Tag Archives: Highway 101

Highway 101

In a recent post (The Day JFK Was Shot) I mentioned an interview on RTÉ radio (Highway 101) in August 2007, in which Myles Dungan talks to Daniel Cassidy, fake scholar and fake etymologist, about his life and works. In that post, I pointed to several factual inconsistencies. However, they weren’t the only problems with Cassidy’s account of his life, so I decided to listen to the podcast again and make a few notes.

First off, it is amazing what Cassidy leaves out. He makes no mention of his association with Andy Warhol, one of the few genuinely impressive parts of his CV. He talks about ‘when I got out of Cornell’, but makes no mention of the fact that he flunked his degree. Indeed, he even says ‘I was reasonably good at academics … you know … I just took to it …’ Really?

Later, he talks about being in ‘graduate school’ in Columbia. Obviously, as a non-graduate, he couldn’t have been in graduate school, though he may well have taken some evening classes.

One of the most dishonest bits is in relation to his career as a merchant seaman. In some descriptions of Cassidy, this is almost used to define him – he is ‘the former merchant marine’. I have expressed doubt before about this episode of his life, which I think didn’t happen, or was very short, or took place later, in the late seventies. This interview confirms that there is something very suspect about his claim to have been a merchant seaman in the 1960s. When Dungan says, ‘you became a seaman’, you would expect a natural storyteller like Cassidy to really give it his all. However, you would be disappointed. There are no tall tales about being lashed to the wheel with a marlin spike pondering the nature of the stars, or doing the horizontal hornpipe in a cathouse in Surabaya, or listening to the mermaids and merrows singing songs to the dog-headed men at the edge of the world where cartographers fear to tread. Cassidy simply says ‘I hit the road’ and tells an anecdote about hitching a ride to California in 1967, the Summer of Love. Then he talks about playing in a bar in the Mission District in San Francisco. Then the narrative moves on to getting in with musicians and releasing an album. His career as a salty seadog is ignored and forgotten, as is the 23 months he spent in rehab in New York, at some time between 1967 and 1972. In other words, he might have spent slightly longer as a seaman than Malcolm Lowry, but he was no Joseph Conrad.

There is also a problem with the idea that he played R and B in bars in the Mission District. According to other sources, he learned guitar in Phoenix House, the rehab centre, at the end of the sixties or in the early seventies. Before that, he played the saxophone. Now, the guitar is an R and B instrument. One person can be a modern troubadour, singing songs of love and protest and accompanying themselves on the guitar. But it’s hard to imagine anyone doing solo gigs on the saxophone. So did this happen? And if it did, when? Was it later, after his music career was on the skids, when his album failed to sell?

Dungan seems to regard Cassidy as a harmless crank, and gives him an easy ride, even when it becomes obvious that Cassidy can’t pronounce Irish and knows nothing about the language. Dungan challenges him over spiel, which he rightly says is German or Yiddish, but he doesn’t challenge Cassidy when he claims that speal (which he mispronounces to make it sound more like spiel) is Scottish Gaelic and Irish for a hoe. (It’s a scythe, or course.) However, Dungan does say: ‘Are you not letting your imagination run away with you and claiming far too much for the Irish language?’ Cassidy blethers his way round this one, claiming that in fact he is being conservative and that the Irish influence is even greater than he claims.

However, the thing that really shocked me was his spiel about how New College of California was founded by a Jesuit called Father Jack Leary, who came from Gonzaga University. The thing he doesn’t mention at all is that Leary had already been exposed as a predatory paedophile by (amongst others) Matt Smith in SF Weekly in October 2006 (http://www.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/the-double-life-of-john-leary/Content?oid=2161211).

Damp Squid

Daniel Cassidy did no original research at all. His idea of research was to abstract information from dictionaries, then sneer at the people who had done the work for him. His main targets were the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster, who he misrepresented as a clique of WASP bigots. Cassidy called these bastions of the linguistic establishment ‘the dictionary dudes’. In reality, of course, there is more of an implied criticism of the main dictionary-makers in the Irish language in Cassidy’s work, as none of Cassidy’s insane phrases like pá lae sámh and béal ónna are mentioned in any of the Irish dictionaries. It is also interesting that when Cassidy was confronted with a real Irish person who knew some Irish and could clearly see that Cassidy knew nothing about the subject, Cassidy was quite happy to hide behind the authority of the OED. This happened in an RTÉ radio programme, Highway 101 with Myles Dungan, now available as a podcast, where Cassidy, having been pulled up on his pronunciation, talks about the origins of phoney in Irish fáinne. Cassidy says: Your audience must be saying, this guy Cassidy’s a real crackpot, [TRUE!!] but that’s not my etymology, that’s the etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary … Strange that he both sneers at the OED and then appeals to its authority when it suits him. But then, Cassidy was what we call a teanga liom leat (a tongue with-me with-you, a hypocrite) or a coileach gaoithe (a weather vane). Or in the English of Ireland, a gobshite.

However, most of Cassidy’s sheeple have never heard this podcast and don’t know anything about Irish, and they continue to spout nonsense about how the OED and Merriam-Webster are full of anti-Irish bigots. Just recently I quoted the Boston writer Michael Patrick MacDonald, who talks about the ‘racist OED lapdogs!’ What an idiot!

I have been reading a book recently by one of these ‘racist OED lapdogs’, Jeremy Butterfield, who has commented here. I do not know Jeremy personally. I’ve never met him outside of the virtual realm of language blogs and I’ve never even been to Oxford.

However, I loved the book, and I am giving a brief review here, mainly because it’s a good book and worth reading, but also because it exemplifies very clearly how stupid and paranoid the criticisms of the ‘dictionary dudes’ by the Cassidy Cargo Cult are.

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare is a very witty, informative and well-written account of lexicography and its history and the way that corpus linguistics and computing have changed the way that dictionaries like the OED are compiled. I have read a lot of books on linguistics, so much of the material was familiar to me, but there were plenty of interesting facts which were new to me. For example, the term dictionary was quite late in arriving on the scene. The first English dictionary was Latin-English. The second was apparently Welsh-English (1547)!

There are fascinating discussions of metaphor, register and eggcorns (phrases like damp squid, which was originally damp squib, but most people don’t know what a squib is these days, so they reinterpret it). I was particularly struck by his observations about how society is always metaphorically a building, while the state is often a ship. (‘foundations of a just society’, ‘Captain, My Captain…’) Obvious, when you think about it, but I had never thought about it.

It is also quite clear that Jeremy Butterfield is not the bigoted WASP Cassidy and his friends liked to denigrate. His views on language are very democratic. In the culture war between people like Simon Heffer and David Crystal, there is no doubt that he is on the Crystal side. He does not believe that dictionary definitions are set in stone, and he mocks the approach of a long-dead generation of language mavens who disliked the use of French words because you can apparently say all kinds of morally suspect things in French which English simply can’t express!

The open-mindedness of his approach demonstrates beautifully that comments like MacDonald’s ‘racist OED lapdogs’ are just childish displays of ignorance and bigotry.

In other words, Damp Squid is a fascinating book. It is full of information, but it is also fun and very readable. In short, it is everything that Cassidy’s rubbishy book is not. And even more gratifying, it is much higher on the Amazon Bestsellers Rank than How The Irish Invented Slang. Yay!!

You can (and should) buy the book at Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Damp-Squid-English-Language-Laid/dp/019957409X