Tag Archives: knack

Cassidese Glossary – Knick-knack

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 work of etymological fiction, How The Irish Invented Slang, claims that the English word knick-knack comes from Irish. This is untrue. It is derived from the English knack, which now means a trick but formerly meant a trinket or small object. John Heywood used the word knack in this sense in 1540: “Needles, thread, thimble, shears, and all such knacks.” Shakespeare also used it in The Taming of the Shrew in 1596. (Cassidy claims that knack comes from Irish gnách but gnách doesn’t mean a trick or special skill and it only marginally has the sense of custom or habit – gnás or nós would be much more common in this sense.) By 1618, John Fletcher was talking about knick-knacks as tricks: “If you use these knick-knacks, This fast and loose.” But by the end of the 17th century, a knick-knack was exclusively used of a trinket. In Scotland, the word became nig-ma-nag.

Cassidy disagrees that knick-knacks is a rhyming jingle based on the word knack. To him, knick-knacks come from the Irish word neamhghnách meaning unusual. There are many reasons for objecting to this. Firstly, neamhghnách is an adjective and cannot be used as a noun. Secondly, the sound is very unlike the English word knick-knack. And thirdly, why wouldn’t an Irish speaker use one of the many words which really mean knick-knacks in Irish, like giuirléidí, mangaisíní, áilleagáin, deasagáin or gréibhlí, rather than misusing an adjective?

Cassidese Glossary – Knack

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 origins of the word knack are unknown but it seems to have been used in its present sense as a special talent or skill by the late 16th century.

According to Daniel Cassidy, in his work of false etymology, How The Irish Invented Slang, the word knack comes from the Irish word gnách. The word gnách is an adjective meaning customary, usual or ordinary. It is most commonly used in copular phrases like is gnách leo (they tend to, they have the habit of). Gnáth is a noun meaning custom, usage or customary thing and it is true that the two words sound almost identical and are often confused.

There are several problems with Cassidy’s claim. Firstly, while gnáth or gnách could theoretically be used as nouns to refer to a custom or ordinary usage, this would rarely be the case. Such uses would normally be expressed in Irish with nós (bhí nós aici bláthanna a chur san fhuinneog, bhí sé de nós aici bláthanna a chur san fhuinneog) or with a copular structure (ba ghnách léi bláthanna a chur san fhuinneog).

Secondly, a knack is not a custom. The meanings may be slightly similar but they are certainly not the same. In Irish, a knack is cleas, or bealach, or dóigh, or ciúta. It’s a special skill or trick or way of doing something. When you do something a lot, you may acquire a skill in doing it. But the two concepts are not the same.

This really cuts to the heart of why Cassidy’s ‘research’ is so worthless. As I have said before, the central problem is one of the mechanism of transmission. It’s all very well making a link between an Irish word with a particular meaning and an English word with a different but related meaning. It is much harder (in fact, it’s usually impossible) to imagine a situation where a bilingual Irish and English speaker would use the wrong word in any circumstance and this would be borrowed with a different meaning. Why would this happen? How would it happen?

Finally, gnách really doesn’t sound much like knack. You can find sound files for the dialects of Irish here:

https://www.focloir.ie/en/dictionary/ei/customary#customary__2