Tag Archives: dictionaries

Did Cassidy Ever Get It Right?

I have already mentioned the statistics of this book, the way that people assume that some percentage of the book’s claims must be correct because there are so many of them. One individual on an Amazon review, who claimed to be a student of Irish, actually thought that this book was two-thirds correct! More sensible estimates are somewhere around 10%, but of course, these are not specifically based on a knowledge of Irish. Anyone who genuinely knew any Irish would be far harder on the book and would instantly realise that almost all of Cassidy’s claims are nonsense.

So, is there anything worth having in this book? Surprisingly, I am prepared to concede that Cassidy got it right a few times. However, we need to exercise a little caution here. Many of the correct entries are not really English at all. They are merely transcribed Irish phrases like machree, mavourneen, aroon, which are used in sentimental songs and dramas but were never really borrowed into English.

And in the overwhelming majority of cases where Cassidy got it right and the words are genuine loanwords in English, other people have got it right before him. These include dictionary dudes and Anglophiles who, according to Cassidy, hate the Irish language and would never admit the contribution of Irish to English. Yet there they are in the dictionaries, words of unimpeachable Irish/Gaelic origin like slew, whiskey, galore, sourpuss, shebeen, banshee, shamrock, bog, dornick, spunk, smithereens, glom, gob, keen, bard, brat, slogan. (And the Shelta words like moniker and mawley are also given in mainstream dictionaries.)  In other words, where the evidence exists, genuine scholars are quite happy to include Irish derivations in their dictionaries. In fact, Cassidy missed a lot of words of Irish origin like like tanist, esker, carrigeen and drumlin which are in English dictionaries. So much for Cassidy’s paranoid vision of sinister cabals of Anglophile lexicographers closing ranks against the Irish language!

Then there are some words that might deserve a second glance to see if there is any chance that they are of Irish origin. People have been suggesting for decades that snazzy is related to snas, and they may be right about this but there isn’t a lot of evidence and it has recently been pointed out that an entertainer called G.H. Snazelle was known as ‘Snazzy’ well over a hundred years ago. Phoney being related to fawney and fáinne is also quite an old suggestion and didn’t originate with Cassidy. Again, this is more than possible and merits a mention in any discussion of possible origins. Rookie isn’t likely to come from rúcach, in spite of the similarity, because it is apparently from the way a drill sergeant would pronounce the word recruit-  RUH-croot! This is just as good an explanation as rúcach and it has a clear advantage in that it is based on and in English. ‘Say Uncle’ deriving from Irish anacal is not very likely, as anacal is a fairly obscure word. Its primary meaning is ‘protect’ rather than ‘mercy’ and the only recorded Irish expression I am aware of for ‘Say Uncle’ or ‘Pax’ in Irish is méaram. Twig and dig might well come from tuig, but more research would be needed.

I think Cassidy might have a point with ‘in a jiffy’ (deifir) and ‘a cold snap’ (snab is specifically mentioned by Dinneen as meaning ‘a cold snap’) but I am not really sure. Soogan (súgán) being used for a sleeping mat is interesting but Cassidy got this from the Dictionary of American Slang. And the word mihall (meitheal) occurring in Trade Union contexts is also quite interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that Cassidy gives a quotation from a trade union member in which he alludes to the fact that meitheal was known to be an Irish word. This confirms what Grant Barrett and others have said. Where words cross language barriers, there tends to be some evidence of the transition. It can be circumstantial evidence, such as the same word with the same pronunciation and same meaning found in one language and then suddenly cropping up in another (soogan/súgán), or it can be clear and definite evidence from contemporary documents that a word is known to have come from a particular term in another language.

But the simple fact is that Cassidy’s claim that hundreds of common English expressions derive from Irish is nonsense. Very few Irish words were borrowed into English and that’s a fact. Cassidy’s supporters may not like that fact. I may not like that fact but reality is reality and we have to live with it. When you start basing your view of reality on fantasies, where do you stop? The view of some of Cassidy’s supporters seems to be that history should accord with what we want and not what really happened.

Perhaps it would have been nice if the Spanish Armada had been successful and Ireland had been a prosperous and powerful country while the English suffered hundreds of years of oppression and famine and economic stagnation under the Irish and their Spanish allies, but that isn’t what happened. And I would love to believe that millions of Jewish people were not exterminated in the Holocaust but should we pretend it didn’t happen just because it is a horrible and painful truth? Of course not. The history we have is the history we are stuck with, whether we like it or not. Only knaves and fools like Cassidy try to invent alternative histories.