Category Archives: Irish language

Danny Cassidy in the news again, this time in the NY Times

dcass.jpgAlright, I know I’ve blogged about Cassidy’s book numerous times. Perhaps I feel a bit of connection to him, though we’ve never met, because a) we have some mutual friends, b) I am trying to learn Irish, c) my pops is a fluent speaker, and of course d) the book and its thesis rules. (Note: This is my blog, not my master’s thesis, and the word “rules” is most appropriate here.) In any case, the following article ran in Thursday’s New York Times, and is now the number three most-emailed article on their website. Even if you are not interested in learning Irish yourself, or in things Irish generally, you’ll be surprised to learn that many of the words that you use on a regular basis have their roots in the Irish language. Read it!

Humdinger of a Project: Tracing Slang to Ireland, by Corey Kilgannon

Growing up Irish in Queens and on Long Island, Daniel Cassidy was nicknamed Glom.

“I used to ask my mother, ‘Why Glom?’ and she’d say, ‘Because you’re always grabbing, always taking things,’” he said, imitating his mother’s accent and limited patience, shaped by a lifetime in Irish neighborhoods in New York City.

It was not exactly an etymological explanation, and Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having “unknown origin.”

“Glom” seemed to come from the Irish word “glam,” meaning to grab or to snatch. He found the word “balbhán,” meaning a silent person, and he surmised that it was why his quiet grandfather was called the similarly pronounced Boliver.

He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. The word “gimmick” seemed to come from “camag,” meaning trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick.

Could “scam” have derived from the expression “’S cam é,” meaning a trick or a deception? Similarly, “slum” seemed similar to an expression meaning “It is poverty.” “Dork” resembled “dorc,” which Mr. Cassidy’s dictionary called “a small lumpish person.” As for “twerp,” the Irish word for dwarf is “duirb.”

Mr. Cassidy, 63, began compiling a lexicon of hundreds of Irish-inspired slang words and recently published them in a book called “How the Irish Invented Slang,” which last month won the 2007 American Book Award for nonfiction, and which he is in New York this week promoting.

“The whole project started with a hunch — hunch, from the Irish word ‘aithint,’ meaning recognition or perception,” the verbose Mr. Cassidy said in an interview on Monday at O’Lunney’s, a bar and restaurant on West 45th Street. He has worked as a merchant seaman, a labor organizer and a screenwriter, and he lives in San Francisco, where he teaches Irish studies at the New College of California.

He pulled out his pocket Irish dictionary and began pointing out words that he said had been Americanized by the millions of Irish immigrants who turned New York into an extension of the Ghaeltacht, or Irish-speaking regions of Ireland.

“Even growing up around it, little shards of the language stayed alive in our mouths and came out as slang,” he said, spouting a string of words that sounded straight out of a James Cagney movie.

“Snazzy” comes from “snasach,” which means polished, glossy or elegant. The word “scram” comes from “scaraim,” meaning “I get away.” The word “swell” comes from “sóúil,” meaning luxurious, rich and prosperous, and “sucker” comes from “sách úr,” or, loosely, fat cat.

There is “Say uncle!” (“anacal” means mercy), “razzmatazz,” and “malarkey,” and even expressions like “gee whiz” and “holy cow” and “holy mackerel” are Anglicized versions of Irish expressions, he said. So are “doozy,” “hokum,” “humdinger,” “jerk,” “punk,” “swanky,” “grifter,” “bailiwick,” “sap,” “mug,” “wallop,” “helter-skelter,” “shack,” “shanty,” “slob,” “slacker” and “knack.”

Mr. Cassidy chatted with an Irish-born worker at O’Lunney’s, Ronan O’Reilly, 21, who said he grew up in County Meath speaking Irish. He nodded in agreement as Mr. Cassidy explained that Irish survived in New York as slang.

“It was a back-room language, whispered in kitchens and spoken in the saloons,” Mr. Cassidy said.

Mr. O’Reilly nodded and said, “Sometimes my friends and I will use it amongst ourselves, sort of like an underground language.

“Some of your words here sound like they are taken straight from Irish, even expressions directly translated, like ‘top of the morning’ or ‘thanks a million,’” he continued. “In Ireland, we pick up American slang from TV, like the word ‘buddy.’”

Mr. Cassidy laughed. “Buddy,” he contends, actually comes from “bodach,” Irish for a strong, lusty youth.

Another employee came up, Lawrence Rapp, 25, who said he was an Irishman from London, where the art of rhyming slang is practiced.

“If you have to piddle, you say ‘Jimmy Riddle,’” he said.

Mr. Rapp said Londoners often used the word “geezer” to describe people, and Mr. Cassidy pointed out that the term derives from the Irish word “gaosmhar,” or wise person.

“Even the word ‘dude’ comes from the Irish word ‘dúid,’ or a foolish-looking fellow, a dolt,” Mr. Cassidy said. “They called the guys dudes who came down to the Five Points section of Manhattan to chase the colleens.”

He showed a passage in his book that notes that the Feb. 25, 1883, edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the coining of the word “dude,” referring to, among other things, a man who “wears trousers of extreme tightness.”

“You dig?” he said. “‘Dig,’ as in ‘tuig,’ or understand.”



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Filleadh ar an Scoil!

Now that September has arrived, it’s time for me to return to my Irish classes.  The first was on Wednesday, and despite the fact that the first two reminder emails for the class also mentioned a wake for someone and announced the death of another, we actually focused on vocabulary the entire time.  To be fair, the woman who died recently used to attend the class a few years ago (before I joined) and was a friend of many of the other students…but a large part of the reason that I stopped going last spring (no classes over the summer) was due to the return of our regular teacher.  For the first half of the year (and my introduction to the class), we would spend a full half to three quarters of our hour-long class talking about who was sick and in the hospital, who was undergoing chemo, who just found out they had breast cancer, or who had recently died.

Granted, most of the students in the class are much older than I am, and they have been part of the Gaelic League community for years and years.  There’s certainly something to be said for the camaraderie and community that the class provides for many of the students–it’s just hard when you are trying to learn a language and the class is the only opportunity you have to practice and speak to people.  I suppose it’s worth mentioning that my dad speaks Irish fluently and also teaches it sometimes, but he lives 700 miles away from me, so unfortunately I can’t avail myself of his tutelage.  One day soon I hope to be more comfortable speaking and writing and we can start practicing over the phone and over email.

Until then, wish me luck as I continue to learn.  If you want to come, it’s only $3 a class!

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Dan Cassidy interviewed on RTÉ Radio 1

Dan Cassidy was interviewed on RTÉ earlier this month about his new book, How the Irish Invented Slang. To listen, go here and click on the 11 August link next to the description of the show. I’m not too familiar with .smil files, but Real Player worked for me (QuickTime didn’t).

He may be born and bred Brooklyn but Irish-American Dan Cassidy has made California his home since the 60s. Once a professional musician, he was lured to the West Coast by the music and the counter-culture that was radiating from San Francisco. He now teaches in the liberal New College in the Mission District and has turned his attention to his Irish roots with a book called How the Irish Invented Slang in which he speculates about the origins of so-called ‘American’ words. He claims words such as spiel, quirky, scam, sucker and even jazz are Irish in origin and were filtered through Ellis Island before becoming thoroughly American.

He talks to Myles about his music, the atmosphere of America in the 1960s, performing in Carnegie Hall and defends his thesis on Hiberno-American. He chooses some of his favourite pieces of music such as What’s Goin On by Marvin Gaye and his favourite film The Godfather: Part II.

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How the Irish Invented Slang

cassidy.gifIt’s long since gotten to the point where my friends roll their eyes (albeit lovingly) whenever I mention an Irish connection to anything–so you can imagine the reception I get when I bring up the idea that much of our common American slang (words like jazz, dude, slum and snazzy) is rooted in the Irish language. I recently read How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads by Daniel Cassidy, the founder and co-director of An Léann Éirannach (the Irish studies program) at the New College of California in San Francisco. It is a truly fascinating book, and I guarantee you will find it interesting even if you do not have one bit of Irish in you.

I also enjoyed reading it because it gave me exposure to Irish vocabulary in a medium apart from all of the Irish language books and tapes I’ve acquired. My dad is a fluent speaker, but since we do not live close to one another I don’t really have the opportunity to take advantage of his teaching skills, and it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to drop in to the weekly Gaelic League classes.

The following is a lovely review of the book by author Peter Quinn recently published on CounterPunch:

The Achievement of Daniel Cassidy

Irish in America: a Language Lost and Found


In 1799, troops with Napoleon’s army in Egypt unearthed an ancient tablet inscribed with a tribute to the Pharaoh in demotic script as well as Greek and hieroglyphs. As a result of this discovery outside the town of Rashid (Rosetta), the Egyptologist and linguist Jean-Francois Champollion was eventually able to reveal the meanings of a once-indecipherable language. What had been lost was found, and historians and scholars gained a new understanding of the past. Working with a pen (or more likely, a computer) rather than a spade, and serving both as digger and decoder, Daniel Cassidy presents us with revelations that are, for etymologists in general and Irish Americans in particular, every bit as momentous as those Champollion extracted from the Rosetta stone.

The discoveries that Cassidy has gathered into How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroad represent a hugely significant breakthrough in our ability to understand the origins of vital parts of the American vernacular. He has solved the mystery of how, after centuries of intense interaction, a people as verbally agile and inventive as the Irish could seemingly have made almost no impression on English, a fact that H.L. Mencken, among other students of the lan-guage, found baffling. What was missing, it turns out, wasn’t a steady penetration of Irish into English, but someone equipped with Cassidy’s genius — a unique combination of street smarts and scholarship, of memory, intuition, and intellect-who could discern and decipher the evidence.

Like the Frenchmen who uncovered the Rosetta stone, Cassidy’s discovery began with a serendipitous dig, a solitary stroke of the spade into the fertile earth of his own family’s history, at the spot where a piece of the past jutted above the layers of time forgotten or obscured in the form of a single word, “Boliver” (bailbhe, balbhán, mute, inarticulate, a silent person), the semi -affectionate, semi-sarcastic nickname used to refer to his taciturn grandfather. Beginning with that key, a la Champollion, Cassidy unlocks the secret of a centuries-long infiltration of Irish into English, exactly where it would be most expected, amid the playfully subversive, syncretic, open-ended olio of slang. “We were not balbh (mute) in Irish,” writes Cassidy:

“The slang and accent of five generations and one hundred years in the tenements, working-class neighborhoods, and old breac-Ghaeltachta (Irish-English speaking districts) slums (‘s lom, is a bleak exposed place) of Brooklyn and New York City held within it the hard–edged spiel (speal, cutting language) and vivid cant (caint, speech) of a hundred generations and a thousand years in Ireland: Gaeilge, the Irish language.”

Cassidy’s ability to see clearly what others — including myself — had missed entirely, his originality and eagle-eyed insight in locating what was hidden in plain view, brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Purloined Letter.” At the outset of the story, C. Auguste Dupin is informed by the Prefect of Police that his men are nonplussed because the case they are trying to crack, which seemed simple at the outset, has proved unsolvable.

“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” replies Dupin. Later, he explains to his companion the underlying reason why the police, equipped with microscopes and following the rules of evidentiary logic, overlooked what was right before their eyes:

“[H]ad the purloined letter been hidden anywhere within the limits of the Prefect’s examination — in other words, had the principle of its con-cealment been comprehended within the principles of the Prefect — its discovery would have been a matter altogether beyond question.”

Dupin’s axiom – that while the obvious is often found in obvious places, locating it can require abandoning the safe harbor of theory for the open waters of reality and experience — underlies Cassidy’s work. Take, for example, his explication of the word “crony,” which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) speculates is perhaps from the Greek chronios (long-lasting) and was first recorded in English usage in 1663. The dating to 1663, the early days of the Restoration, with returning Irish exiles and refugees from the Cromwellian settlement abounding in English cities and towns, is a clue to the true origin of crony. More direct and, it seems to me, alto-gether beyond question, is the unadorned fact that the Irish word comh-roghna, pronounced co-rony, means, Cassidy tells us, “fellow favorites, mutual sweethearts, fellow chosen ones, figuratively, mutual pals.”

The story of the Irish language’s survival and its transatlantic impact is inseparable from the course of Irish history. Beginning with the dissolution of the Irish monasteries under Henry VIII through the Elizabethan conquest, the Flight of the Earls, and the aftermath of the Williamite victory, the old Gaelic order was gradually toppled and destroyed. Educated Irish-speaking monks, poets, musicians, genealo-gists, scholars, and brehons were driven from the scriptora, schools, castles, and courts where they had enjoyed the patronage of chieftains and, in some cases, of the Irish-Norman (“old English”) nobility outside the Pale.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Irish, the first literate vernacular in Europe, had become almost exclusively the language of vagabond storytellers and musicians, hedge-school teachers, peasants, and spalpeens, its purview the cabins, clachans, and cross-roads of the countryside, the vast half-hidden world beneath the new Anglo-Irish colonial order, the territory of the ‘s lom, or slum. With the great scattering driven by the Famine, the insular, self-referential confines in which most Irish speakers existed was broken open. The language was carried by immigrants, navvies, miners, travelers, laborers, and domestics to the New World. (There was an earlier influx of largely Scots-Gaelic speakers whose settlements reached from Cape Breton and Newfoundland to the Carolinas. Their impact on regional dialects and slang was profound and, as Cassidy is the first to point out, deserves the full attention of linguistic scholars.) Continue reading

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