Tag Archives: seanteach

Cassidese Glossary – Shanty

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.

A shanty is a term for a rough cabin. It was first used in the 1820s and derives from the Canadian French chantier, a lumberjack’s headquarters. The term Shanty Irish for the poor Irish underclass in the US is from a 1928 book by Jim Tully.

It has often been claimed that this word derives from the Irish seanteach or seantigh. Cassidy writes this sean tí, which is ungrammatical and incorrect. In spite of the similarity between seantigh and shanty, it is highly unlikely that the Irish word is the origin of shanty, for the simple reason that sean- means old. By their very nature, such shacks are new structures, not old houses, which is the meaning of seanteach or seantigh.

In any case, this is an old piece of folk-etymology in Ireland and has been in the public domain for more than seventy years.

More on Shanty

One of the most disappointing and irritating things about the recent flurry of Twitter activity surrounding a tweet by the Rubber Bandits was that several people (the Rubber Bandits included) tweeted that ‘the Irish’ for old house is ‘Sean Tí’.

Since the efforts of the Irish state to provide you with a basic knowledge of your own linguistic heritage obviously failed woefully because YOU WEREN’T PAYING ATTENTION, here’s a brief Irish lesson:

The Irish for ‘old house’ is SEANTEACH, pronounced SHANCHAH, with the ‘cha’ as in cha-cha-cha.

The Irish for ‘house’ is teach. It’s only in the genitive. means ‘of a house’, so doras tí is door of a house. But on its own means nothing.

Sean is an adjective. Most adjectives in Irish come after the noun, so teach mór is a big house. However, a handful are prefixes which are attached to the noun. So it’s seanteach. Not sean teach or sean-teach. And still less sean tí or sean-tí.

As for the question of the meaning, imagine that you are standing in a mining camp out in the wilds somewhere. You have just chopped down some trees and built yourself a rough cabin. One of your neighbours comes up and says,

“Hi Séamus, nice house! What do you call a house like that in your language?”

“Well, sure, I call it seanteach, which in my language means ‘old house’.”

And your neighbour scratches his head and says,

“So you’ve just finished building the thing, and your hand sticks to the wall on account of all the pine resin oozing from the freshly-cut logs, but you call it an old house?”

“Aah, but you’re forgettin’ dat I’m Irish, and we have a reputation for quirkiness, eccentricity and irrationality to uphold, so we do!”

Yeah, right, you gowls! And then there’s the fact that we have one book written as a memoir in Irish (Micí Mac Gabhann, Rotha Mór an tSaoil) by a Donegal man who joined the gold rush and lived in a mining camp. When he refers to the houses in the camp, he uses the words bothán, cábán, teach and sometimes cábán tí. He never talks about seantithe. And why the fuck would he?

Shanty

This is one of the few words in Cassidy’s crazy book which has the ring of truth about it, the idea that shanty derives from Irish seanteach or seantigh, which mean ‘old house’. Unsurprisingly, some of the dictionaries themselves mention the possibility of a connection with seanteach and it is widely believed in Ireland that shanty and seanteach are the same. This tells us something quite important – where there is a genuine similarity, people picked up on it and wrote about it long before Cassidy had his brainwave. In the vast majority of the entries in Cassidy’s drossary, the supposed ‘original’ phrase doesn’t exist (béal ónna, sách úr, éamh call, seinnt-theach) and only lunatics like Cassidy make a connection between a real phrase in one language and a made-up phrase in another.

So, on the face of it, seanteach looks like a pretty strong candidate. But is it?  

Firstly, there is another good candidate, the Canadian French chantier, meaning a log cabin used by lumberjacks. Chantier is pronounced shantee-eh.   

There is also the problem that Irish has a number of words for hut. I think most native speakers would use words like cró or bothán instead of seanteach. There is a word seantán, defined as ‘shanty, shack’ in the dictionary (Ó Dónaill) but this is probably of modern origin and based on shanty, as it is a diminutive and there seems to be no word seant in the Irish language which could be its origin.

However, the most compelling reason for rejecting seanteach is that a shanty is by nature not an old house. A shanty is temporary, new and thrown-together.

In other words, this is not a stupid claim. It looks believable. However, it is very, very unlikely that it is correct.