Grant Barrett wrote to alert me to this NY Times story by Corey Kilgannon, which enraged me to the point of incoherence. I’m not mad at Daniel Cassidy—he’s a genial amateur who got a crackpot book published, no better or worse than the zillions of crackpot books that get published every year, and it’s not his fault he knows nothing about language and its history, it’s the fault of the educational system, for which linguistics and its results do not exist. No, I’m mad at the Times, which accords his nonsense the kind of respect they wouldn’t give theories about how space aliens killed Kennedy or how you can produce nuclear energy at home with knitting needles and walnuts. Here, see for yourself:

…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.

And I’m mad at the American Book Award (to be distinguished from the much more prestigious National Book Award), which rewarded this tripe. After a couple of days of fighting computer problems and worrying about a work deadline, I’m in no shape to do the kind of thoughtful debunking this should get; fortunately, Grant has done it himself. Go here and read his demolition job, and join me in wishing the Times and other news sources would treat language as seriously as they do, say, football.


  1. I think we should encourage this sort of thing. After all, nonsense-etymology has a long and glittering history, and it would be a shame to see it disappear. The Gaelic angle was well explored in the 18th century by Eugene Aram, Henry Rowlands, James Parsons, Rowland Jones and others.

  2. Oh, I’m happy to encourage the amateurs to keep amming. What I’m not happy about is official encouragement. What these people need is obscurity and plenty of it!

  3. Over at Tawny Grammar, there’s this delightful contribution to the debate, a quote from Flann O’Brien.

  4. Charles Perry says

    These dubious Irish etymologies are small potatoes. In the late Seventies there was widely reviewed book (I believe the author was named Barry Fallon — he traded on the fact that he was a college professor, underplaying the fact the his field was electrical engineering) which featured appallingly stupid derivations of Iroquoian and Algonquian words from Phoenician or Ibero-Celtic. (He relied on Dineen’s Irish dictionary and Wehr’s Arabic dictionary!) I was an editor at Rolling Stone at the time & was able to shortstop a positive review there, but many daily newspapers ran enthusiastic reviews.

  5. michael farris says

    I think you’re thinking of Barry Fell’s America B.C.
    I remember that and being impressed (before I understood anything about linguistics).

  6. I hope you’re not implying there’s anything wrong with Wehr’s Arabic dictionary; I rely on it myself!

  7. People who live in glass houses . . . Linguistics has its share of outliers, cuckoos, and trolls. Years ago when I was teaching at Indiana University, our linguistics department was so locked in internecine warfare that a chairman had to be appointed from the psych department.
    When Sam Martin, the great structural linguist and Japanese and Korean expert from Yale was invited to the University of Washington to speak (and perhaps be considered for the Department chair), some Chomskyites threatened physical harm.
    Barry Fell was far off in his views of language relationships, he was nevertheless, an important contributor to epigraphic decipherment according to David H. Kelley, noted archaeologist and epigrapher. Fell was one of the most civil academics in the face of unrelenting assault I have ever known.

  8. I suppose it’s not any worse than Black Athena.

  9. When I last looked, the book was #138 on Amazon – much better than many superior language-related books have ever done. That’s disappointing to me. The study of language and linguistics is so crammed with amazing tales and interesting facts that I wonder why anyone would need to create stories from nothing! Please register your feelings by accurately rating and reviewing this colossal piece o’crap on Amazon, and maybe provide some alternative choices for those beginning to dabble. That’s what I’m about to do – dissuading some buyers today may mean not having to refute false etymologies and nonsensical “fun facts” for years in the future.

  10. But the media just love stories about nukular knittingneedles.

  11. Barry Fell, probably, in which case his field was not electrical engineering but marine biology.

  12. Charles Perry says

    Barry Fell, right. Here’s an example of how he used the invaluable Wehr: He was always seeing the word hasah “pebble” in his supposed Phoenician inscriptions and would translate it as “calculus stone,” implying some kind of abacus function. This is merely his comma-less reading of Wehr’s second definition of hasah, “calculus, stone (med.),” i.e. kidney stone, gall stone.
    It apparently never occurred to him to try to read his “Phoenician” using a Hebrew dictionary (a more logical choice), or he could have had a whole different kind of fun reading the word as hesi “arrow.”
    But then he never noticed that all his New World Phoenician inscriptions were in New England, the most bookish part of late 19th century America, and that large dictionaries at the time often presented tables of the evolution of the Greek, Roman and Hebrew alphabets from Phoenician. I remember scratching Phoenician letters on stones myself for fun when I was a kid.
    Fell was also forever seeing runes, particular Ogham, and conveniently they were often Ogham without the horizontal line. So any random scratches were automatically Celtic.

  13. Of course, the sales of excellent books on linguistics may be affected by the fact that readers can now get their daily fix from any number of addictive blogs . . .

  14. No, these blogs only inspire me to buy more excellent books!

  15. The thing is that, in general, books on linguistics tend to be relatively unreadable by anyone who hasn’t got a degree in linguistics. These pop-linguistics books written by laymen, on the other hand, are often quick and fun to read, even by members of the general public. Off the top of my head, Pinker is the only writer I’ve encountered who write books on language that don’t require a university level course to be able to understand. If more linguists started to write books the average Joe can comprehend, more reputable linguistic books will be in the best-seller lists.

  16. Ella: While your complaint is a fair generalization, there have been other well-written popularizations; two I always recommend are Linguistics and Your Language by Robert Hall and American Tongue and Cheek by Jim Quinn.

  17. I really enjoyed Deutscher’s book and the LanguageLog book while I am not a professional linguist (I am a mathematician so I should definitely read this book about Chebyshev 😉 ).

  18. Yerra, sure, ’tis only a bit of craic.

  19. “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”.
    Mr. Cassidy, 63, is probably a New York Jew who’s trying to find someone else to denigrate.
    Everybody knows Irish jokes, but only the Irish know the Kerry-man jokes (just the same). And only the Kerrymen know the jokes about the Blasket Islands (just the same).
    In Boston, where a few Irish arrived, they tell jokes about the Polacks (just the same).
    I think, LanguageHat, that you are getting yourself into a not very worthwhile stew over yet another example of the biggest population of suckers and mugs on earth being led into yet another buffalo wallow.

  20. Pretend that I created a sockpuppet to recommend Michael Erard’s recently published Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, which is eminently readable, as well as sophisticated, funny, and informed by only the finest linguistic science.

  21. S. Valkemirer says

    Danielomastix has analyzed every one of Daniel Cassidy’s etymologies (A debunking of Daniel Cassidy’s theories about the influence of the Irish language on English slang

    She or he has found that most of them are indefensible and that the few that are right are not original with him.

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