Tag Archives: Irish origin

Slacker

I’ve had a request from someone asking (politely and civilly) for confirmation that the word slacker is like the rest of the words in this blog and that it doesn’t come from Irish.

I’m more than happy to oblige. Cassidy claimed that slacker comes from the Irish sleabhcadh, which means to go limp or to wilt, or the Scottish Gaelic slabhcar, meaning a slouching person. It is really quite difficult to understand why Cassidy even included the words slack and slacker in the book (except of course that the notion of quality control was completely alien to Cassidy and he preferred to pad out the book with any old rubbish rather than end up with the uninteresting pamphlet which he would have had if he had applied any kind of standards to the material he included.) The words sleabhcadh and slabhcar don’t sound much like slack. They are pronounced to rhyme with cow (or sometimes as low, depending on dialect), as shlowkoo or slowkar. The Irish word slacadh does sound exactly like slack, but alert readers of this blog will remember that this means to hit and was Cassidy’s candidate for English slugger. Go figure …

There is absolutely no doubt about the Germanic origins of the word slack. Perhaps this would be a good time to explain what Germanic means, as certain people like Brendan Patrick Keane are clearly too lazy to look up the relevant sections on Wikipedia. The decision of linguists to class English as Germanic is not random or mysterious. If you look at the basic words found in European languages, you will find that some languages tend to be closer than others.

English

German

Dutch

Irish

French

man

Mann

man

fear

homme

sea

See

zee

muir

mer

house

Haus

huis

teach

maison

land

Land

land

tír

terre

cold

kalt

koud

fuar

froid

hair

Haar

haar

gruaig

cheveux

thin

dünn

slank

tanaí

maigre

The vast majority of the basic vocabulary of English is clearly related closely to other Germanic languages like German, Dutch, Danish and Swedish, though there are also many loanwords in English from Latin, Greek and French. Remember that to Gaelic and Irish speakers, English people are Sasanaigh (Saxons) and this shows that they were perceived as the descendants of settlers who came to Britain after the decline of Roman power from what is now Germany or Denmark. Irish shows some similarities of basic vocabulary with French, but not enough for them to be regarded as part of the same family. A comparison with French and Spanish would certainly show that these languages are closely related, and a comparison with Irish and Welsh would also confirm that these Celtic languages are close (though not as close or as similar as the Germanic languages).

A comparison of all these languages together will also show that all of them are distantly related. They all belong to the Indo-European group. This can be seen in things like the numbers, which are similar in all branches of this group. Anyone looking at this data objectively would reach the same conclusions. It’s just common sense.

The word slack is part of this basic Germanic vocabulary of English. It goes back to Old English (the ancient version of the language used before the Norman Conquest) and is very well attested. The OED says that it is from “Old English slæc ‘inclined to be lazy, unhurried’, of Germanic origin.” Slæc was pronounced the same as modern English slack. In Middle English, it was written slac. For example, here is our old friend, the Michigan University Middle English Dictionary:

Slac (a) Of persons: indolent, lazy, lax; negligent, remiss; slow (to do sth.) …

Slacker seems to be a development from these meanings of slack in the late 18th century.

Sleabhcadh and slabhcar are almost certainly borrowings from Old Norse (the language of the Vikings). McBain’s Gaelic Dictionary links slabhcar to Norse slókr, which apparently meant ‘a slouching fellow.’

In other words, even leaving aside the probability that sleabhcadh and slabhcar are probably of Germanic (Norse) origin, if slack has always existed in English with the sense of loose or lazy, what’s the point of looking at other languages for the origin of slacker? Only an idiot would bother. Only an idiot ever did – that idiot being Daniel Cassidy, Professor of Pseudo-Irish Hornswoggling and General and Applied Flakiness at the New College of California.

Tally

This is a common enough word in English. According to the Great Fraud Daniel Cassidy, it comes from the Irish word táille. The truth is that both the English term and the Irish word derive from the Latin talea, a cutting, rod or stick. This is because the original tally was a stick which was cut in two lengthwise with a variety of notches. When the two pieces were reunited, they matched or tallied. These tallies were used as evidence of a financial agreement. This is a perfect example of Cassidy glomming a word which clearly doesn’t come from Irish.

Yell

Another crazy and stupid claim in Cassidy’s dreckfest How The Irish Invented Slang is the one about yell being of Irish origin. Cassidy claims that it comes from éamh oll, which The Great Fraud defines as ‘a great cry, a loud shout, a loud call.’ This is ridiculous for several reasons.

Firstly, éamh oll is not a real Irish phrase. The word oll is only used as a prefix in modern Irish and éamh is a fairly obscure word. If any of Cassidy’s supporters thinks it is a real Irish phrase, fine. They can find an example of its use in an Irish text and get back to us with the reference!

Secondly, Cassidy’s handling of the English demonstrates both his dishonesty and his stupidity. His dishonesty, because he omits most of the relevant information and his stupidity because he fails even to understand what the dictionaries are saying.

Here is what Cassidy says:

“The OED derives yell from Middle Low German gellen, gillen, weak, Old English galan, to sing.”

This is what the Oxford English Dictionary says about the origins of yell:

“Forms:  OE gellan, giellan, gillan, gyllan, ME ȝeolle, ME ȝelle, ME ȝel, ȝele, yhelle, … (Show More)

Etymology:  Old English (Anglian) gellan , (West Saxon) giellan , gyllan , gillan  strong verb, past tense geal , plural gullon  = Middle Low German gellen , gillen  weak, Middle Dutch gellen  strong (Dutch gillen ), Old High German gellan  strong (Middle High German, German weak gellen ), Old Norse gjalla , past tense gall  (Swedish gälla , Norwegian giella ); < gell- , extended form of gel- : gal- , whence Old English galan  to sing, gale v.1, -gale  in nihtegale , night-  + -gale  (in nightingale n.1), Old Norse -gal in hanagal cockcrow, Old Saxon, (Middle) Dutch, Old High German galm outcry.”

It is quite clear from all this that yell had exactly the same meaning and a fairly similar form in Middle and Old English. The OED does not say that the word comes from Middle Low German because Middle Low German came after Old English and the word was already in English in the Old English period. And the reference to strong and weak is nothing to do with the meaning of the word, it refers to it being a strong or weak verb (i.e. one which forms the past tense by a vowel change or by adding –ed respectively: write/wrote is strong, work/worked is weak.) Somebody who is as big an idiot as Cassidy would look at the claim in the book and scoff at it – Ha! The dictionary dudes in their ivory towers think it comes from a German word for weak and an Old English word for sing! What a bunch of mugs! In fact, it is Cassidy’s supporters who are the mugs. The origin of yell is absolutely certain and his claim of an Irish origin is laughable.

John

John was apparently a slang term in America long ago for a steady boyfriend. Now it is used of the client of a prostitute or for a sugar daddy (apparently – the latter meaning is one I’ve never heard even though I watch a lot of American films.)  Anyway, I would have thought this was quite an easy term to explain. John used to be the most common name in English. People signing into a hotel room would sign as Mr and Mrs John Smith. There are John Does and Dear John Letters and Johnny-Come-Lately. It is just a natural word to use of a regular guy, a person you don’t know much about.

Daniel Cassidy, in his moronic waste of paper, How The Irish Invented Slang, came up with an Irish language explanation for this. I try to keep these posts fairly short because I know that people don’t bother reading long articles. But for those who are interested in Cassidy’s work, in the Irish language or in pseudoscience in general, I think it would be instructive to go into more detail with this one, just to show clearly how Cassidy operated. Even if only one or two people enjoy it and learn from it, it will be worth doing.

Here is Cassidy’s claim:

Teann (pron. t’ann, ch’ann, j’ann, joun), n., a champion; a firm man; fig. a well-to-do-man; a support; a resource; adj., wealthy, well-to-do, strong, well-established, steadfast. Cara teann, a steadfast, constant friend; feirmeoir teann, a well-to-do farmer. Teannaim sparán, I fill a purse well. Teanntóir, n., a backer, a helper, a support. (Dineen, 1191.)”

Dinneen’s (Cassidy consistently misspelled this name) dictionary is a strange and eccentric book. Irish specialists and people with a very high level of the language love it because of this quirkiness and richness but it certainly isn’t a book you would use with beginners. For one thing, its judgements about meaning are sometimes vague, it mixes words from different eras in the history of the language and the spelling is antiquated, as the whole system of orthography was reformed around 1960. Most people who work with the language tend to use Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, so let’s look at the definition of teann there.

As a noun, it is defined as: 1. (a) Strength, force; (b) stress, strain; 2. (a) support, backing resource (b) assurance, confidence, boldness. 3 Power, authority  4 (In prepositional phrases) (a) ar theann a dhíchill, he is doing his very best (b) i dteann a réime, at the height of his career, (c) le teann oibre, by dint of hard work.

As an adjective, it is: 1 Tight, taut; 2. (a) Firm, strong, (b) steadfast, constant, 3. Well-established, bold, assured, (b) well-to-do, 4 Forceful, emphatic, confident, assured. 5 Hard, severe.

There is nothing here about champions, firm men or well-to-do men. Let’s look at Dinneen’s version.

As an adjective, it is “Teann, -a, -einne, a., tight, firm, stiff, taut, rigid, plump or well-filled (as a bag, etc.), well-set, stout, powerful, hardy, forward, well-contested, well-to-do, downright, decisive, strict; teann as, confident in; teann ar, severe on; teann le, filled or packed with; feirmeoir teann, a well-to-do farmer; fear teann, a stern man, al. a burly man; sursaing theann, a tight-pulled or well-filled belt; chomh teann le lamhnán, as firm (distent) as a bladder; comh teann géar is do b’fhéidir leis, as quickly as he could; láir sheang nó cairiún teann, a slender mare or a firm-set nag (are the best of the kind); teann le bainne, filled with milk (as an udder); is teann mar sin é, that is very forward of you (S.N.); ach mur’ teann ar charaid chan teann ar námhaid, if you cannot rely on a friend you cannot rely on an enemy; aimh-theann, not austere (Contr.)”

As a noun, Dinneen says this: “Teann, g. teinn, tinn, pl. –ta, m., strain, distress, support, strength, resource, effort, violence, supremacy (over, ar); a firm man,a champion; teann na nGall, foreign oppression; teann i dteann, might for might; teann re teann id.; le teann deifre, feirge, 7c., through sheer hase, anger, etc.; ar theann a dhíchill, doing his livel best, ar theann a anama, id.; re teann truaighe dhó, through sheer pity for him; gabhaim neart agus teann i, I obtain strength and support in, assume dominion in; níor ghabhadar teann ná treise i, the failed to conquer; do-ghním teann as, I take pride in, make much of; ó nach tarrthaidh an buille teann air, since the blow did not take effect on him; tá teann ar a chúlaibh aige, he has strong resources.”

The only part of this which corresponds with the meaning which Cassidy is giving to teann is Dinneen’s ‘a firm man, a champion’. I suspect that this is very old and a poetic expression, not the kind of thing you would find in normal conversation and I have certainly never heard it used in this way. As others have pointed out, Cassidy took complex terms and cherry-picked the obscure meanings which suited him without taking into account the way these words are really used in the language.

I should also point out that Cassidy never got the hang of Irish pronunciation. He believed that words like teann, teas and tine can be pronounced as jan, jass and jinna, which they can’t. The slender t in Irish is always pronounced as a t, a ty or a ch, depending on dialect, but never like the j of John.

Spree

According to Cassidy, the term ‘spree’ as in ‘a killing spree’ or ‘a spending spree’ derives from the Irish word spraoi. The word spraoi is certainly common in the Irish language and many Irish speakers believe it is an Irish word. It means ‘play’, as in bhí siad ag déanamh spraoi (they were playing). You can also say chuaigh siad ar an spraoi (they went on a/the spree). So, surely this MUST be the origin of spree, right?

Wrong, actually. There is no evidence for the existence of the word spraoi in Irish before the early twentieth century. Like the word craic (ceol agus craic), it is almost certainly a loan word which has become an intrinsic and important part of the language since it was borrowed little over a century ago.

If we look up the word spraoi or any variant of it in Corpas na Gaeilge (a database of over 7,000,000 words from the 17th to the 19th century), we find nothing. The same with eDIL, another online database. And Dinneen, the lexicographer who composed his dictionary in the early years of the 20th century, did not include the word at all. This is odd, as it must have been in use in the language at that stage. He presumably left it out because he didn’t regard it as an Irish word.

In English, or rather Scots, the word is recorded as far back as 1804 with the meaning of ‘a pleasant outing’. Scholars of language speculate that it may ultimately derive from a Scottish Gaelic word which is a cognate of Irish spré (spréidh in the older spelling), meaning cattle, wealth or dowry, but spré isn’t recorded with the meaning of outing, drunken ramble or playing in Irish.

It is just conceivable – just – that the word is an old word in Irish and by an incredible coincidence was never recorded anywhere before the modern era. It seems much more likely to me that it is an English slang term (perhaps of ultimate Gaelic derivation) which has come into the language and been adopted by Irish speakers as their own.

Chance of Cassidy being correct about this: certainly less than 1%.