Tag Archives: fake Irish origins

Sneeze

I have noticed that many of the early posts on this blog get relatively little traffic, so I have decided to start republishing some of them.

 

Here’s another example of my issues with Cassidy’s theories. According to Cassidy, the English word sneeze derives from Irish:

Sní as (pron. snee’as, flowing, dripping, leaking, coursing out of) is not to be sneezed at. It is the Irish origin of the English sneeze.

There are several points to be noted here. First of all, the phrase sní as doesn’t exist in Irish as a way of referring to sneezing. Nor could it exist, as far as I can see. The word sní refers to slow movement of liquids, such as a running, a dripping or a flowing, or to the slow movement of snails or slugs. Here is the entry from Mícheál Ó Siochfhradha’s Irish-English, English-Irish Dictionary published in 1973 by the Talbot Press in Dublin:

Sní, f. flowing slowly (as water); crawling (as snail)

As sneezing is one of the fastest and most dynamic actions the human body is capable of, it hardly seems likely that sní would be used to describe it! It would be far more likely to be used (if at all) as a way of describing a nose running because of a cold.

Then again, there is an Irish word for sneeze. It’s in all the dictionaries. Sraoth is the word. So if you want to say “I sneezed”, you would say lig me sraoth. If you want to say ‘I was sneezing’, you say bhí mé ag sraothartach (or in my Ulster dialect, bhí mé ag srofartaigh).

And last but by no means least, we have to look at borrowings between languages. Generally speaking, languages borrow words that they don’t have a word for themselves. Thus banshee, or kosher, or imam have been borrowed into English because English doesn’t have words for those concepts. But people have always sneezed, so why wouldn’t English have had a word for sneezing before the Irish gave them an expression?

Of course, the English did have an expression for sneezing. It’s the word sneezing. English is a Germanic language, which is why Irish fear is ‘man’ in English and ‘Mann’ in German, or Irish lámh is ‘hand’ in English and ‘Hand’ in German, because the core vocabulary of the Germanic languages is related. If we look at words for sneeze in the Germanic languages, sneeze is ‘niesen’ (pronounced ‘neezen’) in German and ‘niezen’ (neesa) in Dutch. Apparently all of these words originally had an f in front of them which in English was somehow replaced with an s, probably on the analogy of words like sniff, snort, snivel. As it happens, the version with f- is not found in any Old English text but this doesn’t mean it never existed.

By the time of Chaucer, the word already existed in English as snesen. The words sneeze, niesen and niezen are obviously the same word (and phonetically far closer than many of Cassidy’s fake associations like block and bealach or sách úr and sucker) and none of them has any direct connection with Irish.

Bounce

According to Daniel Cassidy’s lunatic work of fake linguistics, How The Irish Invented Slang, the word bounce, as in to throw someone out of a bar, and bouncer, a doorman, derive from the Irish phrase bain as, which Cassidy defines as ‘to extract out of; to remove from, to eject, to extract from’. As we have said before, Cassidy frequently ignored the logical and obvious origin of words and went off on a wild goose-chase looking for some bizarre speculative Irish origin. That is exactly what Cassidy did here.

He says that the OED gives the word bounce as origin unknown. While I don’t have a full copy of the OED handy, I found a pocket OED online which suggests a connection with German bunsen or Dutch bons, both meaning to beat or thump. What is not in any doubt is that bounce is an old word in English, dating back to the 13th century. Furthermore, bain as might have these meanings but would be used of a tooth or something like that. An Irish speaker would talk about throwing somebody out (duine a chaitheamh amach as an áit).

From the Irish side, the claim is inherently improbable. When we add the fact that bounce is an ancient word in English and that its meaning is entirely appropriate in the context, Cassidy’s claim is revealed as the barking mad nonsense it really is.

Hoodoo

According to Cassidy, the term ‘hoodoo’ derives from an Irish expression uath dubh, which according to Cassidy means:

 Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing. Uath, n., a form or shape; a spectre or phantom; dread, terror, hate. Old Gaelic name for the hawthorn. Dubh, (pron. doo, duv), adj., dark; black; malevolent, evil; wicked; angry, sinister; gloomy, melancholy; strange, unknown.

 (O’Donaill, 457, 1294; Dineen, 374, 1287; De Bhaldraithe, English-Irish Dictionary, 755; Dwelly, 988)

 Looking at this list of dictionaries, you would think that Cassidy had actually found the phrase uath dubh recorded in one or all of them. In fact, no dictionary records the phrase uath dubh. Uath is in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, where it is described as a literary term meaning fear or horror (for literary, read ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘not in current use.’) It is also given in Dineen, where it is defined as:

            A form or shape, a spectre or phantom; dread, terror; hate.

 It is not found in De Bhaldraithe, which is an English-Irish dictionary and seems to have been thrown in to make the list of references look more impressive. Dwelly is a Scottish Gaelic dictionary and therefore quite irrelevant in this context.

 There is also another old-fashioned term uath, an entirely different word, which means the whitethorn bush.

 So, the situation is this. The first part of Cassidy’s definition above (Uath Dubh, (pron. h-úŏ doo): dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing) was invented by Cassidy. And not only is the supposed Irish source of ‘hoodoo’ not in any dictionary or any other source, Cassidy mixes up two quite separate words and throws in the adjective spiky for good measure because a whitethorn bush is spiky!

 If you are sympathetic to Cassidy, you are probably saying, if uath exists and dubh exists, couldn’t Cassidy be right? Couldn’t the two words have been combined by Irish speakers to mean an evil apparition?

 I don’t think so. Even leaving aside the fact that uath was an old-fashioned word by the 19th century, where is the evidence that the Irish ever believed in a supernatural being called the uath dubh? Why hasn’t this word survived in any books or poems or stories or songs? Why didn’t the collectors of Irish folklore find any trace of it? Why isn’t it as well known as the banshee (bean sí) or the pooka (púca)?

 Suppose someone decided that in English there was a supernatural being called a spritegoblin. Is it enough for them to prove that the words sprite and goblin both exist in English? Wouldn’t you expect them to find specific references to the compound word spritegoblin?

 Unfortunately, Cassidy’s book is haunted by hundreds of spritegoblins, made-up phrases which don’t exist outside of Cassidyworld.  Cassidy, on his own admission, spoke no Irish at all. He claimed that he ‘checked’ his words with a native speaker of Irish. Exactly how he did this is unclear. I have visions of him walking into an Irish bar, asking if anyone was an Irish speaker, showing the putative native speaker his list of words and asking them if they were OK, and then when they nodded sagely and said ‘Oh yes!’ he would buy them a pint as a reward. Maybe this is a bit cynical on my part, but  I can’t imagine that he did the thing that anyone would do if they seriously wanted to prove their case. I’m sure he never gave a list of words and phrases like uath dubh and sách úr to native speakers in a blind test to see whether they really are recognisable as what Cassidy thought they meant. Cassidy obviously preferred to include all kinds of rubbish and not check his facts at all because with even a slight scrutiny of his materials he would have ended up with a pamphlet rather than a book. 

 The origin of hoodoo is a mystery but there is absolutely no evidence linking it to the Irish language or to the island of Ireland. Unless Cassidy’s supporters can find even one reference to the uath dubh somewhere in the vast corpus of Irish literature, we can reasonably assume that it doesn’t exist.

 Chance of Cassidy being correct: I’ll be generous this time – 0.0001%!