More than 1.6 million people in the world speak Irish, and if you’re not one of them, there’s a guy named Daniel Cassidy who begs to differ.
If you’ve ever called someone “dude,” said “holy moly,” told a “babe” you were going to plant a “smack” on her lips, or taken a “slug” of whiskey, you were speaking Irish, says Cassidy, co-director and founder of the Irish Studies Program at New College of California, a filmmaker, folk singer, and now famous around the world for writing the American Book Award-winning ”How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads.” The book, from the tiny publisher CounterPunch, is in its fifth printing.
Americans speak Irish all the time without even knowing it, says Cassidy, just the way any Italian-American who calls his buddies “goomba” (from the Italian word meaning “friend”) speaks Italian, or a Jew who liberally uses the words ‘chutzpah” (both Hebrew and Yiddish for “nerve”) or “mensch” (meaning “a good person”) speaks Yiddish.
I talked by phone to Danny Cassidy—that’s how he identifies himself—a week ago from his home in San Francisco. A native of the Irishtown neighborhood of Brooklyn, he hasn’t let a few years on the west coast steal his accent nor mellow out his attitude. “I’m hyper,” he says, and proceeds to give me his spiel (that’s from an Irish word speal, meaning to mow down with words) like a carnival barker in overdrive.
“Dude (spelled dud or duid) means a foolish-looking fellow,” he explains. “Dude” was a name New York’s Five Points Irish gave the dapper, wealthy young men of the 1880s who went slumming (another Irish word, from ‘s lom, meaning “an exposed, vulnerable place”) in their neighborhood where there was plenty of poteen and gambling to be had. The word first appeared in 1883 in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper as a “new word” to refer to these well-dressed sons of New York’s elite.
It may have been a new word to Americans, but it was a familiar one to the recent immigrant Irish speakers who populated so much of the city. And yet, all of those words and hundreds more than have slipped into the American lexicon are often grouped under the umbrella of “origins unknown,” Cassidy claims.
“H. L. Mencken said that the Irish were the only ethnic group that had no influence on American English, except for smithereens, speakeasy, and shillalegh,” he says. “When I read that it seemed to me that that would be an anomaly, a serious irregularity. I know my people can talk the paint off a wall, as well as write the paint off a wall. It doesn’t make sense that there are no Irish words in our language.”
How Cassidy discovered the Irish contribution to American slang involves a book—which he didn’t really want–left to him by a Philadelphia friend. “A dear dear young friend, Kevin O’Dowd, from Philadelphia died suddenly at the age of 37 in 2000,” Cassidy explains. “He left me a box of Irish books in his will. One of the books was a pocket Irish dictionary, a focloir poca. I was in Ireland making a film at the time and thought ‘I’m too old to learn Irish, it’s too hard.’ But I told my wife, Clare, ‘I can’t throw that away. It was a sacred gift from Kevin.’”
So Cassidy put the focloir poca by his bedside and read a little every night. “I found the word ‘snazzy’ in three days. It was the word snasach, pronounced snaseh, which means glossy, polished, neat, elegant, wealthy. Look it up ‘snazzy’ in the dictionary and what does it mean? Glossy, polished, neat, elegant. . . “ And there were more, many more. Cassidy was even able to divine for the first time why his family called him “Glom.”
“I once asked my mother why they called me ‘Glom’ and she said ‘it’s because you’re always glomming on to other kids’ stuff.’ I asked her where the word came from and she said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s Yiddish.’ I said, ‘Mom, we’re not Jewish.”
But there it was, right there in Kevin O’Dowd’s gift folcloir poca: Glam, to grab, snatch. And in the American dictionary: glom, to grab, to snatch. Cassidy nearly cried “Eureka!” which isn’t Irish at all. He might have shouted “Gee Whillikers,” which is Irish, from the word Dia thoilleachas, prounounced jia hoill’ah’cas, meaning God’s will. Or Holy Gee, from Holy Dia, meaning Holy God. Or Holy Mackerel, from Holy Mac riuil, meaning Holy Noble Son.
It took Cassidy seven years, but he managed to track down Irish sources for hundreds of slang words Americans use every single day, from jazzy (teasai, pronounced j’asi or chassi, meaning passionate and exciting) to yellow, as in cowardly. That comes from the Irish word ealu, meaning “sneaking away. “
Cassidy’s book is filled with the language of gambling. Faro itself comes from an Irish word Fiar araon, meaning to turn two together. In Faro, the main move is called “the turn” and happens when the faro dealer turns two card together in the card shoe and places them face up on the faro layout. Even the words scam, gimmick, and baloney (beal onna, silky talk) are derived from the “secret brotherhood of gamblers,” many of whom were Irish, says Cassidy.
So, the question remains, if so many words in the American dictionary have Irish origins, why didn’t anyone else discover it before now?
“There are a couple of reasons,” Cassidy says. “Let me first contextualize it. The Oxford English Dictionary began in 1870 at the highest point of British, let me use the word, imperialism. And over here, even though Webster was trying create a new, more democratic dictionary, Mr. Webster had no Irish. When he was writing his dictionary, how were the Irish people regarded? They were the maids, the laborers, the people of the slums. They were not looked at as a people who had a classic literate language of the Atlantic world. Yet, Irish was the first literate language in Europe after Latin and Greek. In his book, ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization,’ Thomas Cahill recounts how the Irish monks of the 6th century translated hundreds of ancient texts—not just the Bible, but ancient epics of many cultures, including pagan—and recorded them during the Dark Ages.”
The language was nearly lost, Cassidy says, when the British conquered Ireland and set out to destroy the culture. “To destroy the Irish nation, they had to destroy the Irish language,” he says. It became illegal for the Irish to speak their own native tongue.
Eventually, Irish became the language of peasants, the poor, the rebels and the immigrants. “In the 17th and 18th centuries, you could go into the fields of Ireland and hear peasants who couldn’t read or write reciting beautiful passages of poetry that they’d memorized,” says Cassidy. “It’s such a great irony that the language of the great scholars of Ireland was saved by the poorest of the poor in the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland). When the Irish came to America, as early as the 17th century, they could speak it but most couldn’t write it. But it’s there in the air. In the 19th century, more than 7 million poured into the greatest crossroads cities in the US and that language was scattered across America.”
Buckaroos in Montana were Gaelic bocai rua, Irish and Scottish Gaelic-speaking cowboys who called themselves “wild rogues” in their own language. Political ward heelers in New York derived their handle from the Irish word eilitheoir, meaning one who demands or charges. Chicago gangsters took monikers—nicknames, like Bugsy—from an Irish traveler word, munik, meaning name. “Irish was slowly absorbed into the vernacular speech of American language but it’s absorbed anonymously, much like much of our music is absorbed anonymously,” says Cassidy.
And speaking of music, Cassidy’s second book will unravel the mystery of some of the supposed nonsense words in many Irish traditional tunes. Like the oft-sung tune, “Pat (or Paddy) Works on the Erie,” that begins:
“In eighteen hundred and forty one,
I put my corduroy breeches on
I put my corduroy breeches on
To work upon the railway.”
It’s followed by a chorus that goes, “Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay, Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay, Fil-i-me-oo-re-i-re-ay, To work upon the railway.”
It sounded silly to Cassidy too, until he started learning Irish.
“I was about three and a half years into the project, and I’m not a fluent Irish speaker, but I am a folk singer and I’d been singing that song since I was a boy,” Cassidy says. “One day it hits me: This is a song about a guy who’s putting his pants on to go to work, and the words he sings, as it turns out, are an Irish phrase that means ‘I’ll go back.’ He’s putting his pants on to go back to work! ‘Filimeooreireay. . .to work upon the railroad.’”
You can almost hear the “eureka” in his voice. So, I asked, “What about tooralooraloora? What’s that mean?”
He laughed. “I’m getting close to figuring that one out. It will be in the next book, I promise.”