Tag Archives: uisge beatha

Cassidese Glossary – Whiskey

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.

Whisky or whiskey is acknowledged by all lexicographers and scholars of language to be a borrowing and shortening of the Irish or Scottish Gaelic term uisce beatha (uisge beatha), which is a calque based on the Latin aqua vitae (not aqua vita, as Cassidy writes in his book).

Cassidy does not deny this, but he seems to imply that the sound-change found in the transition from uisce to whisky justifies his claim that the words were mangled and transformed completely when they were borrowed from Irish into English:

The archaic English spelling and pronunciation whiskybae, and its contraction whiskey, demonstrate how dramatically Irish shape-shifted into English. The slender Irish s, pronounced sh, in uisce (pron. ishkee, water) became the sibilant “s” of “whiskeybae” and “whiskey”.

This is a claim that Cassidy makes throughout the book. Logically, this is nonsense. When Irish words were adopted by English, the process generally left them completely intelligible. Shebeen and síbín, soogan and súgán, coyne and cáin: the form is very similar.

However, there is an interesting point here, which Cassidy raises and does nothing with: why does the slender s (sh) of the Irish become a broad or velarized s in the English in this case? (Both s and sh are sibilants, of course.) The first point that needs to be mentioned is that uisce beatha was borrowed into English as early as the 16th century in forms like uskebeaghe (1581). (The usquebae mentioned by Cassidy isn’t found in English until the 18th century.) In other words, we can’t be absolutely sure of the exact pronunciation of uisge when the borrowing occurred. Secondly, there may be something in the pattern of letters -isce- that makes the s something between a velarized and a palatal consonant; something in the place of articulation. There are other examples of this: the surname Ó Fuaruisce becomes Whoriskey in English, and the word crúiscín (jug) is always written as cruiskeen in English (as in Cruiskeen Lawn).