As we approach the tenth anniversary of my first post on Cassidyslangscam, it is natural to reflect on what I have achieved here.
The main target has always been, and continues to be, the ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang by the late Daniel Cassidy. Cassidy was a liar, a fraud and a narcissist, and his worthless book is full of ridiculous claims and invented Irish. However, I have also looked at other examples of fake etymology over the last decade.
One of the claims I have debunked is the myth that the phrase ‘to put the kibosh on’ comes from Irish. While I have dealt with it before in other posts, I feel that it would be timely to give another full account of the known facts about the word kibosh.
It is a fascinating story for anyone with an interest in etymology. It shows how easy it is to mistake a destination for a derivation in etymology and how bad native speakers of any language are at detecting interlopers and fake stories in relation to the words of their language.
Anyway, let’s start at the beginning. Until recently, that beginning would have been in the year 1836, in the works of Charles Dickens. The existence of searchable newspaper archives has pushed that date back by a couple of years, to a comment by a chimney-sweep in London in 1834:
“It vos the Vigs vot passed this Bill, and what the Duke of Vellington put the kibosh on ’em for, and sarve ’em right.”
The substitution of v for w looks foreign, but was apparently common in 19th century London English. This is the first known instance of the word in use.
Various claims and stories have been made in relation to the origin of the word kibosh. Some think it is derived from kurbash, a heavy whip used by the Ottoman Turks.
There are other claims that it comes from a Yiddish word derived from Hebrew כָּבַשׁ (kavásh, “to conquer, subjugate”) but no such word exists in Yiddish. Experts on Yiddish and Hebrew are also sceptical of claims that it is a Yiddish term meaning ‘eighteen pence’.
Others regard it as a version of Middle English cabochen, to behead. The Middle English word is said to have been adopted in Cockney slang but this seems unlikely.
David L. Gold (an excellent scholar who has been generous with his advice, expertise and support on this blog) traces it to the clogmakers’ term kibosh ‘iron bar about a foot long that, when hot, is used to soften and smooth leather’. Putting the kibosh on a clog might perhaps mean ‘finish the work’.
In other words, there are many possible theories but no agreement yet on the origin of this tricky word. Of course, as we know, when the origins of an English word are mysterious, someone will inevitably invent an Irish angle. The Irish theory is almost certainly nonsense and unusually, we have firm and definite evidence to prove this, as I will show below.
Anyway, let’s construct a brief timeline about the Irish theories of the origins of kibosh. As we have said, the word first makes its appearance in London in the year 1834.
At some stage in 1909, 75 years later, a book was published called Mac Mic Iascaire Bhuidhe Luimnigh (The Son of the Son of the Yellow-Haired Fisherman of Limerick). The author was Mícheál Mac Ruairí and the editor was a scholar called Seosamh Laoide or Joseph Lloyd. The story uses the expression ‘ar thobar a bhathaise’ (on his fontanelle or on the crown of his head – modern standard Irish spells it baithis) and apparently Lloyd in his vocabulary notes offers the suggestion that English kibosh could derive from caidhp bathais (sic – see note below) which could be a lost Leinster Irish expression meaning ‘coif or cape of the crown’.
Later in that same year, there was an interesting exchange in the pages of the Freeman’s Journal, an Irish paper. In an article called An American Professor on England published on November 29th 1909, an anonymous staff author of the Freeman’s Journal wrote:
Many expressions familiar in American-English are clearly translations or adaptations from the Gaelic: not a little slang was good idiomatic Gaelic, and such an extraordinary word as kybosh – “to put the kybosh on a man or a scheme” – takes a very curious interest when, as Mr J.H. Lloyd tells in one of his invaluable vocabularies to Irish poems or stories – it is traced to the extinct phrase “the cap of death” – i.e. the black cap of the hanging judge.
J.H. Lloyd, or Seosamh Laoide, then replied to this on the 2nd of December 1909 in the Freeman’s Journal, complaining that his views had been misrepresented:
Dear Sir – In your issue of 29th November, one of your leader writers, towards the end of the article “An American Professor on England”, quotes me in connection with the word “kybosh”, to put the kybosh on a man or a scheme. So far, he is correct. When, however, he adds the explanation “the cap of death,” apparently attributing this to me, he is very much astray.
In the vocabulary to Mac Mic Iasgaire Bhuidhe Luimnigh, published by the Gaelic League, I set down that caidhp bathais, to my surmise an expression of the lost Leinster dialect of Irish, was the probable etymon of “kybosh”.
He goes on to say that kibosh could not come from caidhp báis because the o of kibosh is a short vowel.
In other words, Lloyd publishes his notes on Mac Mic Iascaire Bhuidhe Luimnigh and suggests that kibosh is from caidhp bathais, coif or cap of the crown, a phrase which sounds a bit like caidhp bháis (cap of death) but is not the same. (Lloyd’s claim is also very unlikely and there is no evidence that this coif of the crown ever existed. As he himself says, ‘I have failed to find the word in use in an Irish dress’.)
Then someone reads this carelessly or misremembers it or misreports it and suddenly kibosh is from ‘caidhp bháis’, the cap of death. And what is a cap of death? Oh, yes, it must be that black cap that judges put on to condemn someone! So, this fantasy version ends up in the pages of the Freeman’s Journal and is attributed to Lloyd.
A few days later, Lloyd writes to the Freeman’s Journal and objects. No, that wasn’t what he said. He was misquoted, so the Irish death cap story isn’t true.
In etymology, the evidence doesn’t get much better than this. We can trace the Irish ‘cap of death’ to 1909 and to a mistake. And we have a supposed author who says that he didn’t say what he was supposed to have said at all!
However, when you’ve got an interesting and colourful etymology, it’s bound to spread. Even if there’s a retraction or denial (and as we’ve seen here, not everyone has the decency to issue retractions when they screw up), not everyone sees the retraction or chooses to heed it. So, the story that kibosh comes from an Irish ‘cap of death’ continues to spread.
By March 1924, we can prove that caidhp bháis was being used in the Irish language, when the phrase Cuireadh an caidhp bháis air mar sgéal was used in a publication called An Sguab. (Hard to translate but it literally means ‘The kybosh was put on it as a story’ but in idiomatic English, you would say ‘That put the kybosh on the matter’. Cohen, Little and Goranson’s version ‘The kybosh was put on your story’ is a mistranslation.)
And since then, it has continued to take root in Irish and there’s really no reason to reject it. It sounds good and it does the job. But there’s absolutely no chance that kibosh comes from caidhp bháis. Caidhp bháis is an Irish re-imagining of kibosh, not the other way round. We should remember that native speakers have no innate sense of the history of words. They can’t tell an interloper or new invention from an ancient and intrinsic part of the language, as we’ve seen with words like craic and spraoi.
In subsequent decades, several alternative explanations for the meaning of the fictional phrase caidhp bháis were invented. A man called Rice in Leitrim wrote in a letter in the Irish Press of 25th April 1934 that it means ‘that portion of the cowl which is pulled down over the face of the dead immediately before interment’. And on the tenth of February 1943 a letter from John Grogan of Dublin appeared in the Irish Independent, stating that the caip bais [sic] refers to the pitch cap used by the British in the late 18th century as a torture/punishment. This is usually called the caipín pice in Irish. And recently, claims have been made that a caidhp bháis is a candle-snuffer in Irish. (The real word is smóladán.)
By 1977 (in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary), it had also been adopted in the written language as the Irish equivalent to deathcap in terms of fungi.
So, wherever kibosh comes from, I think we can safely say that it doesn’t come from Irish. While caidhp bháis is a part of our language now, and has been since the 1920s, it came into Irish in imitation of English kibosh, and not the other way round.