Most visitors to this site share a common tool: the English language, which, as the authors of The Story of English wrote in 1986, “…has become the language of the planet, the first truly global language,” spoken by a billion or so people. They will also tell you that “the English language has been indifferent to the Celts and their influence.” I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, and he echoes this well-worn notion: “The Irish came in their millions, but gave us only a handful of words, notably smithereens, lollapalooza, speakeasy, hooligan (from Gaelic uallacháa braggart), and slew….” H.L. Mencken, in The American Language, credited the Irish with a minimal contribution to English: “Perhaps speakeasy, shillelah and smithereens exhaust the list.” Besides these examples, the one word that I remember long ago being told came from the Irish is galore. So it looked like a pretty settled matter that the Irish didn’t have much to offer the English language.
Then along came Daniel Cassidy (pictured below). In 2007 he published How the Irish Invented Slang and set off a donnybrook with his claim that hundreds of slang words in English come directly from the Irish language. His book is not much more than a word list, with common slang words paired with the Irish words he says they come from. So dude is shown to derive from the Irish dúd (pron. dood, and meaning “a foolish-looking fellow”). And those “dogies” in the cowboy song “Git Along Little Dogies” that weren’t dogs? Mystery solved: do-thóigthe (pron. dohóg’ə) is “a sickly, hard-to-feed calf.” It’s a startling thesis, and one I found compelling and convincing, and not simply out of ethnic pride. The New York Times ran a piece on Cassidy and his book, and the Irish-American community embraced him warmly.
But cold shoulders awaited him among some linguists and etymologists who found him lacking in scholarly rigor and authority. Grant Barrett, in particular, presented the most convincing attacks on Cassidy’s work. The debate seems to continue, with some scholars clearly threatened by an amateur barging into their domain with an exciting new insight that none of the experts had ever noticed. It seems to me, however, that Cassidy has presented a wonderful opening for trained scholars to explore, if they could get over their anger at being scooped (from scuab, to snatch away).
Insights like Cassidy’s are creative breakthroughs whose logical structures are filled in later. Last year, in this space, I discussed “eureka moments” and “tacit knowledge” in my post on Elizabeth Sewell. Cassidy’s book is one of those eureka moments that leap beyond the ordinary to give us a new understanding of the subject at hand. Daniel Cassidy, whom I did not know, led an eclectic and interesting life. He died last year at age 65 (obit).
(For an essay by Cassidy that is virtually an abridged version of his book, see this link.)
Meanwhile, I am currently reading John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. In the spirit of Mencken et al., he announces that “there are, essentially, no words in English that trace to Celtic.” Ironically, though, one of the primary arguments of his book is that the very infrastructure of English grammar is founded on Celtic influences: English is “…a structurally hybrid tongue, whose speakers today use Celtic-derived constructions almost every time they open their mouths….”
Baloney (from béal ónna, meaning “silly loquacity”) galore or penetrating scholarship? You be the judge.