Tag Archives: Irish roots of American slang

Sap

Sap is an American slang term for an idiot or sucker. According to Daniel Cassidy, the dork of New York, in his crap book of fake etymologies, How The Irish Invented Slang, this derives from the Irish sop, which according to him means ‘a wisp of straw, a useless lout, a cowardly weak fellow, a silly person.’ This sounds like a good match, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, Cassidy seems to have made this definition up, as Dinneen’s dictionary gives no human meanings at all for sop, while Ó Dónaill’s dictionary states that sop de dhuine (a sop of a person) can mean ‘a wispy or unkempt person.’ Most of the lengthy definition quoted by Cassidy seems to be pure invention.

Back in the real world, sap seems to derive from earlier English and Scottish terms like sapskull and saphead, both of them meaning chump or idiot. You can find out more here at the excellent Online Etymological Dictionary, a resource created by real scholars to inform people about genuine word origins:

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sap

Chicken

I have already said that Cassidy ignores perfectly good English explanations for words in favour of improbable or impossible made-up Irish derivations. This is a perfect example. Chicken means scared and a chicken is a coward. I think this comes from the English word chicken which is a nervous type of bird. In English, phrases like hen-hearted go back to the 14th century at least. It is obvious, realistic, and it ticks all the boxes.

Cassidy and his supporters will have none of it. Chicken doesn’t come from chicken, apparently. It comes from teith ar cheann, which means – says Cassidy – to run away first. Does it? No, of course not. This is How The Irish Invented Slang we’re talking about here, not a serious work of scholarship! Teith ar cheann is unattested. If you look it up on Google, you will find a handful of references to Daniel Cassidy. In terms of Irish grammar, it doesn’t make sense, as it really means ‘flee at the head of’ rather than flee first. At the head of what? I hear you ask. Exactly. On its own, this phrase means nothing.

There are lots of expressions for a weakling or coward in Irish and any of them could have been used in slang, so it seems strange that people would use a grammatically meaningless and unfamiliar phrase in preference to these words. Of course, in reality, they didn’t. Chicken is English. A chicken is a chicken is a chicken. And Cassidy was a birdbrain.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

This blog is primarily an account of how one slightly crazy and unscrupulous pseudo-scholar has succeeded in poisoning the well and spreading lies and misinformation about the Irish language throughout the world of cyberspace. However, this is not only about the Irish language and American slang. The same kind of misinformation is being spread continually about a host of subjects. As a matter of urgency, people need to be taught how to think and how to recognise nonsense when they see it.

In other words, learning the techniques that people like Cassidy and his supporters use to further their absurd claims is an important first step in the struggle against this rubbish.

The statistical argument is one of the gambits that comes most readily to these people.

I don’t swallow everything in this book, nor do I find every section of it 100% plausible. Yet there is enough here that I do swallow. If only 50% of it is correct, and I suspect that that is so, it throws all the theories about the lack of Irish influence on the language into a cocked hat.

Even if only 15-20% of Cassidy’s word connections are correct, he still has pointed out a …

Let’s think about this a minute. Try substituting other things for Cassidy’s arguments. What about “If only 5% of bigfoot sightings are real, there is an undiscovered species of primate alive in North America.”

Or “If only 10% of alien abduction stories are true, then we will have to rewrite the science books and accept the existence of alien intelligence.”

But statistics have no place here. Bigfeet and alien abductions probably aren’t true, so it doesn’t matter how many sightings or testimonies there are. They are all likely to be untrue, just as Cassidy’s illiterate ramblings can be shown to be nonsense over and over again, so it is safer to assume that all these claims are rubbish and work on that basis unless and until someone can offer incontrovertible proof of the extraordinary claim, rather than assuming that some of them have to be right because there are so many of them.

After all, 100% of nothing is the same as 50% of nothing, which is the same as 1% of nothing.
Nothing.