Tag Archives: theories of Irish origins of English

Loreto Todd and Green English

I recently came across a terrible St Paddy’s Day article by Mark Bergin which references Daniel Cassidy and his crazy theories. With regard to Bergin’s article itself, which is full of nonsense, the less said the better. However, it did point me in an interesting direction, to a book which I had never read before, Green English by Loreto Todd. It is strange that I had never encountered this book before as I had read one of the author’s books on pidgins and creoles decades ago and we both live in the same small contested piece of land known variously as the Six Counties or Northern Ireland.

The book, originally published in 1999, has a certain amount in common with Cassidy’s. It shares Cassidy’s conviction that the mainstream dictionaries and particularly the OED have not looked sufficiently closely at the contribution to English from Irish. A tiny handful of the derivations of English words from Irish are the same as those given by Cassidy. I will deal with this handful in more detail below. 

However, to compare Todd to Cassidy would not be fair. Todd is or was a real academic, with experience in universities all over the world and a string of publications in book form or in journals. Most of the book is a good, though short and not terribly original, look at the possible influences of Hiberno-English (and the Gaelic component in it) on world English. She loves the Irish language (as do I) and writes a very laudable section about how the world is poorer for the loss of minority languages.

The problem that I would have with the book is a general sloppiness and an overall air of romanticism. Todd is a romantic about language and she gets carried away at times and makes claims which lack any kind of evidence.

Among examples of the sloppiness is a tendency to use Gaelic or G willy-nilly as a term for Irish or Scottish Gaelic, without distinction (sonsy, for example, is plainly from Scottish Gaelic, not Irish). Another is the lack of consistency in terms of spelling. Sometimes the spellings are derived from the forms given in English dictionaries (cainnt, sean-tigh), sometimes they are the modern standard spelling. Her Irish is by no means perfect. For example, she thinks a stóir is the correct Irish version of the Hiberno-English asthore. The grammar books and dictionaries insist that it is a stór. She says that the OED doesn’t recognise the origin of puss as in sourpuss as Irish, which seems to be completely untrue, though a lack of proper referencing means that it is impossible to check which version of the OED she is referring to.

The claims which lack any evidence at all are more serious and I would like to discuss this in greater depth. There is a complicating factor here in that we need to be clear what Todd is actually claiming. She seems to be making a claim that when languages are in contact, a similar word in one language can reinforce the use of a word in another, even if it’s not a borrowing. The example she gives is a certain African pidgin, where the word uman is plainly English woman, but apparently in a local language, Efik, the word for woman is uman anyway, so this would reinforce its use.  

There are several problems with this. The most obvious is that it is completely untestable. In this English-based pidgin, would people have used uman for woman anyway or did the Efik language have some impact? Maybe, but I can’t think of any convincing way of proving it. The derivation from woman seems sure, the influence of Efik is nothing more than a ghostly presence. It is when she gives examples of the Irish words which might have influenced English in this way that the sloppiness and the romanticism come together to produce a bit of a train-wreck. For one thing, it is unclear whether she is claiming that these words are derived from Irish or reinforced by it. For another, she makes no attempt to look at the history of the word and see what other scholars have said about its derivation. While she invites people to consider the list at the end of the book and draw their own conclusions, she doesn’t give them sufficient information to do this.

For example, she claims that cuddle may have been reinforced by (or derive from) Irish codail, which means sleep. Really? Why? I can’t see a close semantic connection between cuddle and sleep and it seems to me that this word is somehow linked to words like coddle and huddle. The same with hug, which Todd links to Irish cuaich (properly cuach in the modern spelling). This doesn’t sound like hug, even in the past tense form chuach, and in any case, most sources link hug to a Norse word meaning ‘to comfort’.

Then there is her claim that the pronoun she in English might be a loanword from Irish . The usual explanation is that she developed out of a demonstrative pronoun in a parallel way to the development of sie in German. This makes sense to me and linguists will tell you that borrowing of pronouns is really uncommon. Perhaps she is right in saying that Irish should have been considered as a source .. but not for very long!

She says that while many linguists, including Irish linguists, believe that craic came into Irish from English crack, she is not so sure and thinks it might be the other way around. She cites as ‘evidence’ that the first use of it is found in Scots and that Spenser used it, and Spenser lived in Ireland. This is really clutching at straws. Scots, of course is mostly Germanic and there is not much Gaelic in it, and Spenser hated the Irish and wrote for his wealthy patrons on the other side of the Irish Sea. There would be no reason for him to put words into his writings which were not English, so her claim seems unlikely here.

Again, arsehole in English is, according to Todd, either borrowed from or reinforced by (what a tiresome get-out that is!) the Irish asal, meaning a donkey. Why not English arse+hole?

There are a lot of others. Jig (derived from French giguer) is linked to Irish dígeann meaning climax (ooh er, missus!) Teem (to drain, from Norse) is linked to Irish taom, which comes from a Norse word for to drain. Drool, which is really linked to words like drivel and dribble, is from dreolán, meaning a fool (why? I know plenty of fools but few of them actually dribble …) Spree is variously given as spré (to scatter, squander – FGB actually defines it as spread, dowry, spark) or as spréigh, while in Irish the word equivalent to spree is always spraoi. And as for through-other, this could be influenced by Irish trína chéile but the fact is that this phrase is found in Northern England and Scotland and is cognate with durcheinander in German.In other words, I can’t see much, if any, value in her speculations here.

Before I leave this (rather long) post, let me deal with the handful of words where Todd’s claims are the same as Cassidy’s. Both of them derive so long from slán, ignoring well-known derivations from German and Scandinavian languages. Brag is derived by both of them from bréag, bum from bumaire, and cop (to stop, seize or think) from ceap, hack from each, and twig from tuig. (There may be one or two others but I really can’t be bothered comparing every claim of Todd with every claim made by Cassidy). The only one here likely to be correct is twig. The rest of the handful of words in common between Todd and Cassidy (mavourneen, achushla, poteen etc.) are also found in other dictionaries and sources and didn’t originate with either of them, so they are irrelevant to the argument that Irish words have been ignored.

However, it is important to stress that the claims in Todd’s book do not confirm or support Cassidy’s claims in any way.  Todd didn’t find áilteoir scaoilte in helter-skelter or uath dubh in hoodoo or béal ónna in baloney or steall béideán in stool pigeon or indeed any of the hundreds of other crappy made-up pieces of nonsense in Cassidy’s book. If Cassidy had been right, you would expect at least half of the words and phrases in his book to be found in Todd’s book as well, not the pathetic handful which we really find.