Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How the Irish Invented American Slang?

Not sure if linguists would concur, but here's one take on how Irish language words entered our Murrican vernacular. This was sent to be by an Irish American ex-pat, the best kind, the type who goes back to live there. "Internal evidence" gives the snip a Belfast origin but no URL, so I reproduce it below. Coincidence, as I sat in on a test lecture given by a instructor who has her M.A. from New College in San Francisco. A degree I would have loved to pick up if I had lived in the Bay Area and had the money and leisure to do so. Rumors have had it that their small Irish Studies program is dormant, although Daniel Cassidy's efforts may attest I hope to the contrary. I can vouch for hearing on Fearghal MacUiginn's BBC-NI show Gíota Beag the snazzy-snas etymology already. (Image credit: The Atlantic.com illustrating "The Dictionary of American Slang." Hard to find a good pictorial for this topic.)

By the way, coming from IASIL and hearing ad infinitum the phrase from the semi-discredited "How the Irish Became White" book by Michael Ignatieff repeated by scholars with hook marks made by fingers or inflection, I call for a ban on it now. And razzmatazz allusions such as Cassidy and I make to it, of course.

Gee Whiz Daddy-o! Irish slang is baloney

By Margaret Canning

IT IS a conundrum that has long confused scholars – why the Irish language seems to have had little influence on English as spoken in America.

Millions of Irish emigrated to America but English as Americans now speak it appears devoid of Irish references – despite the reputation of the Irish for verbal creativity.

And with other ethnic groups leaving an indelible mark on English – from the chutzpah of Yiddish spoken by Jews to the zeitgeist of German immigrants, the lack of an Irish verbal footprint is regarded as an anomaly.

Now, in good news for Gaelgoiri everywhere, a new book credits the Irish language for influencing spoken English – and slang most of all.

In How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads, Irish American academic Daniel Cassidy demonstrates that the influence of Irish emigrants on American existence went beyond pubs and politics.

Mr Cassidy, who has an interest in all things Irish and founded an Irish studies course at the New College of California, nonetheless balked at taking up the language himself.

That changed when a student, who died at 37, bequeathed him a battered, dog-eared Irish dictionary.

Mr Cassidy contemplating binning the book but instead, decided to absorb a word or two of Irish very night.

A Eureka moment came not long afterwards: “Was it possible that some of the slang words and phrases that I learned as a kid in New York in the 1940s and 1950s √ like ‘in dutch’ (duais, pron. dush, trouble); ‘snazz’ (snas, polish, gloss, lustre) and ‘dude’ (dudach, dud, pron dood, a foolish-looking person, a dolt) √ were derived from the Irish language?” he writes.

“Americans speak Irish every day, but they do not dig (tuig, understand, comprehend) it.

“The words and phrases of Ireland are as woven into the clamour (glam mor, great howl, shout and roar) and racket (raic ard, loud melee) of American life as the hot jazz (teas, pron j’as, cd’as, heat, passion, excitement) of New Orleans.”

Mr Cassidy hopes to waft the winds of change in studies of English – but reminds readers that academics have long harboured a snobbish attitude to Irish.

HL Mencken, author of The American Language, said the Irish had contributed very few words to Americans.

“Perhaps speakeasy, shillelah and smithereens exhaust the list,” Mencken wrote.

Instead, Mr Cassidy, who is taking part in the Feile an Phobail in west Belfast next month, reasserts the Irishness of artistic figures like playwright Eugene O’Neill and the Brooklyn Irish actress and writer Mae West.

Mr Cassidy points out that West used the word “babe”, meaning a physically attractive woman, in 1926 – and that the Irish word ‘bab’ meant a baby, woman or a term of affection.

And baloney, meaning nonsense – a word synonymous with America if ever there was one – is derived from the Irish beal onna, meaning foolish talk.

If you ever need to tell a nosey parker to “mind your own bee’s wax”, you could be referencing the Irish saying beasmhaireacht, meaning morality and manners, Mr Cassidy contends.

So the idea that the Irish have contributed zilch (word meaning nothing or zero, origin unknown) to American English could be beal onna, after all.

• Mr Cassidy takes part in Scribes at the Rock at the Rock Bar on Falls Road, on August 9 at 4pm.


Some American English slang words with Mr Cassidy’s version of their Irish root below:

Buck: a strong and spirited young man
boc: a wag, a playboy
Caca: euphemism for excrement
Cac/caca - excrement, filth, probably derived from the Latin caco
Cantankerous: grumpy, awkward
Ceanndanacht arsa - old obstinacy, aged wilfulness.
Cold turkey: cut off an addiction abruptly
Coilleoireach, coillteoireachta - cutting off, expurgation
Daddy-o - affectionate term for trendy male
Daideo - grandfather
Freaky: strange or unsettling
Fraochaidhe: fierce, fuerious, passionate
Gee Whiz: exclamation
Dia Uas: Great God!
Geezer: fellow
Gaomshar, gaosach: a wise person
Hick: a rural person
Aitheach: a peasant
Racket: organised crime
Ragaireachd: violence, extortion
Razzmatazz: showing off, extravagance
Roiseadh mortas: high spirits and exultation

1 comment:

Miss Templeton said...

You are Missed...You are Named...You are Invoked in my little GB where you once were a regular visitor! And did I not blog on the very subject of Irish-American slang as developed in the Mission District of San Francisco in that same guestbook? I'll do so in the official Blogger CBH Blog with a link to this, but come over and answer the hanging question concerning the famous medieval Irish poem of the white cat!

The Missus can have no fears: for I am the Four-Eyed, Blue-Stockinged Frump of the North Bay.