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 false etymologies, How the Irish Invented Slang, claims an Irish origin for a charm for toothache mentioned by the poet Carl Sandberg [sic]. According to Cassidy:
Early in the 20th century, The American poet Carl Sandberg encountered a faith doctor, who chanted an old Irish spell of fiosacht (divination) to cure a toothache.
This charm involved writing the words Galla Gaffa Gassa on a wall, then pointing to each letter in turn with a nail. If the pain diminished on a particular letter, the faith doctor then hammered the nail into that letter and the toothache was cured. This particular incident between Carl Sandburg (which is the correct spelling) and a faith doctor never happened. How do I know? Well, this comes from an article on Kentucky folklore by Sadie Price, published in 1901 in the Journal of American Folklore. Sandburg read it and used it.
According to Cassidy, galla gaffa gassa represents the ‘Irish’ galar gafa gasta, supposedly meaning ‘disease seized fast; pain taken away fast’. In fact, this is probably just a piece of nonsense used as a charm. Cassidy’s explanation is typically unconvincing. I would be inclined to interpret Cassidy’s phrase as ‘a fast seizing disease’, as the ‘quickly’ would need to be go gasta, the adverbial form. Also, galar is not usually used of toothache. As any Irish schoolchild (the overwhelming majority of whom know a lot more Irish than Cassidy) will tell you, a toothache is a tinneas fiacaile, not a galar fiacaile.
Finally, Irish folklore has been studied intensively, and we know a great deal about folk healing. There are a lot of charms in collections and journals but to the best of my knowledge, galar gafa (go) gasta has never been recorded.