Tag Archives: etymology

A Wren Pissing In The Sea

A few years ago, I wrote a piece called Gosh Darn It, Danny in which I said that a bit more nonsense on IrishCentral would be – as we say in Irish – like a wren pissing in the sea. (Mar mhún dreoilín san fharraige.) Jeremy Butterfield, an expert lexicographer and linguist, commented that it was a great expression and that he would squeeze it into English conversations whenever he had the opportunity. Then, a year or two later, I learned that the Welsh use the same idiom (fel piso dryw bach yn y môr). This started me wondering where the expression originally came from, so I decided to do a little research.

Strangely, one of the oldest known proverbs in history is very similar to this idiom. It is found in the Sumerian language: The fox, having urinated into the sea, said: ‘The depths of the sea are my urine!’

However, this Sumerian expression doesn’t seem to have left any direct mark on the world’s languages and it is not until a few hundred years ago that we find it in contexts where it is more likely to have spread into Irish or Welsh. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, a similar expression is found in a 1590 work (Deviz Familiers) by the French writer Gabriel Meurier:  peu ayde, disçoit le formy, pissant en mer en plein midy’. (A little helps, said the ant, pissing in the sea in broad daylight’.) Within a few years, a similar expression was recorded in English, in a letter from a man called Philip Gawdy to his brother, but in the Gawdy version, the ant has become a wren and he omits the word piss (bycause the wrenn sayde all helpte when she … in the sea).

In other words, this is an expression that seems to have formerly existed in a number of European languages that interacted regularly with one another: French, English, Irish and Welsh. However, it seems to have been lost in English and probably in French. Why this should be is a mystery, as it is a good expression.

When I looked at this question, it reminded me of another phrase which I found beautiful when I began learning Irish in my early teens, the phrase bóín Dé (little cow of God) which is the usual term for the insect known as a ladybird or ladybug in English. I later learned that phrases with the same meaning are found in many of the Slavic languages (boża krówka in Polish, Божья коровка in Russian) and I wondered why. The answer is, of course, that this was formerly widely spread throughout many European languages. In English, it was known as Godyscow in Middle English and in French it was vache de Dieu. Gradually, other expressions, mostly to do with the Virgin Mary, have supplanted these names in many European languages, leaving Irish and the Slavic east with what looks like a special connection, whereas in reality what we have today are just the remnants of something far more extensive.

If you are the kind of person who enjoys etymology and word history, you will find a lot more of it (and much better researched) over at Jeremy Butterfield’s blog: https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com.

Cassidese Glossary – Teem

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

The late Daniel Cassidy claimed that the English word teem is derived from the Irish word taom. The word teem in English is similar in meaning to the almost identically-pronounced Irish word taom, which means to empty or bale out. However, in reality, both of these words are ancient in their respective languages. Both English teem and Irish taom are borrowings from some word akin to Norse toema. Neither is a borrowing from the other.

Incidentally, the similarity between teem and taom was discussed in the glossary of Loretto Todd’s 2000 book Green English, so this is a claim made before Cassidy embarked on his etymological hoax.

Cassidese Glossary – Sucker

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

The late Daniel Cassidy, in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that sucker (in the sense of stooge or naïve person) comes from the Irish sách úr meaning ‘a fresh, well-fed fellow’ or ‘fat cat’ ready to be fleeced.

As usual with Cassidy’s claims, the phrase sách úr is not found together (as noun and adjective) in any Irish text, so we will just have to examine the two constituent words to see if they could be used in this way.

Firstly, úr does mean fresh or new. Sách is primarily an adjective meaning sated, full, well-fed. Its main use in some dialects (though not in mine: we use measartha) is as an adverb, as the equivalent of words like ‘fairly’ or ‘pretty’ in English.

Bhí sé sách maith. (It was fairly good, good enough)

But in Cassidy’s phrase, the word sách is obviously a noun. In the Irish dictionaries (such as Ó Dónaill) there is a noun sách meaning a well-fed person and the word is familiar to almost all Irish speakers from the proverb Ní thuigeann sách seang, má thuigeann ní in am. (The well-fed do not understand the slender, if they do it’s too late.) But just because something is used as a noun in a proverb doesn’t mean you can use it as a noun in any circumstances. Proverbs have their own rules, in Irish and in English. For example, in English you can say “Only the good die young.” But you can’t say “*That man is a real good” or “*That family are really nice – they’re all goods!”

If you have any Irish, check out some uses of sách in this excellent website, Pota Focal –

http://www.potafocal.com/Search.aspx?Text=s%c3%a1ch&Lang=ga

There are lots and lots of references on Pota Focal where the word is being used as an adverb and at least one where it is a noun, but in that case it occurs with seang and is a clear reference to the proverb.

So, I am confident that sách would not be used as Cassidy says. Of course, we have to remember that Cassidy didn’t know any Irish at all. In Irish, there are plenty of expressions which could be used to mean gull or sucker: boigéisí; gabhdán; glasóg; mothaolaí, and Irish speakers would have used an expression like these rather than sách úr.

Cassidese Glossary – Sponduliks

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong. 

The slang term sponduliks, a noun meaning money, first makes its appearance in English in the United States in the year 1856. There is no clear derivation for this word, though some scholars believe that it is linked to the Greek word spondylikos, from spondylos, a seashell used as currency (the Greek word means literally “vertebra”).

This doesn’t seem particularly convincing but it is certainly more convincing than the claim made by the late Daniel Cassidy in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang. In that book, Cassidy claimed that sponduliks represented the Irish phrase sparán tuilteach, which he defined as ‘overflowing purse, overflowing money bags’. Sparán is the usual irish term for a purse or wallet. (The sporran worn as part of traditional Highland dress is from a Scottish Gaelic cognate of sparán.) However, sparán tuilteach, if it existed, would be pronounced as sporran tull-chah, which sounds nothing like spondulicks.

It is well-known among linguists that individual words rather than phrases are borrowed between languages, and phrases are only borrowed where the phrases are well-established clichés like bête noire or éminence grise. Also, tuilteach is the adjective derived from the word tuile, meaning flood. In other words, sparán tuilteach would mean something like a flooding purse. Of course, sparán tuilteach is a fantasy phrase and does not exist in the Irish language. There is no reason to believe that any Irish speaker would use it instead of something like sparán teann (a tight purse) or sparán lán (a full purse). Strangely, Cassidy also throws in the word tuilleadh (meaning increasing or more) with tuilteach. Tuilleadh has no etymological connection with tuilteach, so this is both confusing and nonsensical.

Cassidese Glossary – Sneaky

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

According to Cassidy, the English word sneak comes from the Irish snighim (sním in the modern, post-reform spelling) but apparently, sneaky comes from the adjective snagach (snaggah). This sounds nothing like sneaky and is not etymologically related to snighim. In reality, the mainstream dictionaries trace it, quite logically, to the Old English snican which is related to cognates in the other Germanic languages as well as to the root of the English word snake.

Cassidese Glossary – Shag

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

The word shag usually refers to sexual intercourse in Ireland or Britain. In the USA, it is often used with the meaning of ‘to chase’, but there is some doubt about whether both meanings are the same word or two separate words that happen to sound the same. Shag in the sense of copulate dates back to 1788 and probably derives from an obsolete word for to shake or waggle. Shag as in to chase after something might be an extension of this, or a version of the word shack in the sense of wander around.

Daniel Cassidy, in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the word shag comes from the Irish word seilg, meaning to hunt. This word is pronounced shellig and does not sound like the English shag. The meaning is not a good match and there is no evidence for a connection.

Cassidese Glossary – Pet

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

In his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, the late Daniel Cassidy claimed that the English word pet comes from the Irish or Scottish Gaelic word peata, with the same meaning of a tame animal. What he does not say is that this is a claim that has been made many times before by authorities like the Oxford English Dictionary, as you can see from this link:

A pet topic

Cassidese Glossary – Nan

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

Cassidy claims that nan comes from the Irish word nain or naing for grandmother. In fact this is an English expression for “children’s nurse,” 1795, from the widespread child’s word for “female adult other than mother” (compare Greek nanna “aunt”), perhaps also influenced by a pet-name for Anne. As Cassidy says, there are words like nain and naing given by Dinneen in his dictionary, but they are not defined as “grandmother”. Dinneen says that it means a fostermother, while naing mhór means a grandmother (O’N.); he also adds the note “cf. Nanny and Nain, used for grandmother.”

The reference to O’N means the manuscript dictionary of Tadhg Ó Neachtain, which was written in the year 1739. In other words, this is earlier by several generations than the earliest reference to nanny meaning a nurse or grandmother in English.

In other words, this is interesting and worth investigating. However, it is also worth noting that Cassidy didn’t carry out any meaningful research on this word. He merely noted that there is a word nain meaning a foster-mother or a grandmother in Irish and asserted that this was the origin of the English term but without making any attempt to identify where this word came from or whether there were other candidates. And while the Ó Neachtain reference is early and interesting, there is not much other evidence for the word in Irish. It’s not in the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language. Furthermore, it occurs in other languages. For example, in Welsh, nain is the usual north Wales version of the word for grandmother, and it dates back to the 14th century.

Personally, I doubt whether the Irish term is the origin of the English expression but it is certainly worth looking at in greater depth.

Cassidese Glossary – Mayhem

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong. 

According to the etymological hoaxer, Daniel Cassidy, this word, which means a disturbance or trouble, is derived from the Irish word maidhm, which means an outbreak. This sounds plausible enough until you examine the evidence properly.

Maidhm is pronounced similarly to the English word mime. It does mean an outbreak. It is used of something which has been held in and suddenly breaks through. So a maidhm shneachta is a maidhm of snow, an avalanche. A landslide is a maidhm thalún, while a maidhm phortaigh is a distinctly Irish natural disaster, the bogslide.

So, can maidhm be used for riot or civil disturbance? Irish is very rich in words and phrases for disturbances or hubbub (an Irish word in itself). Trioblóid, ciréib, cíor thuathail, cath, ruaille-buaille, rí-rá, fuirse má rabhdaileam. Maidhm is not one that would normally be used. If someone said “Bhí maidhmeanna i mBéal Feirste aréir”, an Irish speaker would take this to mean that there were landslides of some kind in Belfast, not that there were riots.

When maidhm is used about warfare, it has a very specific meaning, namely that your defensive line has broken and that your troops are running away. In other words, it means a rout or catastrophic defeat. This is not at all what the word mayhem means, of course.

And in any case, the word mayhem doesn’t sound much like maidhm and it has an absolutely clear and undisputed history going back to the 13th century, before any Irish ghettoes appeared in the English-speaking world. It derives from Norman French and is a legal term.

Cassidese Glossary – Mavourneen

For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.

This is part of the vocabulary of stage-Irishness. It was used widely in sentimental ballads and plays in the 19th century and there was never any doubt about its Irish origin. All dictionaries and language experts accept that it’s a version of mo mhuirnín, which means ‘my darling’. In other words, it has nothing to do with Cassidy’s thesis.