Thursday, August 09, 2007

The real book review of "How the Irish Invented Slang", part I

*on edit: this is only the preface to the real article, which you can find here
The big article has word by word comparisons of Cassidy's words that supposedly come from Irish with alternate, more plausible, derivations.


The previous posts about it have been criticized because they relied on Cassidy's essays on CounterPunch. Well, the book is here in my hands and, thankfully, I live in a place where the "Dictionary of American Slang" is available, so I can compare Mr. Cassidy's interpretation of American words to the accepted etymological origins of them.

But first let's start out with an interesting sentence from the introduction:

"Unlike Italians, Jews, Hispanics, French, Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and almost every ethnic group in North America, it was a well known but "puzzling" linguistic fact that the Irish had contributed almost no words or phrases to the English language."

I'm sort of puzzled by this, because most of the groups mentioned have contributed very few words to the English language. Where are the landslide of Native American terms that Americans use? What about that huge pile of Scandinavian words? They don't exist. Neither does the great mound of Dutch words or the enormous hunk of German words. Most of the words that Cassidy is referring to are words relating to food, i.e. the Italian contributions and the German contributions, as well as the Scandinavian contributions, with the exception of maybe "Fjord". The food contributions relate to Italian food, German food, and maybe Scandinavian food...which you only know about if you live in Minnesota, North Dakota, or the Pacific Northwest.

Hispanics, African-Americans, and Jews.....more properly Yiddish speakers, have made substantial contributions to American slang, and that's easily documented. French, too, has contributed to American English, even though the crossover happened during French colonial times or in areas that were formerly French.

Asian contributions to the English language in America? Again, food names and things relating to Asian culture. "Sushi" and "Tai Kwon Do" or "Karate" don't exactly count as real contributions to the English language in the sense of the language that people speak on a day to day basis when they're Not referring to Asian things.

Cassidy's argument that it's strange that Irish contribute few words, I say that since the idea that it contributed no words at all is overblown (blown, I just used an Irish word, according to Cassidy!) and unrealistic, that they contributed few words despite being in America in large numbers is belied by his inclusion of Germans in the list of groups that have contributed words to the English language. You see Germans were the second largest ethnic group to migrate to the U.S. in the mid 19th century, in large enough numbers that they were right behind the Irish. Yet we don't speak with tons of German loan words.

Why is this? Maybe it's because numbers don't automatically translate out into cultural influence.

The sentence sets up another point that's seen again and again, the whine of Irish martyrdom in North America being ignored for the plight of other ethnic groups, something Cassidy wants to correct.

He goes on about the tough life of Irish in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, albeit in passing--as is all his polemical content, but the reality of Jewish women virtually chained to sewing machines working in sweat shops in New York City, while the Irish were moving up in the world, never seems to cross his mind. Instead, the Irish are the people who defined American language, whose contributions have been denied by an Anglo-American conspiracy, which he hints at in his comments about Anglo-American dictionary makers excluding Irish origins of words.

In part II of this I'll go and compare some of his definitions with the definitions given by the Dictionary of American Slang to see what other people have to say about his words.....because, wonder upon wonder, the bulk of the book is a dictionary of slang accompanied by supposed Irish origins.

Get out your Shelailagh, it's going to be a good time!

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