Thursday, August 09, 2007

Book Review of "How the Irish Invented Slang" Part II--Side by side definition comparisons.

Where to begin? First, lets do the silly ones. Then the predictable ones, then the ones where he gets it completely wrong. It should be mentioned that the bulk of Cassidy's supposed finds in slang are words so old and out of use that they're totally unfamiliar. Examples: Slat: ribs; Gigger: a lock; Cheese, to "Cheese it" to shut up or be quiet; Cove: a fellow rogue; Oliver: the Moon; Pill: a baseball or golf ball; Plunge: a Hobo's stash of money; Foot Juice: fortified wine; Kinker: circus performer. Wow, that really shone some light on expressions I use every day! Ok, onto the side by side. BTW, I'm translating the pronunciations from the symbols into something that people can easily read. Cassidy didn't write them like that. The third section of this is where the meat is, so skip on to it if you want. Oh, and there's an entertaining satire in the appendix to this post, which is at the end.

The Silly Ones:

Buck: a strong and spirited young man, a dashing fellow. DC[Daniel Cassidy]: Boc n. A buck, a wag, a playboy

McBain's dictionary [published in 1896] derives Buck from Boc....and thence to a Sanskrit root.


it could just refer to someone who was like a deer, or a buck, "young buck" = like a young male deer.

Kid: a young goat, a child. DC: Cuid, pronounced Coueed, a share, a part, a portion, a term of endearment, love affection.


It could be a term of endearment for a child who was as cute as a little sheep.

More DC: "Stealing a Kid (a chuid, my darling) from an Irish mother was robbing the Cuid (portion, part) that she loved more than any other."

And if, like, the world was, like just a little world, right, inside a bigger world, and that was inside a bigger world, that would be, like, woah, cool.
Yes, scholarship on the level of stoned humor. Got to love it.

The Big Onion: term for Chicago. Cassidy thinks that this refers to New York City, which it decidedly does not. Nevertheless, he gives a definition for it. DC: (big) Annon, pronounced eh-non (big) beyond, far side. "NYC was the 'Big Beyond' to millions of Irish emigrants."


Chicago was named the "Big Onion" to distinguish it from New York City, which was the "Big Apple". Cassidy cites the fact that a group called "Big Onion Tours" has a tour of the Lower East Side that talks about the Irish who used to live there as proof that "The Big Onion" refers to New York City.

Ma. Mother. DC: Máthair. Mother; source.


Actually, Mother is spread along every single Indo-European language in related forms, from Máthair to Mutter to Mor, to Mere, to Moeder, to Mothir, Meter, Mater...going all the way back to the Sanskrit Matar. In fact, "Mother" was one of the words that prompted linguists to think that there was an Indo-European family of languages that included languages in India. Very curious to suggest that Irish was the the source of the abbreviation "Ma". It's related to 'Mumm' and "Mom" and "Mommy", an abbreviation of these. You have to ask where 'Mom' came from. You can't just say that 'Ma' came from Irish because Máthair has an "A" as it's first value, as opposedd to the "O" of English. Why not Latin for the origin of "Ma", then? Or Greek? Or Sanskrit?

Ok, now the obvious. These are words that DC includes as slang revelations that aren't exactly news.

Shamrock: a clover. DC: Seamróg: a Shamrock, a clover

Mullarkey (Malarkey): exagerrated, foolish, talk. DC Meallacach: alluring, charming, beguiling, deceitful.

Bard, poet: DC Bárd, Bard: a poet, a bard, a rhymer, a scold.

Bet you didn't know those were Irish!

Now, onto the good part, the just plain wrong.

Lucre: gain, profit, advantage. DC: Luach óir, pronounced Luec-Or: reward of gold, wages of glod, price of gold.


Lucrum, Latin, gain, used in St. Paul's epistle to Titus. Cassidy mentions this but says that Lucrum is a cognate, meaning that it's basically the same word, as the Irish Luach and Old Irish lóg. Now, "filthy lucre" is a most English phrase, meaning that Lucre probably got into the English language in America from England, where it was derived from Lucrum. Additionally, the Catholic Church likely influenced the Irish language through Church Latin, and if that's not enough there's always the common Indo-European roots between Latin and Irish, something that Cassidy doesn't seem to take into account. Irish isn't it's own language family, neither is it a language that's been outside of history. Latin influenced it through the church like Greek influenced Russian.

Dude: a dapper dandy; a "swell", [someone whose style was affected]: DC: Dúd a foolish looking fellow; a dolt; a numbskull; a clown; an idiot; a rubbernecker.


Interestingly enough, Cassidy exploits something here that he exploits elsewhere in the book: the fact that some words have either obscure origins or aren't listen in slang dictionaries. He devotes a whole essay to "Dude" without giving a single instance connecting the word "Dude" to anything Irish. Look at this, from the Brooklyn Eagle on February 25th 1883 "The Dude is from 19 to 28 yearsw of age, wearsw trousers of extreme tightness, is hollow chested, effeminate in his ways, apes the English and distinguishes himself as a lover of actresses."

Cited in Chapman's Dictionary of American slang as being something that dandy African-American youths described themselves as, same meaning as "cat".

Now, Cassidy saying that what these folks called themselves was a derogatory term is pretty interesting. He labels the Oxford English Dictionary Dúd in the sense of numbskull for not accepting an Irish origin of the word. So Cassidy is making a judgement about the origin of the word that comes from what he thinks that Irish folks back in the 19th century thought about these people, that they were idiots, and thinks that this terminology somehow leaped into use by the people themselves, who obviously weren't aware of the term's connotations. Interestingly, he only cites descriptions of people using the word "Dude" to describe dandies and doesn't show anything that relates Irish to Dude besides the similarity of Dude and Dúd. Maybe Dúd is related to "Dud", which would make much more sense.

The mention of effemininity brings up another word he uses, one that's near and dear to my heart: Queer.

Queer: odd, strange, peculiar, eccentric, suspicious; a homosexual; DC: Corr, pronounced Core, Odd, occasional; peculiar, eccentric, strange.


Counterfeit (Chapman), like a counterfeit coin, something wrong. Sounds like the Irish definition, right? Well, yes, but Chapman cites the first use of Queer as coming in the 1500s, the 16th century, and coming from a Scottish dialect. Cassidy notes some of this but goes on to point out how Queer looks like the Irish word Corr and an associated verb: Corraigh, pronounced Core-ee, which means to disturb to stir to tamper with to rouse to anger. The fact is that Scottish in the 1500s looked like Irish, but that doesn't in any sense mean that Queer is an Irish borrowing, or that the borrowing took place in America. The 16th century rule is something that Cassidy invokes from time to time. This is supposed to be a book about Irish slang in America, but every now and again he traces something to 16th century Ireland or France (where many Irish supposedly settled in the 16th century after the conquest of Ireland), and then says "Aha! See! The Irish influenced the English language!". Possibly, but that has nothing to do with Irish slang in America.

Hick: n. a peasant, a rural person, a country fool

DC: Aitheach, pronounced H-ahheych.n. A churl [boorish person], a peasant, a rent-payer.

"Hick was classified as low cant and vulgar slang well into the 20th century. Most Anglo-American dictionaries derive the word hick from an obscure nickname for Richard"


Cassidy is right that they say that it comes from an obscure name for Richard. What he leaves out is that the Oxford English Dictionary cites a passage from the 16th century containing the name Hick for Rich-ard. Specifically, says it's first recorded in the 1560s and goes on to record a passage talking about " Hick, Hod, and Hodge", describing average Joes, where Hick and Hodge were nicknames for Rick and Rodger. The sense is that a Hick is a average or common person, kind of like "Bubba".

Crony: a close intimate friend or associate; a pal, a chum. Cronies, n. pl, fellow-friends, mutual pals.

DC: Comh-roghna, pronounced ko-rohneh) fellow chosen-ones, mutual sweethearts, fellow-favorites, close friends, mutual pals.

This one, I have to say, is one of the cases of outright fraud in Cassidy's book, and I'm not saying that lightly. Here's why:

"Crony is said to first appear in English during the Restoration Period, supposedly originating in the gobs of wise-cracking English college swells"....vox academica...a term of university or college slang" [from the Oxford English Dictionary]

However, Crony appears in the 1811 edition of Grose's Vulgar Tongue with a decidedly non-collegiate definition....."a confederate in robbery"..."

Here's the really, really, important part, :"Much like African-American gangsta' slang, the flash talk of the Irish slums of London's Seven Dials and St. Giles was all the rage with the youth of the English upper- and middle-classes in the 19th century".

So what's the problem? First off, I've read the very entry in the Oxford English Dictionary that he cites, and he omits to say that the word was recorded in the diary of Samuel Pepys, a famous chronicler, in the mid 17th century. That's when the Restoration was. It started in 1660 and lasted until 1688. Now, how is it that the language habits of youths in the 19th century jumped back in time to the 17th? His example of the "Seven Dials" area, while clearly applicable to the late 18th and to the 19th centuries, is much less clear when you take it back to the 17th century, when it wasn't a slum but a new development that the founder hoped would become fashionable.

Did Daniel Cassidy not see the Oxford English Dictionary citing the mid 17th century as the time when "Crony" was recorded by Samuel Pepys? Did he not know that the Irish slum he was referring to didn't quite exist then, so that there wasn't likely any "gangsta'" like interchange between the Irish and the college folks of that area? It gets curiouser and curiouser when you find that Pepys went to college in Cambridge, not London, in 1651-1654. Cambridge is far from London slums.

Is it that hard to believe that the term "Crony" as referring to a friend or "Cronies" referring to a group of friends, started off as academic slang? If you didn't know that his dates were totally wrong you might believe that there was something there. Please tell me how Irish slang got to Cambridge in the 17th century.

Croaker: a doctor, surgeon. DC: Crochaire (pronounced Crocheireh), a hangman, an executioner, a gallows' bird, a wretch, a villain. a doctor (Irish Traveller Cant)

"The croaker (Crochaire,pron. Crocheireh) a hangman, executioner, was the name for the doctor that the poor could not afford to see until they were already croaking. A "croaker" brought death like a hangman"


Well folks, this one is really, really, wrong. Absurdly wrong. And all it would take would have been a look in the "Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang" available at most University and College libraries, to see how wrong this definition is. The Random House dictionary cites the first appearance to the 17th century, referring first to the sound of frogs and then referring to people who are boastful. They "Croak" like Frogs croak. Croaker doesn't exclusively refer to doctors and it doesn't refer to executioners at all, it refers to people who talk a lot and are arrogant, which people could easily apply to doctors. Notice the note of pity that comes in with Cassidy's definition. Croakers aren't arrogant doctors, but people who the poor go to when they are in need, presumably needy poor Irish people. Oh, and a clarification: the reason why so many of these definitions go back to the 16th century is that that was when printing started to come into general use. Before that there were manuscripts and occasional wood block pamphlets and prayer booklets.

Knicknack: a curiosity; a small, unusual articl, more for ornamentation or sentimental use. DC:
Neamhghnách (Pronounced : neh'ah knák, neh'ah hunák) unusual, uncommon, uncustomary, (something) extraordinary, unusual, uncommon.

"A knicknack is an uncommon thing or curiosity. It was also considered a vulgar slang word into well into the 19th century. "Nicknacks. Toys, baubles, or curiousities." (Frances Grose, Classical dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785, (1811)."


Now this is really interesting, for several reasons. First off, and I should have mentioned this sooner, Cassidy puts an awful lot of faith in the supposed underworld origins of these words. That's why he seems to be using a book called "Classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue", which we saw cited in "Crony". However, while in that entry Cassidy puts the date as 1811, in this one he reveals that it was written in 1785 and only reprinted in 1811. Why is this important? Well, because "Vulgar" had a different meaning in the 18th century. It referred to the talk of normal people, and didn't necessarily mean vulgarity. The "Vulgate", for instance, is a version of the Bible translated from Greek into Latin. Latin was the "vulgar" tongue of the time, meaning that it wasn't the language used by scholars. So saying that a word was considered vulgar into the 19th century based on the title of a dictionary, which I really hope wasn't the source that Cassidy got this from, is an enormous error.

But it goes deeper than that. If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary you find that Knicknack isn't vulgar at all, and that in the beginning it had little to do with the unusual, the uncommon or the uncustomary. According to the OED Knicknack originally referred to a light and dainty thing. Something small, but that looked nice. They cite a source in the 17th century, and then describe a passage where they say that a woman wouldn't even consider going into a shop unless there was a knicknack displayed there. So it wasn't purely unusual, which "Neamhghnách"--Cassidy usefully breaks it down into Neamh, meaning un, non, and Gnách: common, usual, customary. Indeed, it looks like the idea that knicknacks were something other than nice little things, not necessarily that unusual, seems to come in with the creation of the word "Knicknacker", which refers to someone who's obsessed with the collection of knicknacks. The OED again cites a passage where a man is described as liking "Knicknacks, butterflies, and bugs". This also shows the idea that a knicknack was originally specifically something delicate, not just something unusual....besides, if Knicknack came from Neamhghnách, wouldn't a really big storm, or a person acting really badly qualify as being Neamhghnách? After all, it seems to mean literally not-usual or not-customary. Doesn't say anything about little things you buy at a store.

Throng: n. a crowd, a mass of people, (act of) crowding. DC: Drong (pronounced Drawngh)n. a multitude, a body of people; group; party, troop, faction, tribe, folk; a great assemblage of people. An drong dhaonna, the human race.


This, my friends, is the crown of our little exercize. Throng. Seems like a little word, but it means so much. He traces it to Drong, from Irish. The Oxford English Dictionary, which he seems to quote when he likes, gives the coup-de-gras by citing the first use of "Throng" as being in A.D. 900 in Old English, where it referred to people crushing in in a crowd, i.e. Thronging. It then goes on to cite related words in German, drängen, and Norse, although unfortunately I didn't copy down the Norse one. The original was written starting with þ, which is the Old English letter for "th". Maybe Irish has a similar word, after all they're both Indo-European languages and so share certain similarities, but on the claim that Irish was the origin for both the word "Throng" and "Thronging", both of which were documented by the OED to have been in use for centuries after the first recorded usage, is completely and totally false. As false as false can be. It's up there with saying that Ma comes from the Irish Máthair because it has an 'A' as it's first value, as opposed to the 'O' in Mother.

So there you have it. A sampling. Interestingly enough he does find several definitions that really do go back to Irish, but besides "Jazz", which I'll get to in a second, most of them are in fact confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary and by some slang dictionaries, meaning that although obscure and hidden in large books these definitions weren't suppressed by mean "Anglo-American" dictionary makers. They were there.

Here are a few that he got right: Keister, Jerk, Shanty, Kabosh. There are probably more. But let's get into Jazz.

It's interesting, in his essay devoted to the word Jazz he skirts around the issue, although he goes into it in the actual dictionary part, of what exactly Jazz originally meant in it's likely origin. He proves that it was an adjective already in use that was applied to the African-American musical movement and not one that the performers used themselves. But what is Jazz, or Jass as it was originally spelled? Quite frankly, Jass was Horniness. You open up Chapman's "Dictionary of American Slang" and the first entry on Jazz is from someone named James T. Farrell, an Irish name, in the 19th century, and it says "To Fuck". "He Jazzed her", "It was really Jazzed up", "He did it in a really Jazzy way".all these things were derivative of Jazz's original meaning of a man being horny and brimming with sexual desire and energy. To Jazz something up was to make it sexy or to add sexy embellishments. Cassidy, at least in the essay at the front of the book, kindly renders "Jazz" as being related to an Irish word for 'heat'. This is probably right, but oh what heat! So yeah, Jazz was originally Irish, but it meant wanting to Fuck.

Here we come to the last part of this essay: the appendix. You know, when I was researching all of this I came across a Hungarian-English dictionary and I started to look through it. I was surprised to find that there were many words in Hungarian, or Magyar more properly, that had strangely similar equivalents in English. I wrote some of them down. It was shocking, and I have to say that although I've just scratched the surface I'm convinced that Hungarians invented the English Language. Yes, I know it's difficult to imagine but just look at the facts:

"How the Hungarians Invented the English Language"

Amis: not functioning properly; "something is amiss"; "has gone completely haywire"; "something is wrong with the engine"Adv. amiss - away from the correct or expected course; "something has gone awry in our plans"; "something went badly amiss in the preparations"

Magyar: Hamis, pronounced Hawmeessh-False, not Genuine

Bevel: To cut at an inclination that forms an angle other than a right angle

Magyar: Ivel, pronounced eevehl-Bend, Curve, a [curved] vault [an architectural term, not a safe].

Ears: 5. Sympathetic or favorable attention: "[The President] wavers between the two positions, depending on who last had his ear" Joseph C. Harsch. or, "Prick up your Ears!"

Magyar: Örs, pronounced ooohrssh. Patrol, Sentry. For "Prick up your ears", not the noun. Prick up your Örs means to be a Sentry because something might happen.

Eratic: 1. Having no fixed or regular course; wandering.
2. Lacking consistency, regularity, or uniformity

Magyar: Erös, pronounced ehrooossh, the root of "Eratic", meaning Strong or Vigorous, in the sense referring to something so strong that it doesn't stick to the regular course of things.

Fell: a. To cause to fall by striking; cut or knock down: fell a tree; fell an opponent in boxing.
b. To kill: was felled by an assassin's bullet.

Magyar: Efelé, pronounced ehfehlay, towards this [direction], a pointing term "it went towards there". Entered the English language in the phrase "The tree Fell by the rock", which really means "The tree Efelé the rock" or, "The tree [went] towards the rock".

Jack: jack off Vulgar Slang
To masturbate.

Magyar: Csak, pronounced Chawkh, meaning "only" or "alone", like "only him". To Jack Off really means "to alone it off", or to "while alone [masturbate] it off [to completion]".

Pasta:1. Unleavened dough, made of wheat flour, water, and sometimes eggs, that is molded into any of a variety of shapes and boiled. They say it's from Late Latin, from Paste, but we know better.

Magyar: Paszta, pronounced Pawstaw, meaning strips or sections, and don't we know that Pasta noodles often resemble strips? You know, wide noodles?

and finally,

Rack: tr.v. racked, rack·ing, racks
1. To place (billiard balls, for example) in a rack.

Magyar: Elrak, pronounced ehlrrawch (with the 'r' trilled like in Spanish): to put away, to clear.

That's obvious enough. I know what you're saying, that Hungarian isn't related to any European languages, not to English, not even to Latin, but Hungarian truly is the secret language of the crossroads, the language of the underbelly of American society. The criminal mixing of Hungarian gangsters in New York City with the other inhabitants produced this dialect, which we're still using today without even realizing it. They say Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to learn. Balderdash. You're already speaking it.

1 comment:

Seán said...

Hi John, This is one of the best hatchet-jobs on Cassidy I've seen. You are spot-on in every respect. It won't surprise you to learn that most of the "Irish" in Cassidy's book is fantasy and a lot of the words that he cites as from Irish are pretty obviously migrants in the other direction: drong (throng), bas (boss) and boc (buck) are quite clearly borrowings from English. Maith thú, cibé! (Well done, anyway!)