Monday 19 November 2018

How we gave the Yanks the gift of our gab

A new book claims that modern-day American slang is derived from the Irish spoken by our poor emigrants. Ed Power reports

Not only did we give the world Daniel O'Donnell and James Joyce, we're also responsible for such words as 'gimmick', 'scam' and 'dude'
Not only did we give the world Daniel O'Donnell and James Joyce, we're also responsible for such words as 'gimmick', 'scam' and 'dude'
Ed Power

Ed Power

In addition to giving the world James Joyce, Daniel O'Donnell and the strap-on leprechaun beard, Ireland can now apparently take credit for a fair chunk of the English language as spoken today.

According to a (mildly controversial) new book, words such as 'gimmick', 'scam' and even 'dude' are all corruptions of the Irish used by the tens of thousands of migrants who arrived in the United States throughout the 19th century.

"Irish was a back-room language, whispered in kitchens and spoken in the saloons," says Daniel Cassidy, the New York-born author of How The Irish Invented Slang. He was speaking shortly after his tome won the 2007 American Book Award for non-fiction.

The argument presented in the How The Irish Invented Slang is that the language has had a far deeper influence on English, in particular American-English, than previously suspected. As well as familiar examples -- 'brogue' coming from the Irish for shoe, for instance -- Cassidy offers an eye-popping list of words derived, he says, from Irish. These include 'snazzy' (from 'snasach'), 'sucker' (from 'sách úr' meaning, believes Cassidy, big cat) and 'twerp' (apparently related to 'duirb', Irish for dwarf).

Moreover, a great number of slang terms commonly associated with African-America are, in fact, of Irish origin, says Cassidy, who teaches Irish studies at the New College of California. 'Dude', he says, comes from an old Irish word 'duid', meaning foolish-looking fellow.

Indeed, the notion of the dude as man about town was born in New York's infamous Five Points District when young Irish-American bucks would strut about, hoping to catch the eye of local ladies, he says.

He also repeats the idea that 'jazz' comes from 'deas', meaning good (this claim isn't universally accepted: there's a school of thought that jazz is based on the French word 'jasser', meaning 'to chatter').

And, says Cassidy, when someone asks if you 'dig' something, they're regurgitating the word for 'tuig', as in 'to understand'.

Similarly, we can, says the author, thank the Irish for the adjective 'swell' (from 'sóúil: meaning luxurious, rich and prosperous) and 'buddy' ('bodach' apparently being Irish for strong, lusty youth), while 'big shot' he says owes its origins to the word 'seod' for king.

Of course, Irish wasn't the only language that has shaped the evolution of English. No less influential was Yiddish, the Jewish tongue spoken by migrants from Eastern Europe. We have Yiddish to thank for words such as 'schmooze', 'spiel', 'shtick' and, 'glitch'.

Nor can we overlook the place of Dutch, spoken by first settlers in Manhattan: 'booze', 'blare', 'brawl', 'coleslaw' and 'dope' all originated as Dutch terms.

If the Irish were so influential, why was our role in the history of English not more widely acknowledged? Because, says Cassidy, Irish migrants were victims of the usual prejudices directed at poor arrivals to a rich country. While Irish-Americans played a key part in the emergence of the United States as a global power they were initially looked down upon by the anglicised middle-class.

These claims are not universally accepted. Because Cassidy relies to an overwhelming extent on phonetic similarities between Irish and English phrases, great swathes of the book can probably be put down to wishful thinking, suggests Terry Dolan, Associate Professor of English at UCD and editor of the Dictionary of Hiberno-English.

"The book has excited so much attention, so it has to be investigated very carefully," he says. "The English language does not often absorb other languages, especially the Celtic languages. Irish has the longest association with English of any language on the planet, yet in England all we've got are a handful of words such as whiskey."

"Irish people believe 'smashing' to come from an Irish word -- that's not right at all. It goes much further back. The word 'smashing' in English always meant to have an effect by making noise."

Likewise, that quintessential Irish phrase 'craic' owes it roots to the English 'crack', says Professor Dolan.

"It's an Anglo-Saxon word which means to entertain people by making an explosive noise.

"It was used in English, mainly in non-standard environments such as Ireland."

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