Tag Archives: slang etymology

Fifteen Reasons Why Cassidy’s ‘Research’ Is Nonsense

At this time of year, many people will be receiving a copy of Cassidy’s rubbish book How The Irish Invented Slang as a present. The cleverest of them will be shaking their heads and wondering whether to put it into a charity shop or straight into the recycling bin. Others will be wondering whether there is a core of truth among all the rubbish. The short answer to that is no. Here is a short list of reasons why Cassidy’s ‘research’ cannot be trusted:

  1. Cassidy made up nearly all the ‘Irish’ in the book. This book is stuffed with rubbish phrases which were invented by Cassidy such as béal ónna, sách úr, leathluí géag, uathadh nua, gruaim béil etc. The overwhelming majority of Cassidy’s derivations belong in this category.
  2. Cassidy faked the material from the Irish dictionaries. Many of the definitions given by Cassidy are entirely false. For example, Cassidy claimed that do-thóigthe (dothógtha in modern spelling) can be used as a noun meaning an orphaned calf. This is pure nonsense.
  3. Many of Cassidy’s made up phrases make no grammatical sense in Irish. For example, I don’t know where high-falutin’ really comes from, but it doesn’t come from Cassidy’s uí bhfolaíocht án!
  4. With many words and phrases, Cassidy claimed that there was no known derivation in English. For example, he claims that the word dock (as in to dock someone’s wages) suddenly appears out of nowhere in the 19th century and that it derives from Irish tobhach meaning a levy or tax. The reality is that it is an extension of dock in the sense of docking an animal’s tail, which is attested from the 14th century in English.
  5. In many cases, Cassidy’s knowledge of Irish pronunciation was so poor that the supposed ‘Irish’ candidates sound nothing like the English words. Gump, meaning a chicken, comes from Irish colm (pronounced kollum), according to Cassidy, presumably because he was pronouncing colm as gomm!
  6. The Irish dictionaries contain many words which are old-fashioned and have not been used in the language for centuries. In Dinneen’s dictionary, these are often unmarked. In Ó Dónaill, they are usually marked as Lit. (=Literary). Cassidy put ancient words like ónna together with current words like béal and his explanation for Hot-diggity-dog (árd-iachtach-tach) combines an element that probably hasn’t been used for a thousand years ungrammatically with misspelled modern Irish.
  7. Millions of bilingual Irish and English speakers have lived and died in Ireland, America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand over the last two hundred years. Yet, apparently, none of them ever spotted this vast mass of hidden Irish in the English language. Isn’t that strange? Isn’t it completely implausible that nobody noticed that baloney might come from béal ónna (if béal ónna existed, that is!)
  8. Why aren’t these words found in Irish English as well? The real examples like shebeen and ‘look at the puss on him!’ are in Hiberno-English. Hardly any of Cassidy’s slang terms are actually used in Ireland.
  9. Cassidy frequently gave different versions of his Irish derivations. For example, dingbat supposedly came from duine bod or from duine bocht. If there were really an obvious one-to-one relation between the English word and Irish, these multiple versions shouldn’t exist.
  10. Cassidy frequently used obscure dialect terms and the most obscure meanings of terms. For example, ráibéad is an obscure term from one part of Connemara. And ceap has the obscure, poetic meaning of protector in Irish but that isn’t the usual meaning. If you thought of a policeman as a protector (dubious enough in the slums of New York, I would have thought), why wouldn’t you call him your cosantóir? He also drew on Scottish Gaelic when he couldn’t find what he was looking for in Irish!
  11. Why wouldn’t Irish speakers have used words which they already had? Why did they supposedly invent leathluí géag, which supposedly became lollygag, rather than words like learaireacht and leadaiocht and scraistíocht which mean the same thing and would have been familiar to them?
  12. Some people will probably say, why would Cassidy lie? My answer to this is, why wouldn’t Cassidy lie? Cassidy was a pathological liar. He spent twelve years drawing a salary as a professor on the strength of a degree he didn’t have. This was a criminal offence. If he’d been caught, he would almost certainly have been imprisoned for it. If he was prepared to lie so recklessly in that case, you think it would have bothered him to make up a load of nonsense in Irish?
  13. Why would respectable people in America and Ireland support this book if there’s no truth to it? Most of the people who supported him knew him personally and were part of his social circle, people like Joe Lee and Peter Quinn and Michael Patrick Macdonald. As for those who support this garbage without being part of the charmed circle, take your pick! Stupidity, arrogance, a refusal to listen to people who actually know about these things, faulty logic, wishful thinking, fake radicalism, gullibility, being nuts …
  14. People like Grant Barrett have pointed out that when words cross language boundaries, there tends to be some evidence of it. People tend to write things like ‘as the Irish say’ or the early examples tend to be found in a particular context, uttered by Irish people or obviously Irish characters in fiction. For example, the word hubbub comes from the Irish ababú. In early texts, it was often called ‘the Irish hubbub’. Of course, as many of these terms are slang terms, it would be unreasonable to expect such evidence for every word claimed by Cassidy. But you would expect at least a fraction of them to have such evidence. In reality, there is no evidence at all of this kind for any of the hundreds of fake derivations given by Cassidy in this book.
  15. Many of the more plausible derivations given by Cassidy (words like snazzy and longshoreman and rookie and say uncle) were plagiarised by Cassidy and were already claimed by other people. Cassidy didn’t acknowledge his debt to them. Most of these derivations are also wrong but not as crazy as the ones invented by Danny the Dork.