Tag Archives: folk etymology


The origins of the word punk are quite mysterious, as Cassidy claims in his crazy book How The Irish Invented Slang. However, it isn’t an American slang word of Irish origin. Why not? Well, firstly, the development seems to have been from a word meaning rotten wood used as tinder (dating to the 17th century and found all over New England), to anything rotten (including Johnny here!), to a prostitute, and thus to a male prostitute or a criminal’s apprentice.

Ponach does mean a boy, but it means a very young boy, as in a toddler. And it means that in Scottish Gaelic, not in Irish. (How much influence did Scottish Gaelic have on American slang, I ask myself?) It is pronounced ponna or ponnakh, which is not a great match for punk anyway.

In other words, this is more crazy, childish and badly-researched nonsense from the Great Fraud Cassidy.

The Linguist’s List

I recently stumbled upon an interesting source, at linguist.list.org. It is a list of the exchanges between the late Daniel Cassidy, phoney scholar, and members of the American Dialect Society in 2003 and 2004. There are a number of interesting things about this. One of the most amazing things is the level of politeness and deference shown by the members of the ADS towards a man who was obviously crazy, though I would have to say that his credentials look more impressive than they really were and they would have had no way of knowing that he didn’t know any Irish at all.

In his posts, Cassidy did exactly what he did in the book. He simply ignored anything which didn’t suit him, refused to give any evidence which related to the actual words (rather than the social context of the time, the number of Irish speakers in the community etc.) and kept up an endless stream of word-play which I suppose he must have thought was funny but just ends up being irritating and gives his comments a protective camouflage of jokiness.

However, the thing which really stands out in these exchanges is the number of words which are given completely different Irish derivations on this forum and in the book which was published three years later.

For example, in this list, he claims that he has solved the mystery of samollions (a slang term for lots of money, apparently). He says that it comes from suim oll i n’eineach. I imagine this is probably meant to be suim oll in éineacht, as he glosses it a huge amount (sum) all at once. In the book, this is given as suim oll amháin, which he claims means one big sum. (In reality, oll is a prefix in modern Irish so you would have to say ollsuim, not suim oll, so the claim is obvious rubbish anyway, whatever random element Cassidy chose to put at the end.)

Then there are the many expressions which are minced oaths in English and which begin with Holy (Holy Cow, Holy Mackerel). In this forum, Cassidy claimed that these are really the word oille (a nominal form of the adjective oll). I have never heard the word oille in use and I suspect that most Irish speakers would say the same, though it is certainly in the dictionary. Cassidy also claimed that this was pronounced something like holly, as he believed that Irish words that begin with a vowel are pronounced with a h-, which of course is completely untrue. This claim had been dropped in the book, so these oaths were half-English and half-Irish in that version. Cassidy claimed in the book that the Mackerel of Holy Mackerel is Mac Ríúil, Kingly Son. In this list, it is Mac Ríogh-fhuil, Son of King-blood, or as the Great Fraud put it, Great Royal-Blooded Son.

Then there’s growler, a pot used for getting a ‘carry-out’ of beer in the tenements of New York. In the book, this was given the unlikely Irish origin of gearr-ól úr (‘a fresh short-drink’). In this forum, it is given the even more unlikely derivation of gearradh ól leor, which Cassidy defines as ‘plenty of fast drink’. Apparently the gearradh (a word meaning cutting) is supposed to mean quick and Cassidy obviously didn’t know how the word leor is used in Irish.

There is another spate of comments on this list after the publication of Cassidy’s book. By that stage, none of the experts involved were in any doubt that Cassidy was a fraud and they said so clearly and repeatedly. One particular comment caught my eye, from a medievalist called Amy West:

“Having seen Cassidy’s signature block at the end of his archived posting on “big onion,” I’m wondering if there’s a much larger criticism of Cassidy’s work other than, as Grant said, the work being “unreliable and not to be trusted.” With his position as a professor of Irish Studies, should we be holding him to an even *higher* standard even though this is not an academic work? If so, would this be an instance of not academic fraud but *malpractice*? That is, we know what academics can and should do: look for tangible evidence, present points against, think and read critically, attempt to be objective and rational. He not only fails to do this, but engages in superficial thinking using superficial connections /resemblances, a lack of concrete evidence, with an agenda and not only a lack of recognition of counterarguments and other positions but derisive dismissal of them: things I expect more from my freshmen than a professional academic. And those are things I would not tolerate from my freshmen.”

Obviously she didn’t realise what we now know to be the case, that Cassidy was completely unqualified to be a professor of anything, but her comments are exactly right. Cassidy failed to follow even the most basic principles of genuine academic research. He was a fraud and it is bizarre that years later, I am still having to argue with deluded people who insist that Cassidy was some kind of linguistic guru.



Cassidy’s Cronies

Anyone who has been following this blog will be well aware of my attitude towards Daniel Cassidy, a fraudster who invented a large number of fake Irish expressions and claimed that these were the origin of common English words and phrases, even when these English words and phrases already had well-established etymologies. As part of his strategy to convince the weak-minded and gullible, this seasoned con-man invented a bizarre scenario in which a cabal of professional linguists and dictionary-makers conspired to hide the ‘fact’ that large numbers of words derived from Irish, thus simultaneously pandering to a sense of victimhood among Irish Americans and neatly explaining why there was no evidence to corroborate his ridiculous claims.

Of course, this cabal doesn’t exist. However, it is very interesting to look at the slime trails left by Cassidy’s supporters online. It is quite clear that the vast number of people who supported Cassidy are linked both to him and to each other in an unhealthy network of cronies. I have already mentioned some of these, but let’s just have a look at some of them again.

The principal crony seems to be Peter Quinn, an Irish-American writer. He is linked to many of the other names which keep cropping up again and again. For example, there are pictures online of Peter Quinn and Eamon Loingsigh together, the Eamon Loingsigh who published a badly-written and laughable article about Cassidy’s nonsense on his blog. Peter Quinn was one of the founders of the Irish American Writers and Artists, along with Cassidy himself, TJ English and Maureen Dezell. Maureen Dezell is quoted on the jacket of Cassidy’s book. In 2008, Cassidy appeared with Peter Quinn and others at an event sponsored by Glucksman Ireland House NYU (which boasts Peter Quinn and Pete Hamill on its board) Then there is David Meltzer, whom Cassidy described as his ‘reb’, who is on the Board of the Before Columbus Foundation which awarded Cassidy’s worthless tripe an award. Then all you have to do is look at the Crossroads Irish Festival, founded and run by Cassidy. In 2002 alone, we find William Kennedy, whose name is often linked to Cassidy, Peter Quinn who described Cassidy as “my best friend”, Maureen Dezell who gave him a nice quote for his book jacket, Michael Patrick MacDonald who has posted in support of Cassidy, Marion Casey who was gullible enough to quote him in an academic paper and who is linked to Joe Lee who also made a fool of himself by backing Cassidy, and Eamonn Wall who has just been appointed to the board of the Irish American Writers Association which Cassidy jointly founded.

Jesus! Will someone open a feckin’ window and let in some fresh air! Surely, there must be a handful of other writers and artists in the Irish-American community who don’t have a Bacon Number of one in relation to Cassidy?

The fact is, Cassidy’s book is obviously and clearly a pack of lies. Yet these people and many more have helped, wittingly or unwittingly, to sell this damaging, dishonest and nasty little book to gullible people. They have lent whatever status and kudos they can provide to a con-man whose lack of intelligence and disrespect for the Irish language is manifest on every page. None of them seems to be prepared to break ranks, repudiate this charlatan and apologise for their role in the Cassidy Scandal.

This is where the real cabal and conspiracy is. Among a crowd of people who would rather do anything than admit the truth that Cassidy was wrong and that they were wrong to support him.

Hall of Shame Special – James R. Barrett

I recently came across another deserving target for my wrath, a book called The Irish Way: Becoming American In The Multiethnic City by Professor James R Barrett. It includes several pages of Cassidese nonsense like the following: 

“Corruptions of the Irish Gaelic language survived in the memories of old-timers and were refreshed by more recent immigrants. Irish words, phrases, accents and pronunciations seeped into the English of working-class neighbourhoods.”

Why am I angry about this?  Well, in some ways, I shouldn’t get worked up. There are things which are far more important in the world and I should watch my blood pressure and not allow idiocy like this to annoy me, but I just can’t help it. Here we have a career academic who quotes from Cassidy describing him as ‘linguist Daniel Cassidy’  Linguist? Cassidy was not a linguist in the sense of speaking many languages (judging by the book, he could barely speak English and didn’t know any Irish at all) and he certainly wasn’t trained in the theoretical study of language. Presumably this man Barrett read the book or at least looked at it. Didn’t he get suspicious at the lack of methodology, the lack of a bibliography, the fact that nothing is properly referenced? The claim that the name of a fictional character in an Indian poem by Kipling is really derived from Irish didn’t set any alarm bells ringing?

Apparently not, because James Barrett gives a list of words like slugger, dude, square, sucker, stool pigeon, squealer, swell, taro (I think he means faro, the card game, not taro the Japanese sweet potato), racketeer, scam and jazz. Of course, Cassidy claimed that all these words derive from Irish.  Readers of this blog will know that none of these words is really from Irish or Scottish Gaelic. And Barrett would know it too, if he had bothered looking these words up in dictionaries to see what real experts who know what they are talking about have said about them.

I mustn’t get angry … But, really! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE? This man is a highly qualified academic but apparently he is so lacking in scepticism and common sense that he just buys all of this tosh from Cassidy as if it’s real, without questioning it or investigating it or confirming it, even by surfing on Google for a quarter of an hour. And remember that this book came out in 2012 (and is about to be reprinted – it will be interesting to see if it still contains the same crap about slang). This is too early for cassidyslangscam, but not too early for a lot of other people who credibly and skilfully demonstrated that Cassidy’s book is simply nonsense written by an unqualified con-man. (Actually I should rephrase that: Cassidy was certainly a highly qualified con-man but he was unqualified to carry out any kind of academic work.)

Worse still, Barrett’s book has been reviewed in all kinds of publications and by all kinds of people. As far as I can see, not one of them has picked up on the claims that terms like square and jazz and block come from Irish and questioned their validity. Not one reviewer has taken issue with Barrett using Cassidy’s book as a source, in spite of the fact that it is like someone including theories about aliens building the pyramids in a serious book on Egyptology.  

Is this really what we’ve come to, a situation where the education system is so bad that even highly educated people are completely unable to recognise an insane load of cacamas for what it is?


There is no doubt in my mind that Cassidy was incompetent. He had no idea what he was doing. Sometimes, it is hard to understand why words have been included in the book at all, as they add nothing to Cassidy’s argument. One of these irrelevant entries is burg. What in God’s name is this doing here? Cassidy points out that it is used to mean a town, usually a dismissive reference to a small town. Scholars say that this is because so many towns in America have burg in their names (Harrisburg, Louisburg, Evansburg). Cassidy gives a rambling, irrelevant and partly incorrect account of the history of the word burg, which is of Germanic origin and has cognates in other branches of Indo-European. It is not from Late Latin burgus, as Cassidy says, as this was a borrowing from Germanic rather than the other way round. In addition to having cognates in Irish, versions of the word were also borrowed into Irish, so that we have the words buirgcheantar (borough) and buirgéiseach (bourgeois) in modern Irish dictionaries. How any of this is relevant to the existence of the word burg in American slang is never explained. It is clear even from what Cassidy says that the word doesn’t come from Irish and that even Cassidy didn’t think it comes from Irish. So saying that Irish has similar words is as pointless and trivial as saying that the words for coffee are similar in French, Irish and Maori. So what?


Another oft-quoted claim of Cassidy’s, which has absolutely no basis in fact, is the notion that crony can be traced back to an Irish phrase comh-roghna. Cassidy says that this word means “fellow chosen-ones, mutual-sweethearts, fellow favourites, close friends, mutual pals”.

While comh– exists and rogha/roghanna exists there is no evidence in the Irish language of either roghanna or comhroghanna being used to mean friends or pals. Comhrogha and comhroghanna are not even in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, though the word comhrogha has been used with the senses of rival, alternative or choice. Rogha means a choice. There are plenty of words and phrases for the concept of friends or mates – cairde, compánaigh, comrádaithe. Comhroghanna and roghanna are not among them. They do not occur in the dictionaries with these meanings and they are not used in speech in this sense.

While the other words for companion or comrade, comrádaí, compánach and cara occur many times in Corpas na Gaeilge (a database of Irish), comhrogha only occurs five times and always in the sense of choice or alternative, never to refer to friends. In any case, comhroghanna (koh-ray-anna) doesn’t sound much like cronies to me!


According to Cassidy, this word, which means a disturbance or trouble, is derived from the Irish word maidhm, which means an outbreak. Sounds plausible enough when you first hear it but let’s examine the evidence carefully. First of all, what does the word maidhm mean?

Maidhm is pronounced  similarly to the English word mime. It does mean an outbreak. It is used of something which has been held in and suddenly breaks through. So a maidhm shneachta is a maidhm of snow, an avalanche. A landslide is a maidhm thalún, while a maidhm phortaigh is a distinctly Irish natural disaster, the bogslide.

So, can maidhm be used for riot or civil disturbance? Irish is very rich in words and phrases for disturbances or hubbub. Trioblóid, ciréib, cíor thuathail, cath, ruaille-buaille, rí-rá, fuirse má rabhdaileamMaidhm is not one that would normally be used.  If someone said “Bhí maidhmeanna i mBéal Feirste aréir”, an Irish speaker would take this to mean that there were landslides of some kind in Belfast, not that there were riots.

When maidhm is used about warfare, it has a very specific meaning, namely that your defensive line has broken and that your troops are running away. In other words, it means a rout or catastrophic defeat. This is not at all what the word mayhem means, of course.

And in any case, the word mayhem doesn’t sound much like maidhm and it has an unassailable history going back to the 13th century, before any Irish ghettoes appeared in the English-speaking world. It derives from Norman French and is a legal term.  Cassidy mentions the dictionary derivation but obviously prefers his own  fantasy version to reality.