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.
In Daniel Cassidy’s etymological hoax, How The Irish Invented Slang, Cassidy claims that this expression, used as an address to strangers in America, comes directly from the Irish word mac, which means son. On the face of it, this looks fairly convincing.
However, we need to examine such claims closely and objectively. The first problem is quite simply, why is this only an American expression? If it really came from Irish, surely you would expect Irish people to use it commonly? This is not the case.
Secondly, the term mac(k) is used to address people. The Irish language has a special case, the vocative, which is used to address people or animals or objects. Thus someone called Seán will be addressed in Irish as a Sheáin (a hyine). Someone called Máire will be addressed as a Mháire (a wyra).
In fact (as is usual in our language) it’s a little bit more complicated than that. As I mentioned in relation to the expression a stór, the grammar books specify that if an expression is metaphorical, then the word simply changes at the start (if it can change). Thus if you address someone as your treasure, you say a stór. If for some reason you are addressing a real box of treasure, you will make the full vocative change and say a stóir. If you don’t speak any Irish, don’t worry too much about this. All you need to know is that there are two ways of using mac in the vocative, a mhac (a wack) or a mhic (a vick). The former is theoretically used of someone who could be your son but isn’t, while a mhic would be used to your son.
In other words, as Irish speakers don’t say mac when addressing people, why would this expression come from Irish?
Incidentally, I’ll just share a cautionary tale with you here about how easy it is to be fooled by phoney etymologies. A few years ago, someone suggested that there was a lot of Irish in the slang of Liverpool, which is one of the most Irish places in England. One example given was the parting salutation Tara, whack!, which means something like ‘Goodbye, mate!’ This was claimed to be from Tabhair aire, a mhac! (Take care, sonny!) At the time, I thought this sounded reasonably convincing. While researching Cassidy’s book, I looked again at questions like this and found that it is almost certainly not true. Expressions like tara and tata are found in lots of dialects of English, not just Liverpudlian, and it turns out that long before Liverpudlians were known as Scousers (from a regional dish called lobscouse), they were termed whackers, which is a local English expression and probably unconnected with Irish. It is first recorded in 1768 but is not recorded in the shortened form of whack until the 1960s. Just goes to show that in etymology, even things that look convincing are often completely false.