We have recently discovered that ‘Professor’ Daniel Cassidy, self-proclaimed discoverer of hundreds of concealed Irish expressions in American slang, didn’t have a degree. In terms of the framework for qualifications we use in this country, Cassidy was a Level 3 (equivalent to Ardteistiméireacht in the 26 Counties, Scottish Highers, A-Levels here, in England or in Wales or USA High School Diploma). To be a professor, you would normally be expected to have a Level 8 (Doctorate), though you might just get there with a Level 7 (Master’s Degree) in special circumstances. In other words, the man was a total fraud.
However, like many fantasists and con-men, he also had a brass neck. After his crazy book was published in 2007, he went on tour to pitch his ludicrous ideas to Irish America and to the Irish themselves. A lot of articles appeared in the press in Ireland.
We have already discussed the shameful complicity of the Irish-language newspaper Lá in the Cassidy Scandal. As we have said before, one of Lá’s journalists got a trip (presumably free) to Cassidy’s Irish Crossroads Festival in California, so this junket probably explains why they felt obliged to support this nonsense (if rather unenthusiastically) rather than strapping on a pair and telling the truth about Cassidy’s complete lack of ability.
Another offender was the Irish News, which adopted a completely uncritical and laudatory tone in an article by Margaret Canning, who obviously knows as much about the Irish language as Cassidy himself.
However, the worst offender was the Irish Times, which used to be a sensible and intelligent paper. Pól Ó Muirí reviewed the book in glowing terms in the Irish language section, though it seems to me that his article is slightly tongue in cheek. Even if it is, the mockery is so subtle that it might as well not be there. Then Kate Holmquist reviewed it on 28 July 2007, again repeating all kinds of stupidities, such as jism coming from teas ioma, which Cassidy says means an abundance of heat and passion; figuratively semen. This is, of course, complete nonsense.
However, the prize for chief sucker of the Irish nation goes to Frank McNally in An Irishman’s Diary, a regular column in the Irish Times. McWally gave it a glowing review on August 2, 2007: “It’s not every dictionary you can describe as a thrilling read. But when I picked up Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads the other day, I soon found myself reluctant to put it down. Compared with the OED, certainly, this is a page-turner….” Yes, Frank. That’s because the OED has lots of FACTS. Cassidy’s book is full of fascinating CRAP.
But McWally couldn’t leave it alone. On Friday 13 March 2009 he was plugging Cassidy again, trying to present a ‘balanced’ argument. He talks about linguists looking for written sources while ‘lack of written sources … was central to Cassidy’s argument.’ He also rang Cassidy, apparently, but was unaware of the time difference so the conversation was unproductive. What he didn’t do was phone an academic, a linguist or an Irish speaker in the same time-zone and ask them why this book is mindless shite, which is what he should have done.
McNally was obviously impressed by Cassidy (or perhaps he finds it hard to think of new material). On Sat June 4, 2011, he wrote another article lending support to Cassidy’s specious nonsense. This is one of the worst articles I have ever read. It completely misses the point, drags in H.L. Mencken, the stringency of linguistic methodology and the garrulous nature of the Irish. However, we have to remember here that the book is stuffed full of nonsense. A person with access to Google (and you would hope a so-called journalist would have access to Google) would be able to look up the real derivations for Cassidy’s words and find that the material presented in the book doesn’t actually reflect what the dictionaries say. And of course, anyone looking at an Irish dictionary would realise pretty quickly that Cassidy’s Irish ‘sources’ are hooky as well. Why didn’t McNally do this? Why indeed!
Then on 9 May 2013, McNally discussed the origins of the term phoney, claiming that Cassidy was the first to make the connection between phoney, the obsolete slang term fawney and Irish fáinne. A quick look on Google (try it Frank, it’s really good!) will show that Eric Partridge had already published this claim in 1990 and I would guess that he probably wasn’t the first to make that connection.
Finally, on 16 Oct 2013, there is another massive plug for Cassidy, again with no attempt to find out what genuine experts think – or more importantly, know. Five plugs for the Great Fraud and not one valid or intelligent criticism of any of Cassidy’s bogus claims – not even the one about Gunga O’Din, Dia idir sinn agus an drochrud!
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Ed Power, writing in the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Independent in December 2007, did what a real journalist would do. He lifted the phone and got a couple of comments from Professor Terence Dolan, who dismissed Cassidy’s book as almost entirely wishful thinking.
What lessons can we learn from this? Well, don’t read Frank McNally’s column is fairly high on the list. In praising this book, Frank McNally, in addition to revealing that he’s a bit of a pillock and that the Irish Times isn’t what it was, has become one of the few people to support this ridiculous book without (apparently) having any kind of personal connection with Cassidy. It’s kind of understandable that Eamonn McCann would say how great the book is, because he knew Cassidy. As did Peter Quinn, and Joe Lee, and John Rickford, and Alexander Cockburn, to name but a few. What’s Frank’s excuse, apart from laziness and stupidity?
Another lesson is the fact that most people don’t know anything about linguistics. Mathematicians complain that people are happy to admit their innumeracy and that it doesn’t carry the same stigma as illiteracy. Personally, I don’t accept their argument. I think maths is fascinating and I wish I were better at it but it doesn’t bother me because I don’t use it in my everyday life. However, everyone uses language – all the time – and yet the facts of linguistics are a mystery to people who regard themselves as educated. Many people regard knowledge of a few irrational, normative rules of grammar like not splitting infinitives as linguistics, whereas in fact true linguists have a very different agenda.
However, the biggest and most important lesson is probably how enormous our inferiority complex as a nation is (and was, even before the Celtic Tiger was put to sleep). All it takes is for an arrogant, ignorant little gobshite like Cassidy to turn up with a Noo Yoik accent and a monomaniacal sense of entitlement, pretending to be a supporter of the Irish language and a genuine academic and a friend of Francis Ford Coppola, and people instantly lose all their common sense and start tugging the spiritual forelock which the Irish developed a couple of hundred years ago for the purpose of kowtowing to the local Anglo-Irish landlord.