Tag Archives: fake etymologies

Cassidese Glossary – Spic(k) and Span

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.

Daniel Cassidy, in his etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the phrase spic(k) and span comes from Irish spiaca’s bán. It doesn’t.

As usual with Cassidy, there is absolutely no evidence that the phrase spiaca’s bán exists. Cassidy found words in a dictionary and put them together to make what he thought would be a suitable phrase. The words which make up the phrase do exist, of course. Spiagaí is a word meaning brilliant or gaudy, and it has an alternative version spiaca which is used in some dialects. Bán means white. So the phrase could conceivably mean ‘brilliant white’, which is not really what spick and span means.

However, there are also very good reasons for regarding spiaca’s bán as impossible, or at least highly improbable. Firstly, while Irish speakers sometimes put ’s or agus between adjectives these days (because of Béarlachas or the influence of English), this is not traditional in the language. A big red book is leabhar mór dearg, not leabhar mór agus dearg. It is unlikely that an Irish speaker centuries ago would have done this.

Secondly, when there are pairs of adjectives like this, it is almost always the case that the one-syllable word comes first. Thus we have tinn tuirseach, dubh dóite, deas néata, beag bídeach. It would really have to be bán spiagaí, which obviously isn’t going to be the origin of spick and span.

As for the genuine origin, the term spick and span has been in the language for hundreds of years. It is found in Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, 1579: ‘They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe.’ Apparently ‘new’ was nearly always added to the phrase in these early references. English dictionaries tell us that the word spick is a variant of spike or nail, and span is an ancient term for a chip of wood (similar to Spon in German Rotspon), so the idea is that everything is new in an item, including the wood and the nails.

Cassidese Glossary – Keister

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 seems to be a common expression in America but it is completely unknown in Ireland. It is used to mean ‘bottom’ and seems to be an informal and inoffensive word often used with children. According to Daniel Cassidy in his work of pseudo-etymology, How The Irish Invented Slang, this word derives from the Irish word ciste meaning ‘chest, coffer, treasure, fund’. This is nonsense. The Irish word is derived from Latin, either directly or via an Old English borrowing.

The original Latin word is cista, which means a chest or box. This Latin word was also borrowed into German as Kiste, which is pronounced quite like keister. The German expression Kiste has several meanings. One is trunk or case and the other is what you use to sit on a trunk or case, your backside. This is the origin of the word keister in American speech. As I have already said, the term keister is completely unknown in Irish English, and the word ciste does not have the meaning of backside, so Cassidy’s claim is obviously incorrect.

Cassidese Glossary – Booly Dog

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.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the American English slang term ‘booly dog’ for a policeman comes from Irish:

Buailteach (pron. búěl-t’aċ), adj., (someone) disposed or given to striking, whacking or beating; fig. a policeman. (Dineen, 134)

Even if buailteach sounded anything like booly dog, there would be a problem with Cassidy’s assumption that all languages readily slip between grammatical categories as easily as English. Cassidy assumed that an adjective can be used as a noun, that the adjective buailteach can be used to mean someone who hits. (He assumed the same thing about many other words, for example, that gaosmhar, an adjective meaning wise, can be used to mean a wise person.) In fact, Irish words tend to be more clearly marked than English words. In English, the noun house can be used as an adjective in phrases like ‘the house wine’. In Irish, this is fion an tí, the wine of the house. The word buailteach is not a noun and it has no figurative meaning of ‘policeman’.

Buailteach is pronounced something like boolchah. It sounds nothing like booly dog.

Finally, the consensus seems to be that booly dog has some connection with bullies or with bulldogs, which seems a reasonable conjecture to me.