Tag Archives: Green English

Cuddle and Codail

In the past I have criticised Sean Williams (aka Captain Grammar Pants) a blogger on matters of language. She published a book on Irish traditional music a number of years ago which was full of nonsense taken from Cassidy’s book. In a comment on one of my posts, she admitted that she no longer believed in these derivations and that she had got it wrong. However, since then, she has lapsed a couple of times, making silly and indefensible claims about supposed Irish derivations of English words. Just recently, on the 25th of December last year, she claimed that the English word cuddle comes from Irish codail (sleep).

Is this true? No, of course it’s not! We don’t really know where the English word cuddle comes from. It’s a apparently a nursery word (which tend not to be recorded). It may or may not be linked to other terms like coddle, mollycoddle and huddle.

Where did the claim of a connection with codail come from? In this case, it wasn’t from Cassidy. Loretto Todd, in her book Green English, mentions that cuddle might be linked to codalta [sic – it should be codlata), the genitive of codladh, meaning sleep. I have already written about Todd’s book, which is dubious but not as bad as Cassidy’s.

Anyway, could codail really be the origin of cuddle? After all, cuddling and sleep are sometimes linked and they are both about warmth and enfolding … and soft furnishings are often involved.

The answer to that is “no”! We need to think rationally about these things, about the processes involved. It’s not enough for a word to be somewhere in the same vague semantic ballpark. When a word is borrowed from one language to another, there is always a bilingual situation (usually involving a community of bilingual people) who tend to do what linguists call code-switching. This simply means that people use words and sometimes phrases and structures from one language while speaking another. In other words, some group of people who were bilingual said “Would you look at the pus on that child?” because the original would have been “An bhfeiceann tú an pus ar an leanbh sin?” And thus, after the word had been used many, many times in this community, the young monoglot English-speaking generation came to use the word pus(s) as a slang word in American contexts like sourpuss, glamourpuss and a dig in the puss.

So, the implication is that someone, somewhere, said something like “The child was crying and Máire gave him a codail”. Why would they, when nobody would say “Bhí an leanbh ag caoineadh agus thug Máire codail dó?” Codail isn’t the Irish for cuddle. And you don’t give someone sleep, especially not the word codail which is an imperative verb (an instruction to sleep) not the noun for sleep, which is codladh. And of course, hugging is not always, or not even primarily, about sleeping. It’s about warmth, intimacy, closeness. There is no plausible connection between codail and cuddle. If Captain Grammar Pants could be bothered doing the most elementary fact-checking, she would realise that.

Cassidese Glossary – Slob

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.

Cassidy points out that the word slob in English probably derives from the Irish slab or slaba, which is defined by Dinneen as:

slab, -aib, m., mud, mire; a soft-fleshed person.

Cassidy says that this is from the Scandinavian word slab (quoting from MacBain’s Gaelic Etymological Dictionary).

There is probably a connection with Anglo-Irish, as Cassidy says, but this claim did not originate with him. For example, the link between slob and Irish slab was made by Loretto Todd in her book, Green English, which came out seven years before Cassidy’s book.

Loreto Todd and Green English

I recently came across a terrible St Paddy’s Day article by Mark Bergin which references Daniel Cassidy and his crazy theories. With regard to Bergin’s article itself, which is full of nonsense, the less said the better. However, it did point me in an interesting direction, to a book which I had never read before, Green English by Loreto Todd. It is strange that I had never encountered this book before as I had read one of the author’s books on pidgins and creoles decades ago and we both live in the same small contested piece of land known variously as the Six Counties or Northern Ireland.

The book, originally published in 1999, has a certain amount in common with Cassidy’s. It shares Cassidy’s conviction that the mainstream dictionaries and particularly the OED have not looked sufficiently closely at the contribution to English from Irish. A tiny handful of the derivations of English words from Irish are the same as those given by Cassidy. I will deal with this handful in more detail below. 

However, to compare Todd to Cassidy would not be fair. Todd is or was a real academic, with experience in universities all over the world and a string of publications in book form or in journals. Most of the book is a good, though short and not terribly original, look at the possible influences of Hiberno-English (and the Gaelic component in it) on world English. She loves the Irish language (as do I) and writes a very laudable section about how the world is poorer for the loss of minority languages.

The problem that I would have with the book is a general sloppiness and an overall air of romanticism. Todd is a romantic about language and she gets carried away at times and makes claims which lack any kind of evidence.

Among examples of the sloppiness is a tendency to use Gaelic or G willy-nilly as a term for Irish or Scottish Gaelic, without distinction (sonsy, for example, is plainly from Scottish Gaelic, not Irish). Another is the lack of consistency in terms of spelling. Sometimes the spellings are derived from the forms given in English dictionaries (cainnt, sean-tigh), sometimes they are the modern standard spelling. Her Irish is by no means perfect. For example, she thinks a stóir is the correct Irish version of the Hiberno-English asthore. The grammar books and dictionaries insist that it is a stór. She says that the OED doesn’t recognise the origin of puss as in sourpuss as Irish, which seems to be completely untrue, though a lack of proper referencing means that it is impossible to check which version of the OED she is referring to.

The claims which lack any evidence at all are more serious and I would like to discuss this in greater depth. There is a complicating factor here in that we need to be clear what Todd is actually claiming. She seems to be making a claim that when languages are in contact, a similar word in one language can reinforce the use of a word in another, even if it’s not a borrowing. The example she gives is a certain African pidgin, where the word uman is plainly English woman, but apparently in a local language, Efik, the word for woman is uman anyway, so this would reinforce its use.  

There are several problems with this. The most obvious is that it is completely untestable. In this English-based pidgin, would people have used uman for woman anyway or did the Efik language have some impact? Maybe, but I can’t think of any convincing way of proving it. The derivation from woman seems sure, the influence of Efik is nothing more than a ghostly presence. It is when she gives examples of the Irish words which might have influenced English in this way that the sloppiness and the romanticism come together to produce a bit of a train-wreck. For one thing, it is unclear whether she is claiming that these words are derived from Irish or reinforced by it. For another, she makes no attempt to look at the history of the word and see what other scholars have said about its derivation. While she invites people to consider the list at the end of the book and draw their own conclusions, she doesn’t give them sufficient information to do this.

For example, she claims that cuddle may have been reinforced by (or derive from) Irish codail, which means sleep. Really? Why? I can’t see a close semantic connection between cuddle and sleep and it seems to me that this word is somehow linked to words like coddle and huddle. The same with hug, which Todd links to Irish cuaich (properly cuach in the modern spelling). This doesn’t sound like hug, even in the past tense form chuach, and in any case, most sources link hug to a Norse word meaning ‘to comfort’.

Then there is her claim that the pronoun she in English might be a loanword from Irish . The usual explanation is that she developed out of a demonstrative pronoun in a parallel way to the development of sie in German. This makes sense to me and linguists will tell you that borrowing of pronouns is really uncommon. Perhaps she is right in saying that Irish should have been considered as a source .. but not for very long!

She says that while many linguists, including Irish linguists, believe that craic came into Irish from English crack, she is not so sure and thinks it might be the other way around. She cites as ‘evidence’ that the first use of it is found in Scots and that Spenser used it, and Spenser lived in Ireland. This is really clutching at straws. Scots, of course is mostly Germanic and there is not much Gaelic in it, and Spenser hated the Irish and wrote for his wealthy patrons on the other side of the Irish Sea. There would be no reason for him to put words into his writings which were not English, so her claim seems unlikely here.

Again, arsehole in English is, according to Todd, either borrowed from or reinforced by (what a tiresome get-out that is!) the Irish asal, meaning a donkey. Why not English arse+hole?

There are a lot of others. Jig (derived from French giguer) is linked to Irish dígeann meaning climax (ooh er, missus!) Teem (to drain, from Norse) is linked to Irish taom, which comes from a Norse word for to drain. Drool, which is really linked to words like drivel and dribble, is from dreolán, meaning a fool (why? I know plenty of fools but few of them actually dribble …) Spree is variously given as spré (to scatter, squander – FGB actually defines it as spread, dowry, spark) or as spréigh, while in Irish the word equivalent to spree is always spraoi. And as for through-other, this could be influenced by Irish trína chéile but the fact is that this phrase is found in Northern England and Scotland and is cognate with durcheinander in German.In other words, I can’t see much, if any, value in her speculations here.

Before I leave this (rather long) post, let me deal with the handful of words where Todd’s claims are the same as Cassidy’s. Both of them derive so long from slán, ignoring well-known derivations from German and Scandinavian languages. Brag is derived by both of them from bréag, bum from bumaire, and cop (to stop, seize or think) from ceap, hack from each, and twig from tuig. (There may be one or two others but I really can’t be bothered comparing every claim of Todd with every claim made by Cassidy). The only one here likely to be correct is twig. The rest of the handful of words in common between Todd and Cassidy (mavourneen, achushla, poteen etc.) are also found in other dictionaries and sources and didn’t originate with either of them, so they are irrelevant to the argument that Irish words have been ignored.

However, it is important to stress that the claims in Todd’s book do not confirm or support Cassidy’s claims in any way.  Todd didn’t find áilteoir scaoilte in helter-skelter or uath dubh in hoodoo or béal ónna in baloney or steall béideán in stool pigeon or indeed any of the hundreds of other crappy made-up pieces of nonsense in Cassidy’s book. If Cassidy had been right, you would expect at least half of the words and phrases in his book to be found in Todd’s book as well, not the pathetic handful which we really find.