Tag Archives: Irish language

More on the Tally Stick

A while back, I wrote a short piece in answer to Maureen Hurley. At the end of that article, I said that I would try to write a piece on the bata scóir, so here it is.

What was the bata scóir? Well, the word bata means stick in Irish, while the word scór is a borrowing of the English word score. It means a score or notch and comes ultimately from the Old Norse skor, meaning a notch or (because of its use in tallying) a count of twenty. In other words, it means a tally stick, a device used for counting or tallying. Usually, this was a small wooden block of various forms, which was usually able to be marked with notches indicating various values and then split lengthwise so that the two parts would tally. (Also, you could place the two parts together temporarily to mark new notches on it.)

In Ireland, historically, the bata scóir has had several meanings or uses. It was principally used in the nineteenth century as a kind of time card, used by labourers to prove how many hours they had worked. For example, an tAthair Peadar in his book of 1915, Mo Sgéal Féin, says this about the bata scóir used by labourers and farmers:


Bhíodh an bata scóir acu, agus choimeádaidís araon an cúntas ar an mbata scóir.
Is amhlaidh a bhíodh an bata scóir ‘n-a dhá leath ar a fhaid, agus leath acu ag an bhfear oibre agus an leath eile acu ag an bhfeirmeóir. Nuair a bhíodh an cúntas acu
le cur síos, do thagaidís i bhfochair a chéile agus a leath féin de’n bhata ag gach duine acu. Ansan, cuir i gcás go mbéadh chúig lá oibre déanta ag an bhfear oibre, do shínfidís an dá leath-bhata suas le n-a chéile, agus do ghearfadh duine acu chúig scóir le sgiain ar an dá leath-bhata, scór, nó fáibre, i n-aghaidh gach lae oibre d’ár deineadh. Do gearfaí na fáibrí i dtreó go luighfeadh an sgian ar an dá leath-bhata i n-aonfheacht, agus go mbéadh gach fáibre geartha isteach ionta araon. Ansan do choimeádfadh gach aoinne a leath féin de’n bhata scóir, agus níor bh’fhéidir d’aoinne
acu éagcóir a dhéanamh ar an nduine eile, mar níor bh’ fhéidir scór do ghearadh amach ‘ná scór do chur isteach gan an dá leath-bhata do shíneadh le chéile airís, agus nuair a sínfí le chéile iad do chaithfeadh na fáibrí teacht isteach le n-a chéile cruinn, fé mar a gearadh iad ar dtúis.

They used to have the tally-stick, and they would both keep the account on the tally stick. It so happened that the tally-stick used to be split lengthwise into two halves, one half kept by the workman and the other half by the farmer. When they had to record the account, they would come together, each of them with his own half of the stick. Then, suppose the workman had done five days of work, they would lay the two half-sticks up against each other, and one of them would cut five scores with a knife on the two half sticks, a score, or a groove, for every day of work that was done. The grooves would be cut so that the knife would lie on both of the half-sticks together, and so that each groove would be cut into both of them. Then each one would keep his own half of the tally-stick, and neither of them could cheat the other one, because it was not possible to cut a groove out or to put a score in without laying the two half-sticks together again, and when they were laid together the grooves had to match each other accurately, just as they had originally been cut.

However, many Irish people will be aware of a more sinister meaning to the phrase bata scóir, as a device used to punish Irish-speaking children for using their native language in school. This was particularly associated with the National School system which was brought in in 1831 but the custom seems to have been used to force children to learn English before then in the hedge schools (scoileanna scairte or scoltacha scairte), unofficial local schools run in barns or outdoors by a teacher paid directly by the parents.

This practice was used in many countries where an indigenous language was supplanted by a more powerful language like English or French. The best-known example was probably the famous Welsh Not. This was a badge that was hung on the neck of a child who was heard speaking Welsh. When another child was heard speaking the language, the Welsh Not was transferred to them and so on. At the end of the day the child wearing the Welsh Not was punished. Many years ago, I was told that this was also the pattern in Donegal.

However, most accounts of the bata scóir in Ireland tend to emphasise the scoring or notching aspect. For example, a child called Pádraig Ó Cuirrín from Waterford gave the following account (collected from his father) in the collection of folklore called Bailiúchan na Scol in the 1930s (my translation):

When my grandfather was going to school he used to speak Irish and a Bata Scóir was placed around his neck. He spoke ten words of Irish and ten notches were put in the stick for every word and then he was put outside the door. When he went home, his father gave him a blow for every notch that was in the stick.

Another account is in an Irish translation of an essay by William Smith O’Brien (written in 1893 but translated in 1905):

Ba mhinic, le deich mbliadhna is dachad do labhradh go trom ar lucht cnáide leanbh Gaedhealach scoile nuair a bheirtí ortha ag labhairt na teangan do thugadar leó ó lacht chíche a máthar, agus níl amhras ná gur bh’aithiseach an bheart í. Ní hé an cipín scóir do cuireadh ar chrochadh fé bhrághaid leanbh labhartha na Gaedhilge, mar tharcuisne ar a dteangain, fé ndeara dhi bheith ar gcúl, acht teicheadh na ndaoine thar sáile.

People have frequently spoken critically for the last fifty years about those tormenters of Irish-speaking school children when they were caught speaking the language they were given from their mother’s milk, and there is no doubt that this was a shameful act. It was not the tally-stick which was hung around the neck of children who spoke Irish to scorn the language which was the reason for its decline but the emigration of people overseas.

(The original version is: Bitter things have been said of those who in the last fifty years were used to chide Irish school children caught lapsing into their own mother-tongue; and no doubt it was a sorry spectacle. But it was emigration, not the ferule of the old pedants, that drove the Irish language out of fashion.)

An article called The Hedge Schools of County Limerick by Tony Lyons states that the bata scóir did not originate in the National School system but in the earlier hedge schools. In some places, according to Lyons, the individual schoolmasters were favourable to the Irish language but in others, they used bataí scóir or ‘tally sticks’ to discourage pupils from speaking the language. These were sometimes called by other names. In Kerry it was known as a cingulum or singulum.

Sir William Wilde in 1853 mentioned seeing a man hearing his child speaking Irish and marking a tally around his neck (called a scoreen or scóirín) so that he could be punished.

All this is very interesting but very contradictory. Anybody examining this and other evidence will quickly realise that there is a very clear difference between the standard nationalist polemic about the bata scóir and the reality.

The polemic has it that the English came into Ireland and as part of a concerted campaign of cultural genocide, they imposed compulsory education in English and cruelly punished any children who spoke their own native language, regardless of their parents’ wishes, by hanging a badge of shame around their necks called a tally or a bata scóir and beating them accordingly.

How do the facts differ from the polemic version?

1. The use of the tally stick began in the hedge schools, which were nothing to do with the English.

2. The tallies were certainly used in the National Schools but the National Schools were not compulsory, Compulsory education was not brought in in Ireland until 1893, sixty years after the National Schools. Many schools in Ireland had begun teaching Irish by this time.

3. The idea that the very word bata scóir struck shame and anger into the hearts of Irish speakers throughout the nineteenth century is false. The main use of the term was for a kind of device for counting the hours or days worked by a labourer.

4. Not only did parents not have to send their children to a National School, they were often part of the system of punishment, carrying out the beatings. In some cases, it is stated that the tally was used to prevent children speaking Irish outside school, not inside it. The painful truth is that Irish-speaking parents bowed to strong cultural and economic pressures (many derived from the English – they aren’t blameless in this) in trying to prevent their own children from speaking Irish. They did this because they feared that their children would end up starving in Boston or Birmingham because they couldn’t get a job in an English-speaking environment.

5. We have no idea what the original bata scóir would have looked like and as far as I know, there are no examples of a bata scóir in existence. Pictures purporting to be bataí scóir on the internet are fakes, tally sticks with a different purpose from Germany or Canada.

Cassidese Glossary – Pussy (vagina)

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.

According to Cassidy, the term ‘pussy’ (in its slang sense of vagina) derives from the Irish word pus. Cassidy claims that in the plural the word pusa (lips) is used for the vagina. He cites no evidence for this claim. For Cassidy, it was unnecessary to prove that Irish speakers say something or even might say something. If it sounded reasonable enough to Cassidy (who spoke no Irish), it was a done deal.

So, is there any truth to this claim? Well, the word pus does exist in Irish and will be dealt with elsewhere. It is the origin of the American English slang expressions “a smack in the puss” and “a sourpuss”. It is defined by Ó Dónaill as: protruding mouth, sulky expression, pout, snout.

In other words, it is not a usual expression for lip or mouth because it has pejorative overtones. And it is not used in the plural to mean vagina. If it were, this meaning would have been mentioned in the dictionaries and especially in Ó Luineacháin’s excellent Ó Ghlíomáil go Giniúint, a dictionary of sexual terms in Irish. Furthermore, there is a very common word in Irish which does mean vagina, the word pit (pronounced roughly like the word pitch in English). It is this word which is used as the equivalent of the English pussy, not pusa.

As a final nail in the coffin of Cassidy’s theory, words like pussy are found in a number of Germanic languages: Old Norse pūss pocket, pouch, Low German pūse vulva, and Old English pusa, meaning bag. In other words, it is an ancient word of Germanic origin which is wholly at home in English, not a loanword from Irish.

You can find a discussion of the origins of the word on Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pussy.

Cassidese Glossary – Puss

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.

Puss (not the cat, which is of Dutch origin) but in expressions like a slap in the puss or a sourpuss comes from the Irish expression pus which means a pout or a pouting mouth. This is a phonological variant of an earlier word bus, meaning a lip. In general, no native Irish words begin with the letter p. Cassidy says that a few Anglo-American dictionaries derive puss from the Irish word pus. This is a lie. ALL of them derive it from the Irish pus and did so long before Cassidy came along with his fake etymologies.

Cassidese Glossary – Muck

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.

The word muck is a term from poker. The muck is used to refer to the discarded cards that are no longer in play and if someone mucks their cards, they fold.

There is nothing mysterious or hard to understand about the etymology of this term. Muck is an ancient English term for dirt, derived from a Scandinavian word for dung, so when cards are out of play and no longer worth anything, they become the muck.

Cassidy implausibly (and unnecessarily) claims that it derives from the Irish word múch, which means to extinguish or smother. This is pronounced mookh (with the kh like the ch of Irish or Scottish loch), so it really sounds nothing like muck.

Cassidese Glossary – Mow

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.

 

Mow is a Scots and Northern English verb meaning to copulate with: https://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/mow_v1_n1

It goes back as far as the 16th century and has no connection with the obscure Irish word moth (pronounced moh), which Cassidy claims as the origin of the word. Moth is an ancient literary term, which is only used in modern Irish in compound words like mothchat, which means a male cat (a tomcat). Moth anciently meant a penis but this is not found in modern Irish at all and in any case, this doesn’t mean it could be used as a verb for sexual intercourse. In fact, there is a verb mothú in Irish, which is common and means to feel, to hear, to perceive. The word mothú does not provoke sniggers in Irish speakers because the word moth for penis does not exist in modern Irish.

It seems likely that mow is really linked to the verb meaning to cut grass, as terms for copulation in several languages use the metaphor of flattening, words such as laying in English and clárú in Irish.

Cassidese Glossary – Miller

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.

This is one of the most foolish and irrational claims in Cassidy’s book, that ‘miller’, an old cant term for a fighter or boxer, is from Irish.

Firstly, the most parsimonious explanation is quite simply that this expression is an extension of the word miller, someone who keeps or works in a mill. Millers have always had the reputation as strong, rough men, even back as far as Chaucer. And of course, milling can mean grinding, breaking, destroying. In other words, you don’t need to look any further than English ‘miller’ for the origins of the English slang expression ‘miller’.

Cassidy’s explanation, as usual, lacks any evidence, as well as any credibility.

“Miller, n., a boxer, a murderer. “Miller, a Killer …” (B.E.’s Dictionary of the Canting Crew, 1699.)

Míle (pron. m’íl’ə), n., a warrior, a soldier; a champion, a hero. Mill, v., to break, to injure; to damage, to destroy. (Dineen [sic], 742; Ó Dónaill, 859, 860.)

One person’s killer is another person’s miller (míle, pron. m’íl’ə, hero, warrior, soldier; champion; destroyer.)”

The problem with this is that míle is not a particularly good match in terms of sound (it’s pronounced meelya or meela – note that Cassidy’s phonetic transcription was as fake as everything else in his book) and it’s not a particularly common word. There are dozens of other words which suit the meaning of boxer or soldier or warrior far better, words like dornálaí (boxer), or saighdiúir (soldier), or trodaí (fighter). Míle is actually a fairly obscure borrowing of the Latin word mīles, the root of military and militia.

And it has no etymological connection with the word mill, meaning to destroy in Irish. (MacBain’s dictionary: destroy, Irish, Old Irish millim: *mel-ni-, root mele, fail, miss; Lithuanian mìlyti, fail; Greek @Gméleos, useless, wretched …) The word destroyer added to the list of meanings of míle above is yet another example of the kind of casual random dishonesty that makes Cassidy’s book so totally worthless. And in any case, how could giving two totally different words with different etymologies as the origin of one English expression ever strengthen his case rather than weaken it?

 

Cassidese Glossary – Mick

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.

One of the sillier claims in Daniel Cassidy’s etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, is the claim that the word ‘Mick’, which is used in various English-speaking countries as a racist insult against the Irish, comes from the Irish word mic, the plural of mac meaning son. Cassidy doesn’t explain why this should be the case, why racists would use a word meaning son (which is usually a mark of affection), in the language of the people they were denigrating, or why a plural word would be used as a singular. Mic sounds like Mick, so it must be the origin of the word, right? Never mind that everybody in Ireland knows full well that certain common names among the Catholic Irish have become slang terms for a Catholic Irish person – Taig (Tadhg), Tim (equivalent of Tadhg, used in Scotland), Paddy and Mick. Never mind that all of the (genuine) dictionaries are in agreement about this.

In fact, in exactly the same way, our Irish ancestors used terms like Bhullaí (=Wully or Willy) for the Ulster Planters from Scotland. For example, Art Mac Cumhaigh wrote “Bhullaidh is Jane ag glacadh léagsaidhe Ar dhúithchíbh Éireann” (Wully and Jane taking out leases On the territories of Ireland.) And seoinín (=Little John, later anglicised as shoneen and jackeen) was used for people who aped English ways. As usual, Cassidy’s claim is simply nonsense.

Cassidese Glossary – Masher

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.

Masher is a slang term for a young man of fashion who frequented 19th century theatres because of his devotion to the leading ladies.

There is a discussion of its origins here in an excellent blog post from Anatoly Liberman: http://blog.oup.com/2011/01/masher/.

And here’s another from World Wide Words: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-mas1.html

Both of these sources are inclined to regard masher and mash as being extensions of the English word mash meaning to crush and both of them point to the similarity between the uses of mash and the uses of the word crush.

Cassidy’s claim was that it derives from the Irish maiseach, an obscure adjective meaning beautiful or elegant (according to Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, maisiúil is the usual adjective formed from maise. I wouldn’t use maisiúil or maiseach, though I use maise all the time in idioms like Ba d(h)eas an mhaise dó é, it was a nice thing for him to do). How an adjective meaning beautiful in Irish gave rise to a noun meaning lady’s man and a verb meaning to have a crush in English is not explained, but then very few of the claims made in Cassidy’s book stand up to any scrutiny at all.

Cassidese Glossary – Lucre

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.

Long ago, in Central Europe, there were two language groups which resembled each other. One was the ancestor of Latin, the other the ancestor of Irish. These language groups had many similar words, like the words for land or sea. They also had a similar word for value or wealth. In Irish, thousands of years later, this was to become luach. In Latin, the word became lucrum, and this later developed into the French lucre, which by the time of Chaucer had been borrowed into English and was used to mean ‘money’. It was often used with words like foul or filthy to show that wealth was corrupting.

This is how English got the word lucre, as in ‘filthy lucre’. There is no doubt or room for argument about this. The word lucre came from French, which developed out of Latin. The word is a cognate (a cousin, if you like) of the Irish luach. But it isn’t a borrowing from Irish. So why is it in this book? How is it relevant to Cassidy’s theory of Irish influence on English?

Tá mise chomh haineolach leat féin! (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Cassidese Glossary – Juke

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.

A juke joint is an old word for an inn or drinking-house in North America. It is believed to derive from the American English dialect of African origin known as Gullah, where juke or joog apparently had the meaning of wicked or unruly. In other words, it’s a rowdy or disorderly house.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book of false etymologies How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that this comes from the Irish word diúg, which means to drain, to drink or to suck. There is absolutely no evidence for this and nobody in Irish has ever talked about a pub or inn as a teach diúgtha or teach diúgaireachta, so why would a phrase that doesn’t exist in Irish have been borrowed from Irish? It’s simply nonsense.