Tag Archives: etymology

Motherfoclóir

I hope all my readers had a fun and relaxing Christmas. I have been taking it easy, so I am only just now getting round to my first post of the New Year.

Some time ago, I recommended a Twitter feed called theirishfor. It is about strange and interesting words in the Irish language. I like it for a variety of reasons. Firstly, most native Irish speakers are resistant to new words, or book words. They would rather use the word fridge than cuisneoir or invent a phrase like prios fuar or cófra fuar. It’s great to see people trying to find suitable words to fill the gaps in their knowledge. And it’s even better to see them having fun with the language rather than being i ndáiríre faoin Ghaeilge.

I was interested to see that the man behind this Twitter feed (Darach Ó Séaghdha) has brought out a book called Motherfoclóir. I was given a copy at Christmas and decided to read it and review it here. I would recommend it, for the same reasons I would recommend the Twitter feed. It’s amusing, it’s informative and it’s well worth reading. Just to give one example, the word stadhan (I would pronounce it sty-un) apparently means a gathering of seagulls over a shoal of fish. It’s a great word. You could use it of journalists over a scandal (= feeding frenzy), or ignorant Irish-American phoneys gathering around Cassidy’s book. And now, thanks to Twitter and this book, most young Irish-speakers would understand what I’m saying if I used it. That’s got to be a good thing. It’s an antidote to defeatism and the creeping loss of the richness of the language among its speakers.

However, there’s a but and it’s quite a big but. I wish I could be 100% positive about this book, but it is a mixture of a very good idea and some very enjoyable writing, marred by some really sloppy research and editing. For example, on the front cover, there is a funny observation that the Irish word for extremist sounds a lot like the Irish phrase for ‘the Prime Minister’. The problem is that the Irish word for extremist should be spelled antoisceach, not antioisceach, because it comes from toisc, meaning circumstance. And on the same cover is the observation that a simple fada (acute accent) can make a lot of difference: fáil means hiccup, while fail means ‘of destiny’ or ‘of Ireland’, as in Fianna Fáil. Except, these two words should be reversed – it’s fail that means hiccup, not fáil (talk about an epic fail!) And that’s only THE COVER!!!

There is actually a reference to Daniel Cassidy and a brief discussion of etymology. It epitomises why this book is both good to a point and immensely frustrating. The central comment on Cassidy is exactly right: This text has since been discredited; so much so, in fact, that any claim to an Irish origin for an English word now seems to be suspect. He also points out that well-known apocryphal stories like the word kangaroo meaning I don’t know or I don’t understand in an Aboriginal language also draw exasperated sighs from linguists.

However, he then goes on to do exactly what Daniel Cassidy and every other crap etymologist from the beginning of time has done – spouting rubbish without checking whether any of it is true first. He says that the word gansey, meaning a jumper (or undershirt in the Caribbean) comes from Irish or Scottish Gaelic geansaí. But the word gansey almost certainly comes from Guernsey or Guernsey frock (just as jersey comes from the isle of Jersey) and geansaí is a relatively recent borrowing of gansey into Irish. I looked in the Corpas na Gaeilge, a huge seven million word database of Irish and there I found just one reference to the word geansaí, in a poem probably written in the early nineteenth or late eighteenth century. However, I was surprised to find that it isn’t a reference to the geansaí or gansey you wear, but to Guernsey itself: A bhfuil as seo go Geansaí /De fhíon, de bheoir is de bhrandaí (Of all that there is from here to Guernsey/Of wine, of beer and of brandy).

Then he makes a number of correct assumptions about how genuine etymologies can be established: if it’s a genuine phrase in the source language, if it is mentioned as being from the source language in documents from the time and if there is no other more probable source for the word, then it’s likely to be a genuine connection. He claims (or he seems to be claiming – it’s not very clear) that mucker for a friend comes from the Irish mo chara because it meets the criteria he’s mentioned. In reality, it only meets the criterion that mo chara exists in Irish. There is a much better explanation (that muckers are people you muck around with), I’m sure there are no contemporary documents claiming that mucker comes from Irish, mucker isn’t exclusively or mainly an Irish expression and mo chara, (which roughly rhymes with Sahara) doesn’t sound anything like mucker and therefore couldn’t have become mucker in English.

And finally, at the end of this section he talks about the word bróg and the expression brogue for an Irish accent. He says that Merriam-Webster suggests that it comes from barróg, meaning a tight hold but then says that no-one ‘has come up with a chain of evidence such as Barrett suggested.’ This is nonsense. The chain of evidence is pretty clear. If you look up barróg on foclóir.ie, you find the following definitions:

barróg1, f. (gs. -óige, npl. ~a, gpl. ~).1. Hug. ~ a bhreith ar dhuine, to hug s.o. 2. Wrestling grip. D’fháisc siad ~ ar a chéile, they got to grips with each other. 3. Brogue, impediment of speech.

In other words, barróg (meaning something like ‘a little tip’) is a perfectly fine Irish expression for someone who has a bachlóg ar a theanga (a bud on his tongue, lisp) or whose speech is impeded by the crampa Gaelach (the Gaelic cramp). It has no connection with the Gaelic word for shoe, bróg. It would take a very fastidious linguist to deny the strength of the evidence linking barróg to brogue. All Ó Séaghdha had to do was look it up in an Irish dictionary to realise that! This is strange, because before he begins his piece on etymology, he says that he can predict that if he claims a word is of Irish origin, he will be told he’s got it wrong. Knowing that to be the case, you’d think he might have looked in an Irish dictionary instead of just Merriam-Webster … (Actually, if he had said that shebeen, or galore, or phoney or whiskey are Irish, nobody would argue, because they are. It’s only when the claims are false that people like me will shoot them down.)

Having said that, Ó Séaghdha wouldn’t be the only person to think that etymology requires no skill or research and can be dashed off on the back of an envelope without effort or donkey-work. (Una Mullally produced a dreadful pile of bullshit for the Irish Times last year.) I hope that the book does well but I sincerely hope that in future editions of Motherfoclóir, the typos and errors and the crap etymology will disappear. There is so much about the Twitter feed and the book that is admirable and I would love to be completely positive about it.

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Gandy Dancer

Gandy dancer is a term from the old days of the expansion of the railroads in America. A gandy dancer was a labourer who hooked an iron bar under the tracks, then ‘danced’ on the bar to lever the track up so that others could shovel stones and gravel underneath it.

There is no certainty about where the term came from, but there are many stories and claims. The iron pole used was called a gandy, but whether this came from the expression gandy dancer or gave rise to it is not known. Some claim that a gandy dancer was originally a fairground term for a dealer in cheap shlock. Some claim it was used by George Borrow, who died in 1881. Others say that there was a Gandy Manufacturing Company in Chicago, but there is no evidence of this. A gandy is also Newfoundland slang for a pancake and an English term for a goose.

This uncertainty was like shite to a bluebottle for Daniel Cassidy. Unfortunately, there was no appropriate term available in Irish, but he managed to find something which was close enough to fool a few suckers. His candidate was cinnte, which he claimed meant ‘constant’. In other words, the gandy dancers were ‘constantly’ dancing on the iron rod to lift the rails.

Why isn’t this a good candidate? Well, firstly, there’s the pronunciation. Imagine that somewhere there is a town in England called Kinchester. Knock off the –ster at the end, and you have a reasonable approximation for cinnte. Kin-cha, gandy. Kin-cha, gandy. Not even slightly similar, are they? And in case you don’t believe me, look at focloir.ie (http://www.focloir.ie/ga/dictionary/ei/certain), which gives sound files for the word cinnte in the three main dialects of Irish.

As for the meaning, Cassidy does his usual trick of distorting the truth and rewriting definitions. Cinnte is defined by Ó Dónaill as certain, sure; definite; mean, stingy; constant. You can find the full entry here: http://www.teanglann.ie/ga/fgb/cinnte  Even though constant is given as one meaning in the dictionary, (apparently fearthainn chinnte can be used to mean constant rain, though I’ve never heard it) I don’t think any Irish speaker would give it this meaning independent of any other clues. Cinnte means sure, certain, and it’s a very common word. If someone said damhsa cinnte to me, it would make me think of it as certain dancing, or definite dancing, or determined dancing, (whatever they might mean!) not constant or continual dancing. And even if it did mean constant, isn’t this a bit strange, in English or in Irish? After all, if someone is called a dancer, isn’t this because they perform their ‘dance’ on the iron rod most of the time? So why would it be so important to specify that they do it a lot?

Of course, Cassidy again displays his ignorance of the language by mixing modern spellings from Ó Dónaill with old spellings from Dinneen, and he copies the phrase fearthainn chinnte wrongly as fearthainn cinnte, showing once again that he knew nothing about the language.

In short, wherever gandy dancer comes from, we can be quite sure it doesn’t come from the Irish adjective cinnte. This claim was first made relatively recently by a narcissistic idiot in California and it is high time it was consigned to the dustbin of crap etymologies along with the rest of Cassidy’s ridiculous theories.

Beak

According to Daniel Cassidy, in his lying piece of trash, How The Irish Invented Slang, the word beak, an old English slang term for a constable or a judge or a schoolmaster, comes from the Irish beachtaí or beachtaire.

According to Cassidy’s book:

Beak, n., a judge, a magistrate.

Beachtaí, beachtaire, n., a critic; a correcting, captious judgmental person; fig. a judge. Beacht, al. beachd (Gaelic), n., judgment, opinion.

What’s wrong with Cassidy’s argument? Well, the main thing is the pronunciation. Most people reading Cassidy’s book would probably assume that beachtaí is pronounced as beek-tay or beek-tee. Cassidy probably thought the same, because his knowledge of Irish was practically nil. In fact, beachtaí is pronounced bach-tee, with the ch more or less an h sound or the ch of Scottish loch or the j of Baja California. It sounds nothing like beak. As for the meaning, a beachtaí (or its variant beachtaire) is a quibbler, a hair-splitter. It does not mean a judge. As we’ve pointed out before, where the letters fig. are used in Cassidy’s book, they stand for figment of Cassidy’s imagination, not for figuratively as they do in most books. O’Dónaill’s dictionary defines it as “Critical, captious, person.”

It is true that beachd can be a noun meaning judgement in Scottish Gaelic but Scottish Gaelic is a different language entirely. This meaning isn’t found in Irish.

So where does beak come from? The simple answer is, we don’t know. You can find a few suggested origins here: http://www.businessballs.com/clichesorigins.htm

Ring

This is one of the many cases in Cassidy’s book where he ignores the correct and straightforward explanation in favour of a creaky and unconvincing origin of his own invention. As he says in the book:

But if a button is … ringing (roinn, pron. ring, to deal) in a crooked deck, every Punter is a loser. (Page 52)

In other words, Cassidy is claiming that ringing, a slang word for substitution, is from the Irish word roinn, the basic meaning of which is divide. Why a word meaning divide or deal would acquire the meaning of substitute is not explained, but then Cassidy didn’t put this one in the glossary, so presumably he was well aware that it was bullshit.

In reality, the term ringing dates back to the early nineteenth century as an expression for substitution, probably from the bell-ringing phrase ‘to ring the changes’. Then in the late nineteenth century, we get the expression a dead ringer, meaning a horse which resembles another horse and is substituted for it to banjax the gambling odds.

Cassidy’s claim is simply nonsense, like nearly everything in How The Irish Invented Slang. Incidentally, there is an even sillier explanation doing the rounds for dead ringer, that it refers to people putting telephones into graves in case they were buried alive. This just goes to show that people are absolute suckers for fake etymology.

Three Kinds of Lies

There are three principal kinds of lies among the ‘etymologies’ in Cassidy’s ridiculous book How The Irish Invented Slang.

Plagiarism

As we have said before, there are many entries in Cassidy’s book which are plagiarised. Dozens of expressions were already in the public domain before they appeared in Cassidy’s book (though most of these are also fanciful and unlikely to be correct.)  In most cases, the Great Fraud didn’t acknowledge where he got them. Examples: longshoreman from loingseoir, ballyhoo from bailiú, snazzy from snas, smashing from is maith sin, slug from slog, etc.

Single words

In many cases, Cassidy found individual words in English and English slang. He then hit the Irish dictionaries and tried to find words which were a vague match for his English words. So, suppose Cassidy had decided that the term to drink a toast to someone doesn’t have anything to do with toasted bread. So he hits the dictionary and finds the word tost, meaning silence. Well, you propose a toast and of course, everyone is silent while they’re drinking. So it’s from the Irish tost meaning silence.

However, Cassidy often changed his story. (Slum was originally from saol lom, according to Cassidy but in the book it’s from ‘s lom é.) So, suppose he was looking through a dictionary and happened to notice the word tóstal, meaning assembly, muster, array or pageant. And suppose Cassidy decided that this, not tost, is a better origin of toast. So, he writes a ‘dictionary definition’:

tóstal – assembly, muster, pageant; a public display (of respect etc.)

and then adds a few dictionary references, so that a casual observer might assume that this was taken verbatim from a dictionary. Of course, the really impressive bit, about the public display of respect, would be a complete fiction invented in California by a man who didn’t speak any Irish. (In reality, I made this example up using Cassidy’s ‘methodology.’)

Phrases

Of course, if Cassidy had been restricted to plagiarism and words which accidentally have a phonetic similarity and some similarity of meaning, his book would have been little more than a pamphlet. Most of his ‘etymologies’ were phrases.

Here’s how it works. Cassidy finds the word bamboozle and decides it must be Irish. So, he hits the Irish dictionaries and looks for something that corresponds to it. Of course, there’s no suitable Irish word. So, this pretentious dimwit – who doesn’t speak any Irish at all – cobbles together a ‘well-known phrase’ in Irish. First, he finds the word bamba, which means tiresomeness or frustration. So far, so good. But what about the oozle? So, he looks in the dictionary and finds uasal, which means noble, but also has a subsidiary meaning of ‘fairy’. Great! In ‘Irish’, bamba uasal is a phrase meaning frustrated by the fairies, thwarted by supernatural forces.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that. It doesn’t exist. I just made it up ten minutes ago as an example of how Cassidy’s mind didn’t work. There are hundreds of similar expressions in Cassidy’s book: uath dubh; gus óil; gruaim béil; gearr-ól úr etc. etc.

I note with great sadness that people are still spreading this nonsense. For example, a couple of weeks ago, someone called Glopweiller (or Daniel Patrick Galvi) put a reference to Cassidy’s dumbass theory about the origins of dude on Twitter. There is a lot of talk at the moment about the post-truth world we live in. The fact is, it’s only post-truth if we decide to let that happen, by ignoring the facts and not checking them. I suggest we make that an additional New Year’s resolution – to check every fact, however trivial, before passing it on and contributing to the morass of ignorance out there.

muggy

According to the late Daniel Cassidy, muggy comes from the Irish múchta but this theory, like the rest of Cassidy’s theories, is about as useful as a chocolate teapot, as Stan so ably demonstrates in this post.

Sesquiotica

I wore the wrong shirt today, I’ll tell you that right away.

You know how sometimes some people will say “Well, dressed like that, you were asking for trouble”? I’m not generally sympathetic to these judgements, but oh boy, today it was real for me. That thin cotton shirt decorated with a riot of colourful tropical flora was… a bad idea.

I got mugged.

By the weather.

OK, I got outside and found the weather was muggy. Very muggy. I wound up as soaked and woozy as a sot, and my shirt stuck to me like so much muck. Yuck. A rolling stone gathers no moss, perhaps, but a walking son of rock in a floral shirt may be a fecund site for flora to take root.

Why would anyone make a tropical shirt in a clingy fabric? I have a few others that are made with coarse weaves, and…

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Is Irish a Superlanguage?

I am a big fan of Flann O’Brien (or Myles na Gopaleen, as he sometimes styled himself). However, I don’t agree with everything he wrote. For example, in one article, he claimed that English is inferior to Irish:

“A lady lecturing on the Irish language drew attention to the fact (I mentioned it myself as long ago as 1925) that while the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words, the Irish-speaking peasant uses 4,000. .. Your paltry English speaker apprehends sea-going craft through the infantile cognition which merely distinguishes the small from the big. If it’s small, it’s a boat, and if it’s large, it’s a ship. In his great book, An tOileánach, however, the uneducated Tomás Ó Criomhthain uses perhaps a dozen words to convey the concept of varying super-marinity — árthach long, soitheach, bád, naomhóg, bád raice, galbhád, púcán and whatever you’re having yourself.”

In a way, of course, the great Myles was joking here. However, the drift of his argument is serious enough. The claim that an ‘average’ English speaker uses 400 words is absurd and even the most stupid and limited English speaker of my acquaintance has a far larger vocabulary than 400 words. And a look at the example of ship/boat shows the contrived nature of the argument. How many Irish speakers know the official Irish for sloop, brig, ketch, frigate, destroyer, catamaran, dhow, junk, trireme, galleon, man o’war, dinghy, hydrofoil etc. etc.? (slúpa, bruig, cits, frigéad, scriostóir, catamarán, dabha, siunca, tríréim, gaileon, long chogaidh, báidín, duillárthach, in case you’re wondering!) Irish is not in a healthy state, and the ‘average’ Irish speaker these days has a fairly impoverished grasp of the language. That’s not the fault of the language, or of its speakers, but it reflects the fact that the resources available to Irish speakers and learners are severely restricted. Yet many people continue to claim, with Myles, that Irish is superior to English.

In a way, the claim made in Daniel Cassidy’s book is similar. Cassidy’s theory is flattering, which probably explains why so many otherwise rational human beings have chosen to believe it, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Cassidy’s nonsense suggests that Irish was such a lively and colourful language that it crossed the language barrier with ease, colouring the vulgar and expressive argot of American crime and street life, ultimately becoming modern English. Of course, Irish is an extremely colourful and expressive language and would have had no shortage of expressions to contribute, but in spite of that, there is no evidence at all that Irish exerted any influence on American slang or modern English (apart from a paltry handful of words like sourpuss and slew).

This unfortunate tendency is also found in claims about the vocabulary of the Irish language. For example, there are plenty of people in Belfast – usually people who don’t know much of the language – who will try to tell you that the word faiteadh is the Irish for warming yourself on a cold day by flapping your arms around. In fact, faiteadh just means flapping or fluttering. It’s used in phrases like i bhfaiteadh na súl (in the fluttering of an eye(lid)). It can describe someone flapping their arms, or a bird or a bat flapping around, or lots of other things. But the notion that Irish has ‘a word for warming yourself by flapping your arms’ is just nonsense and what’s more, it’s nonsense calculated to make out that Irish is somehow more sophisticated and more expressive than all other languages.

Another of these words is one which has probably been noticed and commented on by generations of Irish learners, a word found in Dinneen’s dictionary, the notorious sleith. This is not a modern word. It is found in ancient legal texts. Dinneen, the great amateur lexicographer, defined it as ‘carnal intercourse with a woman without her consent or knowledge’, which – on the face of it, seems like a concept unlikely to have a word devoted to it in many languages. However, the word (a verbal noun formed from a verb meaning – appropriately enough – ‘to creep’), is unfortunately an all too familiar concept in the modern world. As defined in the examples on eDIL, it simply means the rape of a sleeping or unconscious woman. One reference specifically mentions sleith trí mheisce (sleith through drunkenness). In other words, far from showing the richness and sophistication of Irish, it’s a fairly clear indication that jerks like Brock Turner and his appalling grunt of a father were as big a problem in ancient times as they are today.

Another one I came across recently is the claim that the word gránna can mean both ugly and nasty or nice in Irish, which is again suggesting that Irish is somehow different from other languages. In reality, this is from a minor error in a book by Seán Mac Corraidh on the translations of Seosamh Mac Grianna. In a translation of the play The White-Headed Boy, the line ‘It would be nice if after all the money were lost” was translated as Ba ghránna an t-airgead a bheith caillte, because the nice is ironic here and means terrible or awful. Mac Grianna could have used irony as well, and Nár dheas an t-airgead a bheith caillte (Wouldn’t it be just great if the money were lost!) would have worked just as well. Instead of that, he chose to translate the implied rather than the literal meaning. Someone has then seen the entry in the book, which gives no indication that this is ironic, and has decided that Irish is some bizarre quantum language where words can mean two opposing things at once, nasty and nice.

So, what’s happening here? Basically, it is a product of an inferiority complex. It is a case of people taking a minor language which is weakened and disadvantaged and trying to claim that the language in question, far from being down on its luck and struggling, is really a super-language, a language which is vastly superior to languages like English. I dislike this kind of claim, for all kinds of reasons. As I’ve explained before, all languages have strengths and weaknesses, but all languages are beautiful because all languages are products of human ingenuity. All of them. There are no primitive languages where people grunt and point and have no grammar. And there are no super-languages either.

I want Irish to survive. I love the language and use it as much as I can. I also try to learn words and enrich my knowledge of the vocabulary (there’s a great fun resource for learning interesting vocab on Twitter called TheIrishFor). But Irish doesn’t have to be anything special to justify its existence. It doesn’t have to be a language of miraculous expressive power to be treated with the same respect as major world languages. It doesn’t have to be better. It just has to be as good – which it is.

Trying to categorise languages – or indeed peoples or races – as inferior or superior is a dangerous and foolish game, and should be avoided by anyone with a brain.