Tag Archives: Jeremy Butterfield

Damp Squid

Daniel Cassidy did no original research at all. His idea of research was to abstract information from dictionaries, then sneer at the people who had done the work for him. His main targets were the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster, who he misrepresented as a clique of WASP bigots. Cassidy called these bastions of the linguistic establishment ‘the dictionary dudes’. In reality, of course, there is more of an implied criticism of the main dictionary-makers in the Irish language in Cassidy’s work, as none of Cassidy’s insane phrases like pá lae sámh and béal ónna are mentioned in any of the Irish dictionaries. It is also interesting that when Cassidy was confronted with a real Irish person who knew some Irish and could clearly see that Cassidy knew nothing about the subject, Cassidy was quite happy to hide behind the authority of the OED. This happened in an RTÉ radio programme, Highway 101 with Myles Dungan, now available as a podcast, where Cassidy, having been pulled up on his pronunciation, talks about the origins of phoney in Irish fáinne. Cassidy says: Your audience must be saying, this guy Cassidy’s a real crackpot, [TRUE!!] but that’s not my etymology, that’s the etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary … Strange that he both sneers at the OED and then appeals to its authority when it suits him. But then, Cassidy was what we call a teanga liom leat (a tongue with-me with-you, a hypocrite) or a coileach gaoithe (a weather vane). Or in the English of Ireland, a gobshite.

However, most of Cassidy’s sheeple have never heard this podcast and don’t know anything about Irish, and they continue to spout nonsense about how the OED and Merriam-Webster are full of anti-Irish bigots. Just recently I quoted the Boston writer Michael Patrick MacDonald, who talks about the ‘racist OED lapdogs!’ What an idiot!

I have been reading a book recently by one of these ‘racist OED lapdogs’, Jeremy Butterfield, who has commented here. I do not know Jeremy personally. I’ve never met him outside of the virtual realm of language blogs and I’ve never even been to Oxford.

However, I loved the book, and I am giving a brief review here, mainly because it’s a good book and worth reading, but also because it exemplifies very clearly how stupid and paranoid the criticisms of the ‘dictionary dudes’ by the Cassidy Cargo Cult are.

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare is a very witty, informative and well-written account of lexicography and its history and the way that corpus linguistics and computing have changed the way that dictionaries like the OED are compiled. I have read a lot of books on linguistics, so much of the material was familiar to me, but there were plenty of interesting facts which were new to me. For example, the term dictionary was quite late in arriving on the scene. The first English dictionary was Latin-English. The second was apparently Welsh-English (1547)!

There are fascinating discussions of metaphor, register and eggcorns (phrases like damp squid, which was originally damp squib, but most people don’t know what a squib is these days, so they reinterpret it). I was particularly struck by his observations about how society is always metaphorically a building, while the state is often a ship. (‘foundations of a just society’, ‘Captain, My Captain…’) Obvious, when you think about it, but I had never thought about it.

It is also quite clear that Jeremy Butterfield is not the bigoted WASP Cassidy and his friends liked to denigrate. His views on language are very democratic. In the culture war between people like Simon Heffer and David Crystal, there is no doubt that he is on the Crystal side. He does not believe that dictionary definitions are set in stone, and he mocks the approach of a long-dead generation of language mavens who disliked the use of French words because you can apparently say all kinds of morally suspect things in French which English simply can’t express!

The open-mindedness of his approach demonstrates beautifully that comments like MacDonald’s ‘racist OED lapdogs’ are just childish displays of ignorance and bigotry.

In other words, Damp Squid is a fascinating book. It is full of information, but it is also fun and very readable. In short, it is everything that Cassidy’s rubbishy book is not. And even more gratifying, it is much higher on the Amazon Bestsellers Rank than How The Irish Invented Slang. Yay!!

You can (and should) buy the book at Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Damp-Squid-English-Language-Laid/dp/019957409X

Captain Grammar Pants

In the posts on this site, I have been unkind about a fair number of people. I have lambasted Cassidy himself, along with the numerous cronies who have boosted his reputation and misled people into thinking he was a credible scholar. Along the way, I have also had a go at others, for example, people who claim that the British banned the Irish language. (I object to people claiming this for two reasons: 1. it isn’t true 2. it gives the impression that Irish was some hidden argot whispered in secret, which distorts the truth that the language was still hugely significant in Ireland quite late on in history and therefore provides ammunition for the enemies of the Irish language, north and south, who claim that it barely made it out of the Middle Ages before becoming marginalised and irrelevant.)

Because of these unkind words, some people might regard me as a bit of a bully. I don’t see it that way. As I have explained before, the Internet is a place which makes it possible for people to express all kinds of opinions, true, false, benign or repugnant. We shouldn’t suppress opinions but people should be prepared to be held to account for the rubbish they spout. If you don’t want to be criticised, don’t put your stupidities in a public place where people like me can find them!

Now, I’m about to be unkind again. Recently, I came across a blog by a person calling herself Captain Grammar Pants. The name of the blog and the picture of its author wearing a captain’s hat would be enough to put me off on their own.

You see, I have a love/hate relationship with grammar and usage sites. Some of them are excellent guides to usage. (Jeremy Butterfield’s blog, for example.) Others confirm my prejudice that many grammar pedants are simply anally retentive bores who use shibboleths of marginal relevance as a stick to beat people who are already socially disadvantaged. Captain GP is somewhere between the two camps – way too irrationally pernickety for my tastes but not one of the morons who insist that a prestigious institution is one which practices illusion and deception or that you can only evacuate buildings and not people from buildings (Don’t ask – just take it from me that cranks like this exist!)

Apparently, her real name is Sean Williams and she teaches ethnomusicology at Evergreen State. The reason why she merits a mention here is that in 2006-7, she was teaching a number of Cassidy’s stupid claims at that university and in 2010, she published a book on Irish traditional music which also reiterates a number of Cassidy’s completely ludicrous derivations. And in September 2014, on CGP, she published the following:

Here are some words we English speakers received from the Irish language: ballyhoo, baloney, blather, buddy, clamour, coney, crony, cuddle, dig, dude, fluke, galore, gimmick, glom, hobo, kibosh, longshoreman, malarkey, moolah, muck, phoney, scam, shanty, slogan, slugger, smack, smear, smithereens, snazzy, snoot, so long, swank, wallop, whiskey, and yacking. And that’s just SOME of them! I also particularly like the fact that with galore, we have not just the word, but also the accompanying syntax. It’s never “galore chocolate”; it’s “chocolate galore.” I LIKE the idea of chocolate galore.

Now, I have already made it abundantly clear that I have little sympathy for people who promote this flim-flam. These are false etymologies derived from Cassidy’s work (with one or two thrown in from Todd’s Green English). Only a handful of the words above (galore, phoney, slogan, smithereens, whiskey and possibly dig and snazzy) are genuinely of Irish origin. I have no idea why any intelligent person would republish this dross years after it was revealed to be a fraud. I note that Williams was born in California but it’s a big state and it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is one of the Cronies. The strangest thing about it is that she co-wrote a book on sean-nós singing recently with Dr Lillis Ó Laoire, who has excellent Irish. Why she didn’t ask him his opinion is a mystery. I don’t want to put words in Ó Laoire’s mouth, but I would be shocked if he endorsed rubbish like Cassidy’s book.

I mentioned before that I do look at English grammar and usage sites quite often and I am not above using a little shibboleth or test of my own to determine whether I agree with the author or not, the test of whether alright is a word in its own right distinct from ‘all right’. I have always written alright in some circumstances. It seems to me perfectly logical that, on the analogy of already/all ready and altogether/all together, it is perfectly reasonable to make a distinction between Those answers were alright and Those answers were all right. As Jeremy Butterfield says in the Oxford A-Z of English Usage (it might seem a bizarre coincidence that one of the first corroborating comments I found on Google came from Jeremy, who has commented here but if you think about it, this particular corner of cyberspace is probably quite small):

There is no logical reason for insisting that alright is incorrect and should always be written as all right, when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted.

What does Sean Williams say? According to her, alright is all wrong. But then according to her, crony comes from comh-róghna (sic) and baloney from béal ónna and longshoreman from loingseoir etc. so her opinions on language are clearly a mixture of ludicrous pseudo-Irish etymology and irrational prescriptivism, two things which I really despise.

However, it is doubly important for me to criticise Sean Williams for one very simple reason. Most of the people who support Daniel Cassidy’s claims on line are so preternaturally stupid that they couldn’t find their own arses with a hot iron. Williams has a doctorate, some knowledge of Irish (though not enough to know that go leor can precede nouns as well as coming after them in Irish!) and a lot of credibility. Naming and shaming some of the dunderheads who support Cassidy hardly seems worth it. In the case of an academic and language blogger who blithely regurgitates all the nonsense Cassidy invented, it seems more than justified. (In fairness, she has since recanted and now no longer accepts Cassidy’s lies. I thought of removing or altering the articles which criticise her but she was remiss in not checking the facts in the first place, even though she has had the uncommon decency to make a public retraction.)