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 facts in relation to the word cute are quite clear. It derives from Middle English noun acūte which meant a fever of short but severe course, sharpness, corrosiveness of blood or a high-pitched note in music, and/or from the adjective acūte which meant having a sudden onset and short duration, (as opposed to chronic) (of a disease), or sharp, irritating (of a humor (bodily). These words come from Latin acutus, past participle of acuere, to sharpen.
By 1731, it had sometimes dropped the first vowel and is recorded as ̓cute, with the meaning of sharp or clever. It continued to have this meaning until the 19th century, when it acquired the meaning of sweet or attractive among young people in America. In Ireland, it continues to mean cunning, shrewd (alongside the American meaning). In the north, we often refer to people (generally male) who are too sharp for their own good as a ‘cute hoor’.
Cassidy dismisses these well-established facts with two asinine sentences: ‘Most Anglo-American dictionaries assert that the word “cute” is the aphetic of the English word “acute.” (New English Dictionary, 1880; OED.) Of course, even a child knows there is nothing “acute” about cute, unless you are too cute.’
Cassidy is keen to claim that the English cute does not come from acute. According to him, it is a borrowing of the Irish word ciúta [kyoota]. What does ciúta mean?
This is what Ó Dónaill says:
ciúta, m. (gs. ~, pl. ~í).1. Quip, clever remark. ~ a chaitheamh chun duine, to make a quip at s.o. 2. (a)(Of speech, lettering) Flourish. Is deas an ~ cainte é sin, that is a nice turn of phrase. 3. Ingenious trick, knack.
An Foclóir Beag says this:
ciúta fir4 nath nó carúl cainte; cor cainte; cleas (a witticism or witty remark; an idiom; a trick)
What does Dinneen’s dictionary say? According to Dinneen, a ciúta is a pregnant saying; a clever hit in conversation, artistic touch; an innuendo.
The 1973 Irish-English, English-Irish Dictionary from the Talbot Press (based on An Seabhac’s 1958 dictionary) says that it means knack, ‘know-how’.
It is not included at all in the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish language, in O’Reilly’s 1817 dictionary and the earliest reference in Corpas na Gaeilge is from 1912. The earliest reference I can find to ciúta in the Irish language only dates back to 1904.
It is worth quoting Cassidy’s version of the definition of the word ciúta in full:
Ciúta (pron. k’útǝ) n. a pregnant saying, a clever hit in conversation, a clever innuendo, a clever quip, a wisecrack, an ingenious trick, a knack, an artistic touch; know-how; fig. someone or something with an attractive, artistic, clever style.
The first part of this is correct, because it is simply copied from the various dictionaries. The bit after the fig. is complete fantasy. Ciúta does not refer to people. Cassidy says this because he wants to claim ciúta as the origin of cutie as well as cute.
In reality, there is little doubt that ciúta is from cute, not the other way around. However, there is something a little odd about this. In English, cute is always an adjective. In Irish, ciúta is a noun. I have no idea why this should be or how this difference arose. (Dinneen suggests that it comes from the word cionnta, meaning crimes or offences, but this seems unlikely to me.)
However, it does nothing to alter the implausibility of Cassidy’s claim in relation to this word. There is a clear line of development in English from Latin acutus, through Middle English acūte, to modern English cute. Cute does not come from ciúta, whatever the relationship between the two words might be.