Tag Archives: fact-based

The Tyranny of Narrative

One of the most noticeable aspects of Cassidy’s work (and indeed of much pseudoscience and pseudohistory) is that it is driven far more by narrative than by facts. The story takes over and if it doesn’t fit the evidence, it’s the evidence that is sidelined and ignored.

And of course, it’s easy to regard Cassidy’s book as a story (or a myth, if you prefer). All great stories begin with some revelation: a bottle with a message in it; a door to another dimension; a letter delivered by an owl. In this case, it was a book willed to Cassidy by a dying friend, an Irish dictionary.

The book was nearly thrown into the bin. For a second, the whole future of American linguistics teetered on the brink! But – phew! – Cassidy decided to keep the dictionary and read a word a night (maybe something with pictures would have been more appropriate?) Anyway, Cassidy, the loner, the maverick, the little man from the slums of Brooklyn, had an epiphany and realized that English is full of Irish. He took on the villains (academic linguists and Anglophiles) using his magic powers of street smarts and self-belief. After all, academic linguists and lexicographers don’t know street words (they sing madrigals and attend hunt balls with people called Lucretia and Sebastian in their spare time – they NEVER watch DVDs of The Wire or Goodfellas) and this is their weakness, their Achilles’ heel.

Eventually, our hero defeats his enemies with these magic powers (along with his flying monkeys like Peter Quinn and Joe Lee). He demonstrates his worth with the sheer volume of his examples and his sales and ‘proves’ that Irish America did not lose its language. No, rather the Irish language BECAME American English. So hurrah, the language and culture were not lost, merely misplaced until they were rediscovered by one plucky little motor-mouth from the Big Apple. Admittedly, it’s a great story, even if it is the purest of horseshit.

I was thinking of this recently when I received another comment from Cassidy’s sister, Susan Cassidy Connors, an old friend of Cassidyslangscam. Among several interesting points she raised was that she had never quite believed Cassidy’s story about how How The Irish Invented Slang came to be written.

As his sister says, everything Cassidy claimed is suspect. He was a liar and dishonesty was his default position. However, there are more substantial reasons to doubt Cassidy’s story about the origins of How The Irish Invented Slang.

For one thing, there are two versions of the story. In one of them, Cassidy was bequeathed a box of books by someone called Kevin O’Dowd in 2000. “He left me a box of Irish books in his will. One of the books was a pocket Irish dictionary, a focloir poca. I was in Ireland making a film at the time and thought ‘I’m too old to learn Irish, it’s too hard.’ But I told my wife, Clare, ‘I can’t throw that away. It was a sacred gift from Kevin.’”

Here’s the other version. In the book, it says that Cassidy was about to bin the book when his wife said “You can’t throw that book out, Danny. It’s a gift from Kevin. Why don’t you put it on your nightstand and look up a word a night?”

OK, memory is fickle but which of these two versions is correct? (If either of them is!)

Another bit I’m a little suspicious of is that according to the first account, Cassidy was in Ireland making a film in the year 2000. What film was this? Did it ever get finished? We know he produced a couple of documentaries in the mid 1990s. But what was this film in 2000?

Then there are the numerous examples he gives in various sources of the words which started to make him think that Irish had had such a major effect on English. Some of them are believable enough. You might well think that slug comes from Irish slogadh, to swallow. And I personally think it’s possible that snazzy comes from Irish snas meaning polish. Also, these are both basic words and would be in a learner’s dictionary. However, though I don’t have a copy of the Foclóir Póca that Cassidy had, I’m quite sure there is no word camag meaning a trick in it (camag is Scottish Gaelic, not Irish). I would also doubt that rare words like dorc and duirb are in a pocket dictionary. Perhaps if anyone does have a copy of the Foclóir Póca, they could check it and let us know. It seems to me that Cassidy is talking about words he found later, when he started looking at larger dictionaries. These are not the words he initially noticed in his pocket dictionary.

In short, it seems to me that Susan Cassidy Connors is right. This little story about the origins of Cassidy’s theory is not an accurate description of what really happened. Like everything Cassidy wrote and said, it has been doctored and manipulated carefully to produce the desired effect – parting suckers from their money.