Friday, August 03, 2007

The Irish In English

To the intellectuals who wrote the dictionary, there were no words in the English language that were contributed by the Irish. Over a million of them leaving the island, spreading across the globe, yet no words of the Irish language ever became part of American slang.

Hard to believe, considering the fact that many of the Irish diaspora spoke Irish at home before they left in search of opportunity. Hard to believe that the emigrants would have abandoned their native tongue so completely. Author Daniel Cassidy didn't believe it either, and he has taken his knowledge of Irish and English and put together a very interesting book.

How The Irish Invented Slang details the connection between the Irish immigrants who populated the tenement districts of New York and Boston and Baltimore, and words that popped up in English slang. Starting his research with an Irish-English dictionary, Mr. Cassidy needed look no further than his own family to find connections between words. In addition, he is one of the founders of the Irish Studies program at California's New College, so he's well versed in the subject.

When your oversized lout of an older brother had you in a headlock and wouldn't let go until you said 'uncle", did you wonder what your uncle had to do with it? Was Uncle Brendan supposed to come running to pull the bastard off of you and give him a clout in the head for good measure? Or was your brother telling you to say 'anacal' - mercy?

And was that same brother just slicing up a bunch of baloney when he bragged about beating the snot out of the bully at the end of the street? Or was he talking 'beal onna' -- foolishness? As for the fancy-dressed couple in the biggest house in town, were they a bunch of swells -- or was it 'souil', the Irish word for prosperous and rich.

The late, great pianist Eubie Blake would never use the word 'jazz' in mixed company, as the word was originally a slang term that came out of the brothels. Jazz is a shortened form of the term jasm or jism, which still carry the original obscene meaning. But did 'jazz' come from 'teas', the Irish term for passion in a sexual sense? Author Cassidy traces the term back to a mixed group of Irish, Sicilian and poor whites who brought Dixieland out of New Orleans and brought it to New York in 1917, giving credence to his theory that there's more Irish in English than once thought.

Mr. Cassidy believes that the Irish immigrants, mixed in with poor Jews and blacks, added their words to the language stew that came out of the tenements and ghettos, the cant (caint) and clever spiel (speal). How The Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads is an interesting analysis of where words come from and how newcomers add their tongue to the melting pot that is a growing, thriving language.



Interesting! I learned something today. Sounds like a book worth checking out.

O hAnnrachainn said...

Good bit of light entertainment to get through the dog days of summer.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! We have many Yiddish expressions in common parlance whose origins are known; why not any Irish? I agree, very suspect and worth investigating. And the result sounds like a fascinating read.

O hAnnrachainn said...

I suspect some interaction between Jewish immigrants and the Irish, which led to the adoption of corned beef in place of boiled bacon.

Discovering when words come into existence is part of the interest of the book. It's of help if you're writing historical fiction.