Michael Patrick Brady

How the Irish Invented Slang by Daniel Cassidy

Complete Blarney – Lexicographer Grant Barrett has posted an excellent explication of the flaws and lack of intellectual rigor displayed in Daniel Cassidy’s How The Irish Invented Slang, which purports to find secret Irish origins for common American vernacular.

Back in October, I reviewed the book for PopMatters and, like Barrett, was disappointed and alarmed by the casual, off-the-cuff manner in which Cassidy made his assertions.

The weakness of his research and in his methodology is apparent to anyone with two eyes and a minute to crack open the book. That’s what makes this surprisingly positive profile in The New York Times so frustrating. A minimal amount of effort would have revealed to the writer than Cassidy’s arguments are without merit, at best the result of sloppiness, at worst a con job.

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17 Comments


  • 1. Paul Mac  |  March 3rd, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Maybe so – but it’s fun!

  • 2. Peter  |  December 10th, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    I have no “agenda” as far as word origins go but having scanned this book I find the convoluted traditional explanations of the origins of many of these words as pretty unlikely considering many are phonetic renderings of words with the exact same meaning in Irish language.

  • 3. mpb  |  December 10th, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    I understand your take, Peter. Consider, however, that Cassidy does have an agenda: proving his theory that many words previously with non-Irish etymologies are truly of Irish extraction. Solely using the evidence contained in the book to validate the book’s proposed theory doesn’t exactly work, because the evidence was chosen specifically to do just that, and may not be entirely valid, as many external observers (myself included) have pointed out. Some of the “exact same definitions in Irish” come from sources Cassidy fails to cite properly (see my example of “kibosh” in the PopMatters review), and thus they cannot be verified.

    I suggest you read Language Log’s excellent analysis of Cassidy’s claim regarding the word “bunkum,” where Cassidy found an Irish word with a similar pronunciation for a word whose non-Irish origins are clear and have never been in doubt. Or Grant Barrett’s earlier warning about the perils of phonetic comparisons.

    Though there are some valid claims in How the Irish Invented Slang, there are far more speculative, unfounded claims that unfortunately taint the work and undermine Cassidy’s efforts.

  • 4. William  |  February 4th, 2009 at 10:45 am

    While some of Cassidy’s claims might be speculative, they are no more so than many of the entries in the OED and other dictionaries for many of these words. Some of the purported origins of these words in the OED are such a stretch that they are completely implausible, not to mention the many that simply say origin unknown. I teach Irish and Irish-American history at a university and I had much the same reaction as Peter Quinn when I first read Cassidy’s book–yes, that’s where the Irish influence on American English is, in slang. I remember my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, all born in the 1880s and 90s, using many of these words, and as the children of immigrants who spoke Irish, it just made sense to me. Although Cassidy may go too far with some of his connections, I find many of the reviews that are hyper critical of him have that patronizing tone academics often have when they’ve been upstaged. Even if only 15-20% of Cassidy’s word connections are correct, he still has pointed out a significant gap in American lexicography that has gone unnoticed by the professionals for a century.

  • 5. mpb  |  February 4th, 2009 at 11:00 am

    William,

    I’m not an academic. I’m an Irish-American reader who loves words and was very disappointed and frustrated with this book. I do agree that there is likely a gap in American lexicography owing to the marginalization of early Irish immigrants, but it’s a gap that should be filled with serious study and analysis. Cassidy’s book, though well-meaning, does not fit the bill. Rather, it exploits that gap and fills it with wishful thinking that, while appealing, is hardly any better than guesswork.

  • 6. Brian  |  September 30th, 2009 at 9:10 am

    I agree with you William. While Cassidy’s work may have been sloppy and some of his derivations a stretch, he broke through a barrier that cannot be closed now. Ground breakers often have to make a mess first. Smashin’ or a scam, no one can ignore his work or deny the impact of An Ghaelige on the English language anymore.

  • 7. mpb  |  September 30th, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    My concern, Brian, is that Cassidy has given those who do not agree with the Irish influence theory ammunition that can be used to undermine it. The ends do not justify the means, and we should not accept dubious scholarship simply because it caters to our personal preferences.

  • 8. Shane  |  January 7th, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I am a student of Linguistics and the Irish language. I read the book and must say I found some of the examples quite convincing and insightful. Most were interesting, quite possible but lacked substantial examples and support. And some seemed a complete stretch of the imagination and outlandish. My break down would be as follows:

    ca. 25% – “you’re probably right there, hope the dictionary makers take notice”
    ca. 50% – “interesting, but I won’t be convinced until I see real evidence”
    ca. 25% “Yeah right…. and would you like to sell me some magic beans with that?”

    Anyway, with this and the writing style in mind, I think this book should not be treated as a serious linguistic text, but rather much more a popular entertainment look at linguistics, like the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, and a good one at that.

    Despite this, I think although the author won’t get the majority of his examples into any major dictionary, he will succeed in provoking a good debate and maybe a few of his examples will go the whole way. That cannot be a bad thing.

  • 9. Michael P MacDonald  |  May 14th, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Who, before Danny Cassidy, asked the question, “How is it that the Irish contributed next to nothing to the English lexicon?”
    No one.
    And it’s not about prejudice toward early Irish immigrants to America. British prejudice toward ANYTHING Irish has lasted into very recent days, and is only changing with the shifting demographics of Britain (blacker fish to fry, ie the newer target of racism: blacks and Muslims; as well as the fact that so many Brit children are now part Irish).
    MPM

  • 10. Sean Sweeney  |  July 18th, 2011 at 10:30 am

    The WASPish detractors of Cassidy fail to detail how the nation’s second largest ethnic group, noted for their garrulousness and bent of language, situated in large numbers primarily in port cities where later non-English speaking immigrants would casually learn these “English” slang words along with the Queen’s English words and disseminate them across the country as they migrated westward could not have had an influence on American slang.
    It just makes no sense to assert that!

    I agree with commenter #9. Institutionalized lexicographic racism has much to do with it.

    Reminds me of the story Lenny Bruce told how he performed his schtick, popular in America, to a crowd in a music hall in the Midlands of England. No one laughed. They didn’t get his humor.

    Bombing and desperate, out of his brilliant mind he yells out, “F*ck the Irish”. Further silence.

    Then, from the balcony, someone yells, “Yes, f*ck the Irish”. Another followed suit: “F*ck the Irish”. Soon, the crowd was chanting “F*ck the Irish”.

    How many of the lexicographers who disparage Cassidy’s theory were in that audience, I wonder?

  • 11. Seán D  |  August 27th, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    I have looked with interest at the claims made by Cassidy and I have to say, I agree entirely with those who criticize his methods and his lack of rigour. I am a fluent Irish speaker and I can assure you that the vast majority of his examples simply cannot be true. For example, teas ioma for gism. Teas does mean heat but you can’t stick the word ioma after a word to mean too. The language just doesn’t work like that. Cassidy should actually learn some Irish before he makes claims like this. I am also staggered that this book has won awards and been given good reviews in respectable newspapers.

  • 12. DMAustin  |  December 27th, 2011 at 12:20 am

    How cynical we are in this world of publishing–(within which I have increasingly sadly worked for decades).”Analytical….Critical.Academic….” Ad nauseum Ad queezium.

    What about (without romanticizing or demonizing) a courageous work about forgotten voices,nuances,hunches,ideas for heavens sakes??? In agreement with Mr.MacDonald–who else ASKED THESE QUESTIONS?

    Daniel Cassidy cared more about the importance of these questions for all the right reasons.
    Humanity.Pride.Truth.
    QuestioningAuthority.Justice.Argument.Past.Future
    .Present.Imperialism.Lexicon.Life.

    Thank you,Daniel Cassidy. Thank you.

  • 13. Seán D  |  March 21st, 2012 at 11:52 am

    I should give up trying to use the internet. The majority of people are obviously REALLY STUPID! Hundreds of phrases in Cassidy’s book are fake Irish. Hundreds of them! Béal ónna, pá lae sámh, naidhean ar chuma bub (!), bocaí rua, teas ioma, uath dubh and a host of other ridiculous confections which are not in any dictionary and have never been used by an Irish speaker. For God’s sake! Don’t you people care at all that this man conned you?! I don’t care if he had the best intentions in the world, or if he was a wonderful man and a great jazz musician, or if the dictionary world is full of right-wing Anglos. None of those things will make this book any better or any more believable. Cassidy didn’t care about the truth. The people who support him obviously don’t care about the truth. It just so happens that I do. This book and its contents should be forgotten, or remembered only as an example of how not to do worthwhile research.

  • 14. Seán D  |  March 21st, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Shane – Give me some examples of the 25% which you think are right, and I’ll demolish them. A quarter is way too high. Less than 1% of these words have any chance of being correct. Dá mbeadh do chuid Gaeilge chomh maith agus a deir tú féin, bheadh a fhios agat sin!

  • 15. Seán D  |  March 22nd, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    To Sean Sweeney, I just want to say “What the f…?” Read The Great Silence or any of the other works on how the Irish abandoned their language under pressure from the English. People who arrived in Ireland were ashamed of their own culture and they wanted to distance themselves from their past as much as possible. And many of them were already English speakers because of seasonal work in England or an Lagáin or Scotland. Swedish speakers, Yiddish speakers, Dutch speakers all had to learn English from scratch. The Irish didn’t, which is why many of them were able to recreate themselves as English speakers in the USA. But your piece about Lenny Bruce in the English Midlands is a doozy (which isn’t from duasóir, whatever that is supposed to mean). Yes, they were all there in a comedy club in Birmingham – the team from the OED, loads of English professors from Harvard and Yale and Oxford – screaming their hatred at the Irish. That’ll be why they don’t accept Cassidy’s theories. Nothing to do with them being absolute shite …

  • 16. Professor Cassidy? | cass&hellip  |  April 29th, 2013 at 2:03 pm

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