who are dismissive of a particular Irish derivation “because of the way the burden of proof works, they can often be even more extreme than people who say it does.”
I don’t really know what he’s trying to say here with ‘because of the way the burden of proof works”. You could take it to mean that linguists and other people who actually present proof for their claims are a bunch of nasty, mean-spirited pedants who won’t let people delight in the odd fake factoid at dinner parties, but to take it like that would probably be the action of a nasty, mean-spirited pedant. What he probably means is that the burden of proof tends to work in favour of the consensus or most accepted opinion. This is undoubtedly true. There is less written material from the Irish language in the 19th century than there is for English, so Irish is less likely to leave evidence. However, using that as an excuse to stop demanding evidence isn’t making things better. It results in poor research and facts that aren’t facts.
Bizarrely, he uses the example of people saying that crack (craic) definitely doesn’t come from Irish. The reason why this is so bizarre is that there is plenty of evidence that crack was originally a northern English and Scottish term for conversation and that this was then Gaelicised as craic. I personally have no objection to people spelling it craic or using it as an Irish word. It is an Irish word. It’s just not a word of Irish origin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craic
However, the thing that really got my goat was when he started talking again about the Irish origin of the English word mucker. I presume part of this was probably aimed at me, though he must have been referring to some other critic as well because I never mentioned the Second World War. I have already dealt with this word and shown that the derivation from Irish is nonsense. However, here, rather than accepting that he got it wrong, Darach Ó Séaghdha goes further by saying that there are two words here, both pronounced mucker and both meaning mate, but having two completely separate etymologies. So when people say mucker in Ireland, it comes from Irish, but there is also a totally unrelated word with the same sound and meaning in England but ‘they’re different words and they’re different entries in the dictionary.’ Really? Which dictionary is that? Wiktionary arbitrarily gives different definitions for the military and civilian uses but gives the same English etymology for both. (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mucker) The OED is quite clear that the military and civilian uses are the same and that they both (probably) derive from muck: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/mucker
The truth of the matter is there is no evidence that mucker derives from Irish mo chara, however many people believe this to be the case. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that mucker does not come from Irish:
• Mucker is not principally or exclusively found in Ireland or in Irish communities in other countries. It is found in various parts of England and is attested there first. (In the 1940s)
• Mucker is often used in Ireland (and in England as well) to address people (how’s it going, mucker?) but mo chara is never used in this way by real Irish speakers. It’s always ‘a chara’ if you are addressing someone.
• Mo chara, if pronounced correctly, rhymes with Sahara. This would not be anglicised as mucker.
• The OED says that this is likely to come from the idea of mucking in or mucking about and does not recognise any Irish derivation.
• If mucker really came from Irish, you would expect this to be a long-held claim in Ireland. In fact, the earliest reference on Google (on Urban Dictionary) only dates back to 2007. No book on Hiberno-English or slang mentions any Irish link.
He then goes on to discuss the term shamus for a gumshoe, which has been claimed for both Irish and Yiddish. This is an interesting question. I’m inclined to agree with the article here (https://forward.com/articles/5064/bogie-speaks-yiddish/), but I think a proper, considered examination would be useful. (And I think David Gold’s input would be welcome!)
My advice to Ó Séaghdha would be this:
• Do your research carefully so that you avoid falling into any holes.
• If you do fall into a hole, climb out. Don’t start digging.