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’.