I have frequently used this blog to criticise the tendency of people who know nothing about language or languages to set themselves up as experts on the subject. I am not just talking about Cassidy here but also about thousands of ordinary people who contribute ‘interesting’ little factoids to internet discussions, informing the world that the Celtic languages are of Phoenician origin or that Shakespeare’s language shows Irish features or that Jamaican slang is all Gaelic in origin. The instant internet expert is one of the worst aspects of the digital age. And however annoying I find it, I realise that for doctors, trying to save people’s lives while immature, dim-witted arseholes undermine their efforts at every turn, it must be so much worse than annoying!
Anyway, I recently heard an interview on RTÉ with an ‘expert’ on the Irish language in Liverpool. Most of this interview was reasonable enough, dealing with well-trodden ground relating to the history of the Irish community in Liverpool. However, the final bit was a typical piece of fake etymological nonsense which I have dealt with before. According to the expert, tara whack comes from tabhair aire, a mhac. (in reality, tara is a local variant of ta-ta, which is found all over England, while the original form of whack was whacker, and it was only shortened to whack in the 1960s!) He also quoted the tired old chestnut about smashing coming from the Irish is maith sin.
While I have also dealt with this question before, it is perhaps worth going through it again here.
Firstly, why do so many people believe that the English slang word smashing comes from the Irish is maith sin? Well, there is a phrase ‘Is maith sin’ which is found in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic (though it really isn’t very common) and which is pronounced much the same as smashin’ and which means ‘That’s good!’ Many people with no training in linguistics will automatically assume that that is enough to prove the connection. Case closed!
However, as we’ve mentioned before, there is an old maxim among etymologists, “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology”. In other words, a formal similarity is only ever a starting point for further research. In and of itself, it means nothing, because when a word in language A resembles another word in language B, this doesn’t automatically mean that A borrowed that word from B. There are other possibilities, such as that B borrowed it from A, or that both A and B borrowed it from C, or that A and B are related languages which developed from an earlier language and inherited a similar word from that parent-language (i.e. the two words are cognates). Or, of course, that the similarity is pure coincidence.
Coincidence is not as uncommon as you would think. We have already discussed a good example here, the fact that daor in Irish and dear in English are both adjectives, both mean expensive and they sound very similar. However, if we follow their etymologies back, they are completely unrelated, and any similarity is a matter of random chance.
Such random similarities are even less likely to be significant when the meaning is somewhere in the same ball-park but not identical. For example, we have had the example here of someone (not Cassidy) who claimed that the English word muck and the Irish muc (pig) must be related because pigs are mucky. Again, when you research the etymology of these words in their respective languages, there is no connection at all.
So, what about smashing and is maith sin? Well, firstly let me say, for the sake of transparency, that it is not impossible that smashing comes from is maith sin. I cannot categorically prove that there is no link. However, if we look at the facts objectively, it is highly improbable that there is any connection.
For one thing, the word smash meaning to break or destroy exists, and there is nothing odd about using a term meaning to hit or break with the meaning of excellent. Smash was first used in English (as a noun meaning a blow) in 1725 and it was first used to mean a success in the early 20th century. There are many metaphorical expressions using terms for breaking and hitting in the sense of success. We have a thumping good film, a hit,, a belter, or bostin’ (busting, a Midlands English expression) and of course, cracking, a term which has been used in just the same way as smashing since the 1820s. In other words, smashing coming from English smash is perfectly reasonable as an explanation.
There is no evidence of an Irish or Gaelic origin. Smashing does not occur first in Irish or Scottish contexts and there are no conscious references to it as an Irish or Gaelic expression. This is not what we find with hubbub, or shebeen, or banshee, or Tory, or claymore, or slogan.
Another problem is the way the two expressions are used. In English, smashing is used in lots of ways that do not correspond to the use of is maith sin. When smashing is used as a stand-alone phrase (Smashing! I like it!) then it’s reasonably close to the way is maith sin is used. However, a bilingual Irish or Gaelic speaker would not say “That’s really is maith sin!” or “We had an is maith sin time!” These make no sense. And when we look at the history of the word smashing, it is used as an adjective first and as a stand-alone phrase later, which we would not expect to find if this were a word of Irish or Gaelic origin.
I realise that this will disappoint a lot of people, because the claim about Is maith sin and smashing has been around for a long time and was certainly well-known long before Cassidy came along. There are many other folk etymologies like this, for example that shanty comes from seantí or that so long comes from slán or that mucker comes from mo chara or that longshoreman comes from loingseoir. None of these derivations is likely to be true, in spite of the fact that they are widely quoted and believed by people in Ireland and in Irish America.
Still less is there any chance of Cassidy’s claims being true, because we need to remember that Cassidy lied about virtually everything. Most of the phrases he gives are outright invention and where he does quote from dictionaries and other authoritative sources, he usually doctored and rewrote the material to make it sound more convincing. Almost nothing in Cassidy’s book is trustworthy and it is safer to simply assume that anything he said is untrue.