Tag Archives: Irish origins of English words

Cassidese Glossary – Buccaneer

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.

Daniel Cassidy, in his book How The Irish Invented Slang, claimed that the word buccaneer comes from the supposed ‘Irish’ phrase boc aniar, meaning ‘a buck from the west’. There is no evidence for an Irish origin for buccaneer and the phrase boc aniar was invented by Cassidy.

Cassidy pretends that the origins of buccaneer are uncertain in order to make his claim a little more credible.

“All Anglo-American dictionaries derive the word buccaneer from an obscure French word boucanie [sic] meaning “one who hunts wild oxen” and cooks their meat on a boucan, or a barbecue, said to be from an unidentified Caribbean Native American word.  (E.B. Taylor, Early History of Man, 261; OED.)

Buccaneer as buckaneer is first found in the canting dictionaries of the 1690s. “Buckaneers, West-Indian Pirates … also the Rude Rabble in Jamaica.” (B.E.’s The Canting Crew Dictionary, London, 1690.)

In reality, boucan is first recorded in French in the year 1578 in the book Histoire d’un Voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite Ammerique, where it is described as a “gril sur lequel les Indiens d’Amérique fumaient la viande” (grill on which the American Indians smoked meat).

The term boucanier is first used in French in the year 1654, where its meaning is described as “aventurier qui chassait les bœufs sauvages aux Antilles” (an adventurer who hunted wild oxen in the Antilles). From the start, there is plentiful evidence that people in the Caribbean believed that there was a link between boucanier and boucan (or bucanero and bucan in Spanish). There is no evidence of an Irish link and certainly no evidence that anyone was ever described as a boc aniar.

So long to the Irish origin of ‘so long’

One of the language myths that have been brought to light by the Rubber Bandits’ recent tweet on Cassidy’s eymology is the claim that the English colloquial ‘so long’ is really a corrupted form of Irish slán, a parting salutation.

There are several claims for the origin of this term. Some derive it from Arabic salaam, or from Hebrew shalom. Neither of these seems very convincing. The etymology websites (along with Cassidy’s book – unusually, he admits that he didn’t come up with the slán derivation) say that it first appears in 1860 in the works of Walt Whitman.

Most of them agree that it probably comes from the German expression Adieu so lange (something like ‘farewell until we meet again’) or from related Scandinavian phrases Norwegian Adjø så lenge, Farvel så lenge, Mor’n så lenge, literally “bye so long, farewell so long, morning so long;” and Swedish Hej så länge “good-bye for now,” with så länge “for now” attested since 1850 according to Swedish sources. The German expression Adieu so lange dates back to at least 1791.

In a recent OED blog post, Anatoly Liberman quotes a Mr Paul Nance who has found an earlier reference to so long from 1835.

However, I think I can do better than that. I Googled the phrase the other day and I have come across an earlier example of it. It’s in a book of humorous material called Salmagundi written in magazine form by Paulding in New York. The book is available on Google Books. It is dated 1835 but the internal headings show that the particular magazine containing the entry was first published in 1819.

The article takes the form of a humorous letter from a lady of means, who signs herself off at the end with the salutation: Adieu, so long, Aurelia.

Personally, I think that’s a smoking gun and gives a clear bridge between the German and the English expressions. But even if you choose to say that it’s just a coincidence that the earliest known use of so long in English has Adieu stuck in front of it, there are other reasons for dismissing the Irish origin. Why is this expression always written as two words? Why does it never occur as slawn, or slong? And why does it never have any other words attached? Why don’t we find it sometimes as so long go foyle (slán go fóill), or so long lath (slán leat) or so long a wallah (slán abhaile)? These are common expressions in Irish. And then again, why don’t we find it commonly in stage-Irish idiom? Begorrah, sor, it’s so long and farewell to yous

So, let’s just forget the idea that the expression so long comes from Irish. There’s no evidence for it and there’s something so needy and desperate about these attempts to trace words to Irish. It’s as if our language and culture have no reality or value outside their relations with the English-speaking world. Anyone who thinks that should learn some real Irish – NOW!

The Great Daniel Cassidy Slang Scam!

I first became aware of Daniel Cassidy’s book a few years ago, when a work colleague told me about the supposed origin of the word sucker, which, according to Cassidy, comes from the Irish sách úr. I was deeply sceptical of this claim, which seemed and still seems very unlikely. Then I came across more and more Cassidy claims on the internet, each one more ridiculous than the last.

They made me angry. I am still angry, at Cassidy himself, at the people who published this nonsense, and at all the people who should have known better than to lend their support to something so obviously worthless. Why did newspapers publish favourable reviews of this book? Why did it win an American Book Award, when anyone with access to Google can disprove half of the claims in the book with ease? Why did academics with solid reputations put those reputations on the line to defend Cassidy? And why has the rest of academia (with a few honourable exceptions) tended to stay silent rather than tackle this nonsense?

When I bought a copy and read the book, I got even angrier. Perhaps even Cassidy’s supporters could smell the bullshit emanating from phrases like liú lúith (Cassidy’s origin for ‘It’s a lulu!’, supposedly meaning ‘an agile shriek’ or some such rubbish), so many of the crazier and more obviously deluded claims were never given on the internet. Because of this, bad as it is, the sample of Cassidy’s work in cyberspace is almost sane and reasonable compared to some of the nonsense in the book.

And as I read more and looked at Cassidy’s contributions to websites, to Wikipedia and to forums, I got even angrier at the constant self-justification and the outright lies. Cassidy had a way of always making himself out to be the victim of irrational conspiracy instead of the perpetrator of fraud and he continually projected his own faults onto those who criticised him. For example, Cassidy claimed that his detractors were always looking for written evidence, while he was concerned with rescuing the traces of the spoken language of the people in American slang which had left no written record. Yet the paradox of this is that Cassidy didn’t speak any Irish and was completely dependent on written sources such as dictionaries and glossaries. He rifled through these looking for phonetic matches for his target sentences and in the process, he demonstrated time and time again that he knew nothing about the grammar of Irish, had only the shakiest grasp of Irish pronunciation and had never made any serious attempt to crack the code of spoken Irish so that he could see how words are really used by Irish speakers in real contexts to describe the world.

Thus we get claims like this. By criticising Cassidy, I am apparently ‘flogging ground sweat’, a slang expression I’ve never heard which Cassidy says means to speak ill of the dead. (Cassidy died shortly after the book was published.) According to Cassidy, this comes from fliuchadh grian suite, wetting a sunny place or figuratively a grave. This is not a real Irish phrase, of course. Its source is Cassidy’s head. The word fliuchadh does mean ‘to wet’, grian means sun, and suite means situated or located (or is the genitive of suí meaning site). But the grammar of the phrase makes no sense. Is grian suite supposed to be a noun meaning a grave? Why isn’t it suí gréine (site of sun) rather than grian suite (sun of site?) Or is it meant to be a compound word, griansuite (sun-situated). And why wouldn’t the Irish speaker use a less ambiguous and strange word like áit (place), making it áit ghréine, áit na gréine, áit ghrianmhar, or even just the word grianán (a sunny place). And anyway, since when does ‘a sunny place’ mean the grave in Irish? Where’s the evidence? Then again, flukhoo gree-an sitcha doesn’t even sound much like ‘flogging ground sweat’. And of course, ground sweat is really a jocular English expression referring to the liquefaction of the body as soon as it’s buried, as in the proverb ‘a ground sweat cures all diseases.’

Cassidy made the assumption that these words could be put together in a particular way to make an Irish phrase, but he did not base this on any knowledge of Irish usage or grammar. His guesswork is rubbish. His scholarship is non-existent. And the whole thing, far from being a tribute to the Irish language or an attempt to elevate the status of Irish culture, is an insulting piece of cultural appropriation. Cassidy was a self-publicist and this book is a massive rip-off, an insult to the Irish people. With this ridiculous book, Cassidy essentially unzipped and pissed on the graves (uaigheanna or tuamaí, not ‘griansuíonna’) of countless generations of Irish speakers.

Which is why I’m quite happy to return the favour.