A while back, I published a post on Cassidy’s claims about the nickname Boliver. According to Cassidy, his Irish grandfather was nicknamed Boliver because it represented the Irish words bailbhe [boliva] or balbhán [balawaan], which come from balbh meaning ‘dumb’ or ‘unable to speak’. This was because, according to Cassidy, his grandfather was notoriously quiet.
As I pointed out at the time, this is very unlikely. Firstly, there are kinder words for silent or laconic, like grusach, ciúin, beagfhoclach, béaldruidte. Then balbhán (a dumb person, a person unable to speak) doesn’t sound a lot like Boliver and bailbhe is an abstract noun meaning dumbness. Irish nicknames are simply not formed out of abstract nouns. Mostly they are formed from adjectives and it’s quite unlikely that a noun like bailbhe would be used as a nickname.
There is also a question about what else Boliver might mean. After all, Simón Bolívar was the revolutionary saviour of Latin America and throughout the twentieth century, his image was on advertising posters and cigar boxes all over the States. There is also the vaudeville character Patsy Bolivar, a kind of stooge in a comedy act in Boston in the 1870s or 80s. This is believed to be the origin of Patsy as in “I’m just a patsy.” Patsy is a common Irish version of Patrick.
However, the plot thickens (slightly). I recently came across a word in Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, the word baileabhair. It is defined thus:
baileabhair, s. (In phrases) ~ a dhéanamh de dhuine, to make a fool of s.o. Tá mé i mo bhaileabhair acu, they are exasperating me. Ná déan ~ díot féin, don’t speak, act, in a silly manner.
Could this be the origin of Bolivar in the name Patsy Bolivar, and thus the ultimate origin of the nickname Bolivar? Was Cassidy right about the Irish origin but wrong about the word it derives from?
It seems unlikely for one very clear reason. In most parts of Ireland, a broad –bh- is pronounced as a w. Only in Munster is a bh routinely pronounced as a v, even when broad. The word baileabhair is found in the early nineteenth century in a story set in Tyrone by the native Irish speaker William Carleton, in the form bauliore. It is also found in similar forms in Mayo, Connemara and Wexford. There is no evidence of it in Munster and no evidence of it being pronounced as boliver instead of balour.
In other words, while baileabhair looks like a good lead, it turns out to be improbable. (And interestingly, Cassidy missed it, in spite of it being on the same page of Dinneen’s dictionary as bailbhe!) It is much more likely that it is from Simon Bolivar, whose portrait was on cigar boxes and cigar stores all over America from the beginning of the twentieth century.
However, this also demonstrates the fact that in many cases (like ‘so long’) there are lots of different possible explanations. It’s not enough to make a claim of Irish origin. You have to discount – or at least examine – the other possible explanations too. Of course, Cassidy distorted the evidence by refusing to look at any explanations but his own.