Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Humdinger of a Bad Irish Scholar

It is quite incredible that Corey Kilgannon would write in the New York Times about Daniel Cassidy’s book How the Irish Invented Slang without talking to historical lexicographers, historical linguists, or experts in Irish Gaelic linguistics.

They would tell him that Cassidy’s theories are insubstantial, his evidence inconclusive, his conclusions unlikely, his Gaelic atrocious and even factitious, and his scholarship little better than speculation. In short, his book is preposterous.

Cassidy paints himself as the maligned scholar, the unappreciated genius, the outsider. He may be all of those things, but he is them by choice: his work cannot withstand scholarly scrutiny so he simply cannot afford to join forces with any larger body of experts who do this sort of thing for a living. His book falls apart on first reading by anyone with some expertise in the field.

In October, Michael Patrick Brady did a powerful job of taking down Cassidy’s work in a way that makes it clear that it is poorly conceived, poorly executed, and should be poorly received.

Because people keep asking, I have found myself repeatedly pointing out that Cassidy’s book is not to be trusted. There are too many such works in the world that set a course for factual disaster, so in the areas in which I have some skill—supporting or disproving word histories—I feel I should speak up. I spend my days trolling through the historical record examining word origin stories and every one of Cassidy’s theories that I’ve checked—including those for “jazz” and “bunkum”—are no more believable than leprechauns and their pots of gold.

Daniel Cassidy first appeared on my radar in late 2004 or early 2005 when he began making a series of posts to the email list of the American Dialect Society, a group for which I am a vice president and with which I have been involved in one way or another for 15 years. ADS is a 118-year-old academic organization that has in its ranks a highly qualified group of professional, respected, published linguists, lexicographers, researchers, and grammarians of many backgrounds and specialities. It publishes the learned journal American Speech, co-founded by H.L. Mencken.

Of course, the members of the American Dialect Society email list looked at Cassidy’s messages and judged the worth of his theories.

The theories came up wanting in a bad way. Cassidy’s arguments were then, as they are now, mainly that the English and American lexicographers are biased against the Irish and don’t want to give them their due, and that, in fact, the Irish were the source of much of our most common slang.

So, he decided he would fill the gap by finding obvious phonetic and orthographic similarities between Irish Gaelic and English-language slang. Which is, of course, a big heaping load of hooey.

Cassidy’s response to criticism of his theories on the email list was to unsubscribe and then send me requests in the back-channel to post his content for him. I told him I wouldn’t and tried to strike up a correspondence with him that would help him reach his scholarly goals. It went nowhere.

In January 2005, I challenged Cassidy to present all of his evidence. I told him that I’m the descendant of three strains of Irish, four strains of empiricist, and the son of a bluster-catcher, and I said he was going to have to do better than trot out the same-old “they’re all against me!” argument of every perpetual motion inventor.

To date, what he’s provided as evidence is flimsy and fouled by scholarly incompetence.

“To cry Wolof” is a recent coinage used to describe amateur etymologists who propose absurd theories based upon superficial similarities between different languages. It comes from the widely circulated but false claim that the word “hip” ‘cool, fashionable’ comes from the West African language of Wolof. You can see many such language coincidences here. They are provably, demonstrably, unquestionably coincidences.

This is Cassidy’s primary mistake: he has wrongly assumed that similar spellings or pronunciations between words prove a connection. They do not.

Linguist Bill Poser wrote compellingly about the tendency of amateur etymologists to make these wrong-headed leaps of faith. Poser translates Georg von der Gabelentz from his 1901 book Die Sprachwissenschaft:

“It is terribly seductive to roam the world of languages comparing words from them at random and then to bestow upon scholarship a series of newly discovered relationships. Very many stupidities also result from this; for the most urgent discoverers have unmethodical minds.”

As von der Gabelentz says, spelling and phonetic similarities must be looked at, but they are simply a starting point. They prove nothing. They merely provide a clue to be investigated by gathering evidence for and against the connection.

Evidence. Above all, Cassidy needs to support his claims with published evidence that shows the etymological path. Dated, continuous, in-context quotations from any written source will always be superior evidence over phonetic speculation based upon national, linguistic, or ethnic pride.

The main thing that bothers me about most of his theories, besides his overall unwillingness to express doubt and caveats about them and his apparent inability to do the work required to prove or disprove his own theories, is that in cultural overlaps and linguistic contact situations in which words are borrowed, there tends to be written proof of it.

This happened repeatedly with contact contacts by the English, French, and Spanish settlers with Native Americans in the New World, and it continues to happen where Spanish and English rub up against each other today. We can see in the written record where the languages have loaned words to each other and how those loanwords changed.

In those cases, we find borrowed words set off by quotes, dashes, or italics, or explained as “as my gram used to say,” or “as we used to say,” or even given plainly by a regular person as a word from another language, and so forth. In order to prove Cassidy’s claims, primary source material that might contain these sorts of statements needs to be found and examined: letters, books, diaries, newspapers, what have you. Certainly, across the whole of his book there should be lots and lots of this sort of “language contact” evidence, but there’s little that I can see.

If the words he’s writing about really did come from Irish Gaelic, the only way to prove it is to find those Irish words repeatedly showing up in some form in print in English-language contexts.

To put it another way, he’s failed to find early uses of the transformed or transforming terms. He would need to show a variety of phonetic or Anglicized spellings that resemble the terms as we know them today, i.e., word forms somewhere on the continuum of change that might demonstrate that they were earliest, or nearly earliest, used by Irish-speakers or people of provable Irish heritage or in direct contact with Irish people.

Of course, if no such texts are ever found, or the words are not found in them, then the theories are unproven, and that is that. Cassidy has promoted his unsubstantiated theories so widely that he cannot back down now without looking foolish. It is not in his best interest to do the etymological work properly.

Besides that, substantiation is a lot of work, and as we have seen repeatedly, those would-be scholars who “cry Wolof” have little stomach for the tedium required to prove their theories.

Another problem with Cassidy’s evidence is one of “Irishness.” It doesn’t require a fluent or native understanding of Irish Gaelic, which I do not have and which Cassidy does not have, either—he is usually careful to leave this point unclear—to see that he’s taking words that have complex meanings and cherry-picking the subsenses that most suit his purposes.

He seems to have plundered Irish dictionaries and when it has suited him he has adjusted his plunderings to make the meanings broad enough to support his theories.

On top of that, the Irish definitions he gives are little better than glosses (that is, short one- or two-word definitions more like synonyms presented in a thesaurus) and do not show a complex understanding of context nor frequency, neither presently nor historically. He has played fast and loose with the Irish in the same way he’s playing fast and lose with the English.

To bolster his Irish derivation theories, he found and quoted writers of supposed Irish heritage who have used the English forms of the words, going by surname only in some cases, in others choosing people who live or had lived or could have lived in a region that was widely settled by Irish or Scots-Irish. He’s done little to verify whether those people he is quoting had any knowledge of Irish. He seems to be working under the assumption that some Irish just lingered in the air.

Then, in the cases that I have seen, he has chosen as supporting evidence English-language quotes that contain the English word under discussion. I have yet to see a single one of his quotes include any form of the Irish word in an English-language context, except when he’s quoting from dictionaries which, in all cases I have seen, are talking about an Irish meaning rather than the supposed English meaning.

Even his Irish forms of the word that are cited are usually different from the form that was supposedly transformed into an English word. Many of his Irish forms should be prefixed with an asterisk because he has not found them in the wild but merely postulated their existence.

For an example typical of his scholarship, see his claims about “bunkum.” I choose this word because it’s one of the relatively few of those words not obviously derived from another language for which we do indeed know the origin with near certainty. Dave Wilton has a correct and reliable summary of it at his web site which you should read to understand how, exactly, Cassidy has gone off the rails.

Cassidy says that the congressman from Buncombe County lived in North Carolina, which had a Scots-Gaelic and Irish-speaking population. This, somehow supported by information gathered from a 2005 Scotsman newspaper article that said Dizzy Gillespie’s family from North Carolina and Alabama were African-American Gaelic speakers, means that “Buncombe” comes from buanchumadh, which he defines as “a long made-up story, an endless invention.”

His other evidence is three uses of “bunk” in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, one from 1939 which has it as “de old Irish bunk”—the oldest cite he has, 89 years later than Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of the word.

He has no citations spelled buanchumadh at all, neither in English nor Irish. Nowhere does he attempt to explain the early expression “talking to Buncombe,” nor the capitalization or spelling of Buncombe in early uses, nor the existence of Colonel Edward Buncombe for which the county is named. These are all specific historical references that would have to be, so to speak, debunked before his Irish theory can be given any credence.

This is in the same entry in which he casually throws in unsupported Irish etymologies for “swank” and “to dig” ‘understand.’ They are presented with no evidence, not even bad evidence, yet given in Kilgannon’s article as if they are faits accomplis. They are not.

Some theories will never be proven or disproven because the evidence that would do so has been destroyed or never existed in the first place. That’s the way it goes.

But Cassidy hasn’t even used that evidence that does exist and his book does not acknowledge at all that there is much work to be done. It seems to present his theories as closed cases rather than as theories needing more work. In his book, in his emails, in news stories, and in private correspondence he consistently makes it plain that he believes that he has, once and for all, solved a whole raft of slang etymologies, but that is exactly what he has not done.

As I posted earlier today to the American Dialect Society email list, Cassidy does indeed get a few things right, but even then he does not cite his sources where he found the correct information—which he could hardly do, seeing as how he derides and mocks works such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and people such as non-Irish lexicographers. And, I suspect, he often has not even checked the standard works to see what is to be seen.

His few better entries are nearly as bad as the incorrect ones. He almost universally fails to take the headword back as far as it will go and fails to establish links to older and other forms. He has failed to consider or account for work that has already been done. At the very least, proposing a brand-new etymology requires that you disprove the currently accepted theories about the terms you are etymologizing.

For “giggle,” for example, he would have to discuss why the cognates in Dutch and German are to be ignored, thereby undermining the current theory that Dutch, German, and English share a common history in that word and he would have to explain how the word might have made it from Irish Gaelic into Dutch and German. The same for “spiel”: he has to explain how that word is not German-derived.

For another example, his entry on “dick” ‘detective’ seems to prefer that the word comes from the “eye” logo used by Pinkerton detectives (I say “seems” because his logic is often difficult to follow):

“The Pinkerton’s world-famous logo was the giant ‘All-Seeing Eye.’ The Pinkerton private ‘eye’ and labor union spy was christened a dick (dearc, an eye) by the Irish-speaking subjects of its gaze: Molly Maguires, Fenians, Knights of Labor, and Wobblies.”

But he has only 1922 as his earliest source (though the earliest date is 1908 in the OED and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang [HDAS]), he doesn’t address the Hiberno-English travelers’ cant suggested by HDAS, he fails to mention “keep dick” in the English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) which (according to HDAS; I can’t double-check because doesn’t have EDD Vol. II) cites it from Northern Ireland, and he makes no connection to the “deek” ‘to descry; to see’ (1784 in the Scottish National Dictionary) which HDAS suggests is synonymous with the English Romani “dik.”

So, the reader comes away with a distinctly wrong impression about this word when if Cassidy had only tried harder he could have definitely held it up as a strong candidate for a Gaelic-derived word.

Which leads me to some comments about the suppression of Irish: language will out. The attempt to suppress the Irish language does not preclude finding written examples, mainly because that attempt to suppress that language failed. It’s still a living language today. And, in fact, many entries in OED and HDAS do already posit possible and probable Irish origins. If they can find sufficient evidence, why can’t Cassidy?

To summarize: Daniel Cassidy’s work is unreliable and not to be trusted.

author avatar
Grant Barrett