Tag Archives: Irish language

August Twits of the Month – The North American Journal of Celtic Studies

There was fierce competition for the Twit of the Month this month. Firstly, I was tempted to bestow this honour on Kevin My-arse (Myers), a professional controversialist who landed himself in hot water with some anti-Semitic comments. I despise Myers. I would love to believe that his contrition is genuine and that his career is as dead as he says it is. However, it’s happened so many times before and he’s always bounced back. Besides, giving the oxygen of publicity to bastards like Myers only encourages them.

Then there was an article by Una Mullally in the Irish Times Magazine last weekend which was so badly-researched it made me furious. It was about words which are important in Ireland or which derive from Irish. It would take me too long to go through all the dross and nonsense in this article. She says that gowl (a slang term for vagina) possibly comes from Gall, the word for a foreigner in Irish, or from gabhal which means a fork or a crotch. Obviously it comes from the latter. She also claims that gee (another slang term for a vagina) comes from Sheela-na-Gig, an obscure term for obscene carvings found in Irish churches. This may be claimed in lots of places on the internet but it is ludicrous. Both of these claims (along with several others) were lifted more or less verbatim from another badly-researched internet article which you can find here: http://www.dailyedge.ie/irish-slang-origins-1468945-May2014/. She claims that seamróg (the Irish original of shamrock) means ‘young clover’. It’s true that óg is the word for young in Irish, but the diminutive suffix –óg means small, not young, (it was anciently known as the siúr dísbeagaidh or sister diminutive) and it has no connection (to the best of my knowledge) with the adjective óg. She also claims that mot, a Dublin slang word for a woman, comes from the Irish phrase ‘maith an cailín’ (good girl, used to address a girl who has done something praiseworthy.) I was immediately suspicious of this and within five minutes I found that Diarmuid Ó Muirithe and Eric Partridge both derive it from a Dutch word for a prostitute (a mothuys was apparently a brothel). Apparently it was also common in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, so there is nothing Irish about it. She also takes Cassidy’s idiotic claim about the Irish origins of poker seriously. Depressing, especially as the Irish Times has already done more than enough to spread Cassidy’s insane bullshit.

However, bad though Mullally’s article was, I have decided not to give her the Twit of the Month. She is, after all, a journalist. I have come to expect nothing good from journalists and I have rarely been pleasantly surprised. No, the August Twit of the Month Award goes to the North American Journal of Celtic Studies, who published a link on their Twitter feed to the awful article on New York Slang by Brendan Patrick Keane on IrishCentral on July 15. It beggars belief that anyone with an academic background in Celtic would recommend this feeble-minded crap. Fortunately, several other critics had commented on Twitter before I found this.

One of them, Wilson McLeod, rightly commented “Sorry, but no Celtic academic (group or individual) should be promoting Cassidy’s baseless & discredited work.”

Another, the redoubtable Murchadh Mór (Eoin Ó Murchú), commented “That is based on totally debunked rubbish. Please remove.”

So, let’s not beat around the bush. Whoever was responsible for this link either didn’t read the article before posting it, or worse still, they read it and didn’t realise it was shite. Whichever it is, the editor of North American Journal of Celtic Studies or whoever it was who posted the link on Twitter should be scarlet with shame. What a fucking disgrace!

A Reply to “Big Joe McCann”

I’ve had a comment from someone called Big Joe McCann on my post about whether the English banned Irish. His post is civil and reasonable and deserves a civil and reasonable answer.

The partial truth of this myth is that it was preferred that we’d speak English. What happened in Ireland was a process as apposed to an all-out domination, and Anglicizing us was part of that process. You can see that from the maps of Gealtacht locations from the past 100 years. A gradient from East to West.

While I have some sympathy for this person’s position, I was being very specific. I never denied that the English were a disaster for Ireland or the Irish language. What I denied was the claim sometimes presented as a fact, that the Irish language was banned by law in Ireland. I don’t like that phrase, the partial truth of this myth. Things are true or not and myths by their nature are never true. A legend might be true, a myth, never.

As for anglicising us being part of their process, is this really true? For much of our history, they didn’t even prevent Presbyterian planters in the north becoming Irish speaking.  I see no clear evidence that the English gave a rat’s arse what the poor working Irish spoke between themselves for much of the history of English occupation. In fact, they probably had a vested interest in keeping them poor and ignorant and shut out of life’s goodies and their lack of English would have helped to do that. As long as they paid their taxes and didn’t rebel, the English and the Ascendancy were probably completely indifferent to them. It was only when the United Kingdom became a modern nation state and moved towards democracy in the 19th century that the British started to impose cultural and linguistic conformity but we have to remember that the Irish themselves didn’t demand Irish-language education. If they had pushed for it, they probably would have got it. Some schools in Clare taught Irish from the early 1860s and nobody stopped them. The Irish language continued to decline through the 20th century, even under Irish Republican governments.

And finally, a quick Irish lesson. There are two similar words in Irish, Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking area, and gealtacht, the state of being insane. While the Irish-speaking west has its fair share of resident eccentrics, I don’t think they’re any more numerous in the Gaeltacht than here in Belfast. So, make sure you spell it Gaeltacht in future, not gealtacht!

Pash

Daniel Cassidy, in his insane work of fake etymology, How The Irish Invented Slang, tried to convince people that he had made a major discovery. This discovery was that the Irish language didn’t die out in America and had a massive influence on the speech of ordinary Americans, a contribution which has been ignored by snobbish scholars and lexicographers and apparently went unnoticed even by Irish linguists and academics who could actually speak the language. Cassidy, who didn’t have any qualifications at all, and knew no Irish, was a fantasist and liar and con-man. Most of the supposed ‘Irish’ candidates for the origins of slang terms were made up by Cassidy himself. There is no evidence for their existence.

Even after years of debunking this pompous rubbish, I can still open his book and quickly find another example of the kind of puerile crap that demonstrates that Cassidy, far from working like a true scholar, was more like a toddler playing with fuzzy felt.

For example, Cassidy claims that the English slang term pash comes from Irish:

Pash, n., a long and enthusiastic kiss; passion. “Australian and New Zealand term for French or tongue kissing. Used mainly by teenagers and preteens. Used also in a situation so that adults won’t know what they are talking about …” (Urban Dictionary Online.)

Páis [pron. pásh], n., passion.

Apart from the obvious point that pash is just as likely to be a shortening of English passion rather than anything from Irish, we should also remember Cassidy’s total ignorance of the Irish language and his willingness to doctor and distort the material he found in dictionaries to convince badly-educated people of his case. Here’s what Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla has to say about the word páis:

páis, f. (gs. ~e). Passion, suffering. An Pháis, P~ Chríost, P~ ár dTiarna, the Passion (of Christ, of Our Lord). Domhnach, Seachtain, na Páise, Passion Sunday, Week. An Pháis a léamh, to read the Passion (from the gospels). ~ oíche a fhulaingt, to endure a night of travail, of suffering.

In other words, páis is used pretty much exclusively in the religious sense of a crucifixion or a torment. There is another word, a straight Gaelicisation of the English passion (and pronounced the same), paisean. It is this word – or a native equivalent like tocht – which is used for strong emotions like love or desire, not the word páis.

More On Boliver

A while back, I published a post on Cassidy’s claims about the nickname Boliver. According to Cassidy, his Irish grandfather was nicknamed Boliver because it represented the Irish words bailbhe [boliva] or balbhán [balawaan], which come from balbh meaning ‘dumb’ or ‘unable to speak’. This was because, according to Cassidy, his grandfather was notoriously quiet.

As I pointed out at the time, this is very unlikely. Firstly, there are kinder words for silent or laconic, like grusach, ciúin, beagfhoclach, béaldruidte. Then balbhán (a dumb person, a person unable to speak) doesn’t sound a lot like Boliver and bailbhe is an abstract noun meaning dumbness. Irish nicknames are simply not formed out of abstract nouns. Mostly they are formed from adjectives and it’s quite unlikely that a noun like bailbhe would be used as a nickname.

There is also a question about what else Boliver might mean. After all, Simón Bolívar was the revolutionary saviour of Latin America and throughout the twentieth century, his image was on advertising posters and cigar boxes all over the States. There is also the vaudeville character Patsy Bolivar, a kind of stooge in a comedy act in Boston in the 1870s or 80s. This is believed to be the origin of Patsy as in “I’m just a patsy.” Patsy is a common Irish version of Patrick.

However, the plot thickens (slightly). I recently came across a word in Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, the word baileabhair. It is defined thus:

baileabhair, s. (In phrases) ~ a dhéanamh de dhuine, to make a fool of s.o. Tá mé i mo bhaileabhair acu, they are exasperating me. Ná déan ~ díot féin, don’t speak, act, in a silly manner.

Could this be the origin of Bolivar in the name Patsy Bolivar, and thus the ultimate origin of the nickname Bolivar? Was Cassidy right about the Irish origin but wrong about the word it derives from?

It seems unlikely for one very clear reason. In most parts of Ireland, a broad –bh- is pronounced as a w. Only in Munster is a bh routinely pronounced as a v, even when broad. The word baileabhair is found in the early nineteenth century in a story set in Tyrone by the native Irish speaker William Carleton, in the form bauliore. It is also found in similar forms in Mayo, Connemara and Wexford. There is no evidence of it in Munster and no evidence of it being pronounced as boliver instead of balour.

In other words, while baileabhair looks like a good lead, it turns out to be improbable. (And interestingly, Cassidy missed it, in spite of it being on the same page of Dinneen’s dictionary as bailbhe!) It is much more likely that it is from Simon Bolivar, whose portrait was on cigar boxes and cigar stores all over America from the beginning of the twentieth century.

However, this also demonstrates the fact that in many cases (like ‘so long’) there are lots of different possible explanations. It’s not enough to make a claim of Irish origin. You have to discount – or at least examine – the other possible explanations too. Of course, Cassidy distorted the evidence by refusing to look at any explanations but his own.

 

Gullible’s Travels – Dean Swift and Cave Hill

Serendipity is a strange thing. Just a couple of days ago, after I had written a post about the tendency to hide crap non-information with the words ‘it has been said’, I happened to be walking through a traffic island near Custom House Square in Belfast. There was a group of tourists there and a guide was pointing to Cave Hill. As I went past, he explained to them that Swift was thought to have got the idea for Gulliver’s Travels from the giant-like outline of the mountain.

I didn’t say anything but I should have done. This is complete shite. There is no evidence that Swift was inspired by Cave Hill. How can I be so sure? Well, I’m not the only one who’s suspicious. I found this blog: https://blarneycrone.com/2012/07/04/dean-swift-napoleons-nose-and-lilliput-street-are-they-by-any-chance-related/

As the blogger says: I thought I knew quite a lot about Dean Swift. I have even read Gulliver’s Travels. In all the stuff about satire, and St Patrick’s Cathedral and so on, I have never been aware of any connection between the great man of letters and the city of my birth. Yet this week in Belfast I have twice heard the same story about Jonathan Swift and his inspiration for Gulliver. Can it possibly be true?

Of course, Swift did live in Carrickfergus for a while and I’m sure he knew Belfast. But Swift never said that Belfast inspired him to write Gulliver. No book on Swift’s life or work or on Belfast’s history mentions this story. Most studies on Swift’s work emphasise that he was influenced by Gargantua and Pantagruel, the giants invented by Rabelais in his satirical writings nearly two hundred years before Gulliver’s Travels was published.

So where did this story of the Belfast origins of Gulliver’s Travels come from? Well, looking on Google, I have not been able to find any reference to this dating back before 2004, when it was mentioned in an article in The Scotsman. Yet, in the years since then, it has appeared in hundreds of websites and blogs and other sources.

Of course, there will be people who will say, what does it matter? It’s a good story, isn’t it? I’ll answer that with a quote from Stan Carey. He was referring to Cassidy’s nonsense but it is equally appropriate to this case.

But why should it matter, if it’s a good story? Well, for one thing, it’s bad history. For another, the real stories are often more interesting. For a third, if you want facts, don’t you want facts? And fourth, sometimes it’s done maliciously, as with the claim that picnic and nitty-gritty are racist terms, in spite of more-than-ample evidence to the contrary.

I don’t think there is anything truly malicious about the claim that Swift was inspired by the Belfast Hills but it’s certainly a cynical exploitation of other people’s gullibility. Those tourists thought they were learning something of value. In reality, they were just being fed a pile of bullshit. They probably went on to Dublin afterwards to learn how Bram Stoker called his vampire after the Irish for bad blood. Let’s hope they didn’t buy Cassidy’s book on the way. That would be a perfect storm of fake Irish nonsense!

How Words Get Borrowed

In this, my first post of 2017, I would like to examine an issue that I have touched on before but never really dealt with properly, the question of how words are passed from language to language.

Cassidy’s methodology was simple. He looked at words and phrases in English, especially slang expressions, and then hit the Irish dictionaries and cobbled together ludicrous phrases which he thought sounded like these English terms. Of course, Cassidy was badly educated and did not speak any Irish.

What really happens when words cross language boundaries in situations like this? (Of course, we need to remember that similar processes were involved in Ireland itself, where the issue was colonialism, not immigration.) Well, basically, a group of speakers of Irish (or any other language) turn up as immigrants. At first, they are unable to communicate with the society around them. Some of them never learn the new language. Others manage to pick up a basic knowledge. As they learn the majority language, they retain grammatical structures and certain words and phrases from their own language. Thus we might hear sentences like this:

“There is whiskey go leor in the jug there.”

“Sure I’m after seeing Lannigan out there, the old amadán!”

“Sure, I’m away to the síbín for a drink.”

Because lots of people in the initial generation of learners use these expressions, they are continually heard and learned and used by the younger generation. Before long, people who speak no Irish are using galore and ommadawn and shebeen in their English.

Note that nearly all of these borrowings are single words and nearly all of them are nouns. There’s a reason for this. It wasn’t enough for a phrase to be used once by one individual. These had to be expressions which were commonly used by that first generation of bilingual English and Irish speakers, by thousands of people in different contexts.

And of course, that’s not what we find in Cassidy’s moronic book. We find that according to Cassidy, Irish speakers supposedly stuck the word án onto lóinte to make something sounding like luncheon (even though the phrase lóinte ána was unknown in Irish until Cassidy invented it), or that sách was used as a noun meaning a well-fed person and that that word always had úr (fresh) stuck on to the end of it. Apparently nobody ever separated the two words. They never said that there was a good sách, or a handy sách, or a stupid sách, or a big sách. No, it was always a fresh sách, so that it would sound like sucker. Yeah, right. You’d need to be a real sucker (which comes from the English suck) to believe that.

Pretty much all of Cassidy’s ‘Irish’ candidates rule themselves out because they are absurd and improbable phrases. Things like n-each as the origin of nag are simply laughable, because nobody is going to pluck a random inflected phrase out of conversation and use it. (Plus the fact that each ceased to be the usual Irish word for a horse hundreds of years ago!)

The question of pronunciation is another tricky issue. People learn English and throw the odd word of Irish into their conversation. The next generation grow up hearing these words and use them themselves. They pronounce them the way the older generation did. There would be no reason for them to mispronounce uath-anchor as wanker or sciord ar dólámh as skedaddle or éamh call as heckle or gus óil as guzzle, because there’s an unbroken chain of transmission and there is no stage at which this kind of mangling could take place. (And please note that none of these Irish phrases exists anyway. They were all invented by Cassidy, along with nearly all of the Irish in How The Irish Invented Slang.)

The bizarre changes of meaning posited by Cassidy are also problematic. Why would shanty come from seanteach if a native Irish speaker would call their hut a bothán or a cró or a cábán? Why would loingseoir, a word meaning a sailor, become a word for a landlubber who works on the dock? Why would a native speaker of Irish say “Sure, I hate living here in dis is lom é?” if they wouldn’t say “Dhera, is fuath liom bheith I mo chónaí san is lom é seo?” The answer is, of course, they wouldn’t and they didn’t.

In other words, this isn’t the way that words cross from language to language. Cassidy’s ‘research’ was entirely fake, like the man who invented it. I don’t know why people like Michael Patrick MacDonald or Peter Quinn or Joe Lee still support this dishonest garbage. It seems a very high price to pay for friendship but then I suppose it’s a sad fact that some people really are that desperate for friends – desperate enough to betray everything they claim to believe in for the sake of a worthless fraud like Daniel Cassidy.

More on the Folklore Poker

In December 2015, I wrote a post (The Tyranny of Narrative) in which I questioned Cassidy’s story about how his ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang came to be written. As I explained in that post, there are a number of reasons for doubting Cassidy’s claim that he came up with his theory after inheriting a pocket Irish dictionary and noticing words in Irish which were similar to English slang terms. For one thing, Cassidy’s sister Susan doubted its truth. Then there is the fact that Cassidy was a pathological liar and that very little of what he said and wrote is trustworthy. And then again, there is the fact that Cassidy’s little origin myth about the pocket dictionary (which he insisted on calling a Folklore Poker rather than a foclóir póca) exists in two different forms. Plus the fact that the words which Cassidy claimed to be examples of the similarities he had spotted are mostly obscure terms which don’t occur in the pocket Irish dictionary he inherited.

Anyway, in another post (Cassidy’s Plagiarism) I also pointed out that many of the more believable (though none the less wrong) claims in Cassidy’s book had already appeared on an Irish language forum called the Daltaí Boards in 2004. Cassidy joined this forum and bothered people with his nonsense for a while in 2005 but of course, he may have read it many times before he joined. I suggested at the time in the comments that Cassidy perhaps derived his theory not from the pocket dictionary, but from reading the posts on the Daltaí Boards.

Recently, I had another look at this question and decided to find out when the earliest evidence of Cassidy’s ‘research’ can be found online. I found that Cassidy wrote an article in the NY Observer (standing in for his crony Terry Golway) in January 2003 about the links between criminal cant and Irish. If he had already posted in 2003, then plainly, he wasn’t influenced by the posts about Irish influence on the Daltaí Boards. However, there was something that just didn’t sound right to me, so I decided to check the Daltaí Boards again.

It turns out that the exchange in 2004 wasn’t the first discussion of words of Irish origin in English on the Daltaí Boards. There was an earlier exchange in April 2002, in which a number of terms were discussed, including shanty, slew, slogan, trousers, smithereens, galore, kybosh, whiskey, leprechaun, banshee, bard, bog, brogue, colleen, glen, jockey, keen, pet, so long, phoney, longshoreman, do you dig?, spree.

So, what’s the real story about Cassidy’s ‘epiphany?’ It seems to me that the story about the pocket dictionary is full of holes. Perhaps Cassidy noticed one or two words that other people have mentioned before (like snas and snazzy) but I think it was his surfing on Google that really gave him the first claims for his book. And then he went on the rampage with his own imagination, inventing hundreds of nonsensical Irish phrases like bocaí rua and gruaim béil and sách úr and leathluí géag and gus óil to fill his book up and turn it into the collection of total garbage which has polluted the world’s libraries and bookshelves ever since.