I have already discussed the origin of the word shanty and its claimed origin from Irish on this blog. As I said before, the standard explanation among scholars is that shanty comes from chantier, which is a Canadian-French word meaning a lumberjack’s headquarters or a timber-yard or dock, originally deriving from the Latin cantherius, meaning a rafter or frame. This derivation makes sense and is certainly more credible than the Irish claim. I notice that there was a brief exchange a couple of years ago about this subject on Twitter, when a tweeter called HibernoEnglish posted the following:
Shanty – a word known around the world from its association with the Shanty Town – a settlement of poor people – comes from the Irish seantigh – Old house. Shanty itself in Hiberno meaning a ramshackle dwelling.
Another tweeter, Coiste na bhfocal, took issue with this claim:
100% cinnte nach ón nGaeilge a thagann sé [100% sure that it doesn‘t come from Irish]
This is a false etymology. Níl bunús leis. [There is no basis to it]
They also cited this blog in support of the idea that shanty is not from Irish. HibernoEnglish rapidly replied, pointing out that Terence Dolan had supported the idea that shanty came from Irish:
Céad faoin gcéad? Disputed maybe, not 100%. This is the entry in T Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English. Probably the foremost expert on the dialect, could be wrong but unlikely to fall for the sources cited in the blog post above.
It is quite true that Dolan supported this claim, but Dolan, though he was a good linguist and scholar, was not infallible. Here is what he had to say on the subject:
Shanty / ʃænti/ n., a makeshift cabin; a ramshackle house; a shabby liquor-house <Ir seantigh, old house. ‘He’s up there living inan old shanty at the butt of the mountain, waiting for them to build him a council house (TF, Cavan).
Coiste na bhfocal nua answered the other tweet as follows:
He definitely wouldn’t have fallen for that source but I am sure that origin is incorrect. Dolan’s book is generally excellent but that is a bad miss.
Why did Dolan get it so wrong in this case? First of all, we need to look at what Dolan’s book is aiming to do. It is about the English language as spoken in Ireland. He seems to be saying that because it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that seanteach or seantigh could have crossed into Hiberno-English from Irish, that should be included in the book. I agree with Coiste na bhfocal nua that this is a very unlikely claim. If we could find a reference to “a shanty with ancient whitewashed stone walls and a thatched roof”, that would strengthen the case considerably. But we don’t.
I have already dealt with the fact that in an Irish book dealing with gold mining, Mac Gabhann’s Rotha Mór an tSaoil, the words used for their dwellings are teach, cában and bothán, not seanteach. I have noted that the meaning of shanty in Hiberno-English is not describing an ancient house but ramshackle, makeshift temporary structures, just like in other dialects of English.
However, this is not the only evidence in support of the idea that shanty has nothing to do with the Irish seanteach. There is plenty of other evidence in 19th century newspapers.
What about this early reference set in Canada from the 22nd of September 1833, in a London publication called Bell’s New Weekly Messenger?
About sunset, dripping wet, we arrived near the spot we were in quest of, – a shanty, which an Indian, who had committed murder, had raised for himself. It may be proper to mention here, that a shanty is a temporary shed formed of the branches of trees.
Or what about this, from the Cork Constitution of 23rd of December, 1834:
MURDERS IN AMERICA (From the Baltimore American)
It becomes our unpleasant duty to relate the particulars of a most diabolical outrage which has been committed on the line of the Washington railroad, about 18 miles from this city, involving the murders of three of the deputy superintendents of construction. It appears that on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Gorman, one of the contractors, was assailed in his own shanty by eight or ten men, supposed to be some of those at work on the road.
Or this, from the Mayo Constitution of the 12th of June, 1834?
The Irish laborer, mechanic and farmer, with small capital, must most decidedly better their condition by emigration to the Canadas – but gentlemen accustomed to the comforts of life at home must be losers by the exchange, for they must wield the axe as well as another – they must put up with a salt pork dinner, unless they live near some town or village, for the first few years – they must be content with a log house or shanty, which are easily raised here …
In other words, all of the early references to shanties make it quite plain, not only that the shanty is a makeshift, temporary dwelling, they also make it quite plain that the shanty is a makeshift, temporary dwelling in the wilds of America or Canada!