Tag Archives: etymology

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.

 

Putting The Kibosh On Cassidy

In Daniel Cassidy’s worthless book of fake etymology, he claimed that the word kibosh or kybosh is of Irish origin. Cassidy was certainly not the first to claim this and his sole authority for saying it was a website called Cork Slang Online. The usual claim in relation to its supposed Irish origin is that it comes from caidhp bháis or caidhp an bháis or caip bháis, meaning a cap or cape of death. Some sources also mention cie báis, but cie is not a possible word in Irish orthography.

While caidhp bháis is given as the name of a fungus in Irish dictionaries (the death cap), there is no evidence that this is an ancient expression and it may have been composed on the pattern of the English phrase death cap in the 20th century.

There are various explanations for the meaning of caidhp bháis as a possible origin of kybosh. Some people say that it was the black cap used by a judge when pronouncing the death sentence. (I would use caipín dubh, though it doesn’t seem to be in any dictionary.) Others say that it is from the pitch cap, a punishment used by the British in Ireland where a cap of burning pitch was placed on a person’s head. This is more commonly a caipín pice in Irish. On line, I have also found claims that the caidhp bháis was a word for a candle snuffer or smóladán. There seems to be no independent evidence for any of these claims.

Only the mushroom explanation is in the dictionaries. Corpas na Gaeilge (a huge corpus of Irish material from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries) gives a number of examples of caidhp but nothing with caidhp bháis or caidhp an bháis.

We don’t know who first suggested this Irish origin. Charles Earl Funk said that he received this information in a letter from the poet Pádraig Colum. This is not dated but could have been in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s. However, the earliest certain reference is in the Cornell Daily Sun from the first of December 1936, where there is an account of a lecture by a man called Conboy about the Irish origin of English words. He gives words like shanty and quid (as in a quid of tobacco, which he derives from Irish cuid, a piece) as well as kibosh.

“Kibosh,” Conboy said today, “comes from ‘caip,’ which means cap, and bais,’ which means death. “It originated in Ireland about the time of Judge Norbury, who was called the ‘hanging judge.’ When the people would see him reaching for the black cap he wore when giving the death sentence, they would say: ‘The prisoner is ‘ finished. The judge Is putting on the caip bais – kibosh. Thus when we say we ‘put the kibosh on something,’ we mean we have disposed of it.” (Editor’s note: Some authorities hold that “kibosh” might be of Yiddish origin.)

Strangely, while there is no evidence of caidhp bháis being used in the language long ago, there is certainly evidence of its existence in the language now. For example, there is this, from an article by Donncha Ó hÉallaithe in the online journal Beo in 2012:

Trí dhiúltú do na logainmneacha a bhí ar bhéal na ndaoine, rinne an Donnabhánach a chuid féin, chun caidhp an bháis a bhualadh ar an nGaeilge sa gcuid mhór den tír ina raibh an Ghaeilge in uachtar roimh an Drochshaol. (By rejecting the placenames which were in popular use, O’Donovan did his own bit to put the kibosh on the Irish language in the large area of the country where Irish was in the ascendant before the Famine.)

Unfortunately, this proves nothing. The story of the Irish origin of kibosh is so common and well-known that it is hardly surprising that people have started to use the terms caidhp bháis or caidhp an bháis in Irish in recent years. It sounds convincing and natural enough. However, without some evidence of its use in Irish before speculation about kibosh began, we can’t accept these modern uses as evidence for an Irish origin of the phrase.

There are various theories about the real origin of the word kibosh. You will find an account of these different theories by following this link:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/kibosh.htm