Tag Archives: etymological nonsense

A Smashing Mot

I came across an interview with a historian called Cathy Scuffil the other day on an RTÉ radio programme fronted by Myles Dungan. This is the man who did the terrible interview with Cassidy in San Francisco where he allowed Cassidy, probably the greatest dork in the history of Irish America since Senator McCarthy, to bullshit continuously for half an hour without bothering to correct or challenge, so he has form in producing really bad content about etymology. Bizarrely, he still insists that Cassidy was a serious scholar, or at least, he was still doing so in 2020, when he tweeted: As outlined by the great Dan Cassidy in his dictionary of Irish American slang.

Scuffil was talking about the Irish language and much of what she said was fine but there were several claims in her interview which were obvious nonsense. I had heard both of them before and one of them I have dealt with in detail on this blog, but it is always worth tackling this kind of nonsense and misinformation and bullshit wherever you find it.

The two claims she made were: that the English word smashing comes from Irish ‘is maith sin’; and that the Dublin slang word ‘mot’ comes from ‘maith an cailín’.

Admittedly, there is no smoking gun with these claims and it is impossible to prove them wrong 100% but we can certainly show that the odds are at least 99% that these are bullshit.

Here are some good reasons why these claims are unlikely to be true.

The claim that Dublin ‘mot’ (=girl, girlfriend) comes from Irish ‘maith an cailín’.

(1)  It contradicts everything that we know about the way that words and phrases are borrowed between languages. The phrase ‘maith an cailín’ only means good girl in the sense of praising someone, not talking about someone. The maith an part means ‘good the’. You could equally well say ‘maith an fear’ (good man!), or ‘maith an bhean’ (good woman!), ‘maith an buachaill’ (good boy!). You would NOT say ‘Is í mo mhaith an cailín í’ for ‘she’s my good girl’. In other words, it is hard to understand how this could ever have crossed from Irish to English and taken the meaning of ‘girl’ rather than ‘good’.

(2)  No scholar of language or expert on these matters, to my knowledge, has ever endorsed this claim. The leading expert on Irish English, Dolan, says that ‘the connection with Irish maith … seems unlikely’. Ó Muirthile is even more dismissive.

(3) There are at least two more convincing origins: from a word meaning ‘an atom or a small creature’ in the Yola language of Wexford; mort, a thieves’ cant expression for woman recorded in the early 19th century. (By Francis Grose, who spent a lot of time in Dublin.)

(4) There is no t at the end of maith. The t is present in mot. It may sound unlike the t of standard English but it is indisputably there. Think of how a very Dublin speaker of English says ‘Ballyfermot’.

(5) It seems to be a very recent invention. The reference in Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English is the earliest I can find.

(6) Because the policy of making the Irish population Irish-speaking has largely failed over the last 100 years, most Irish people know very little Irish. It is probably no coincidence that someone invented this claim because almost all Irish people will readily recognise the very basic and well-known word maith, so they will be more inclined to accept the premise because of this familiarity.

The claim that the word ‘smashing’ comes from Irish or Gaelic is maith sin.

(1)  The only reason for thinking this is that there is an expression ‘is maith sin’ in Irish which can be used in a similar way to ‘smashing’. However, as linguists say, ‘Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.’

(2) Smash was first used in English (as a noun meaning a blow) in 1725 and it was first used to mean a success in the early 20th century. There are many metaphorical expressions using terms for breaking and hitting in the sense of success. We have a thumping good film, a hit, a belter, or bostin’ (busting, a Midlands English expression) and of course, cracking, a term which has been used in just the same way as smashing since the 1820s. In other words, smashing coming from English smash is perfectly reasonable as an explanation.

(3)  There is no evidence of an Irish or Gaelic origin. Smashing does not occur first in Irish or Scottish contexts and there are no conscious references to it as an Irish or Gaelic expression. This is not what we find with hubbub, or shebeen, or banshee, or Tory, or claymore, or slogan.

(4)  The earliest references to ‘smashing’ in the sense of ‘wonderful’ come from the Americas, not from Ireland or Britain. For example: ‘Lord Dundas is our brave commander, and the Thunderer is a smashing ship’ – Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette (December 10, 1835).

(5)  The phrase ‘is maith sin’ (means ‘that’s good’, not ‘that’s wonderful’),

(6)  When smashing is used as a stand-alone phrase (Smashing! I like it!) then it’s reasonably close to the way is maith sin is used. However, a bilingual Irish or Gaelic speaker would not say “That’s really is maith sin!” or “We had an is maith sin time!” These make no sense. And when we look at the history of the word smashing, it is used as an adjective first and as a stand-alone phrase later, which we would not expect to find if this were a word of Irish or Gaelic origin.

(7)  Terence Dolan described the claim as ‘improbable’.


Daniel Cassidy, in his atrocious book How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that ‘jack’, a slang term for ‘money’ and the probable origin of ‘jackpot’, comes from the Irish tiach. Cassidy defines tiach as ‘a small purse, a wallet, a budget fig. money’. Now, there are two common words for a wallet in Irish: sparán (equivalent to the sporran of Highland dress) and vallait. Tiach is not a bag used for money, as far as I know. Furthermore, even if it did mean wallet rather than satchel, why would it figuratively mean money? Do people ask if someone has lots of wallet? They certainly don’t ask if they can borrow some sparán in Irish, never mind tiach!

Then there is the issue of pronunciation. Tiach is not pronounced like jack or jah. It is pronounced (roughly) chee-ah, with the ch of English cheese, or tee-ah in the south, so why would it become jack? (Cassidy didn’t understand Irish pronunciation at all.)

And then there is the fact that jack was a term for a coin in English by the 16th century. It is not completely impossible that an Irish term might have come into English this far back, but it is pretty unlikely.

All in all, Cassidy’s claim is as stupid and as worthless as the vast majority of the claims made in this book.

Mhaígh Daniel Cassidy, ina leabhar uafásach How The Irish Invented Slang, gur ón fhocal Gaeilge tiach a tháinig an téarma ‘jack’, focal béarlagair ar ‘airgead’ i mBéarla, agus an bunús is dóchúla leis an téarma ‘jackpot’ fosta. De réir Cassidy, ciallaíonn tiach ‘a small purse, a wallet, a budget fig. money’. Anois, mar is eol do dhuine ar bith a bhfuil a c(h)uid Gaeilge maith go leor leis an leagan Gaeilge den alt seo a léamh, tá dhá fhocal choitianta sa Ghaeilge ar ‘wallet’ i nGaeilge: sparán (mar an gcéanna le sporran an Albanaigh) agus vallait. Ní úsáidtear an focal tiach ar mhála airgid, chomh fada le m’eolas. Is seanfhocal é a chiallaíonn tiachóg nó ‘satchel’ an Bhéarla. Ní hamháin sin, ach dá mbeadh an bhrí sparán ar an tiach in áit mála mór, an mbeadh an bhrí fháthchiallach airgead air? Ar chuala tú duine ar bith ag rá ‘Tábhair dom giota beag sparáin ar iasacht’ riamh?

Agus ansin, tá fadhb na foghraíochta ann. Níl tiach cosúil le jack ar chor ar bith. (Ar ndóigh, ní raibh tuiscint ar bith ag Cassidy ar fhuaimeanna na Gaeilge.)

Agus caithfear a chuimhneamh gur baineadh úsáid as an fhocal jack mar fhocal ar bhonn airgid cheana féin faoin 16ú haois. B’fhéidir go dtiocfadh le focal Gaeilge teacht isteach sa Bhéarla chomh fada sin siar, ach ní dócha é.

Lena rá ar bheagán focal, tá teoiricí Cassidy faoin fhocal sin chomh bómánta leis an chuid eile de na teoiricí sa leabhar seo.