IRISH-IN-CHICAGO-L ArchivesArchiver > IRISH-IN-CHICAGO > 2007-11 > 1194675616
From: Nan Brennan <>
Subject: [IRISH-IN-CHICAGO] How the Irish created slang
Date: Sat, 10 Nov 2007 00:20:16 -0600
November 8, 2007NEW YORK TIMES.
Humdinger of a Project: Tracing Slang to Ireland
By COREY KILGANNON
Growing up Irish in Queens and on Long Island, Daniel Cassidy was
“I used to ask my mother, ‘Why Glom?’ and she’d say, ‘Because you’re
always grabbing, always taking things,’” he said, imitating his
mother’s accent and limited patience, shaped by a lifetime in Irish
neighborhoods in New York City.
It was not exactly an etymological explanation, and 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
“The whole project started with a hunch — hunch, from the Irish word
‘aithint,’ meaning recognition or perception,” the verbose Mr.
Cassidy said in an interview on Monday at O’Lunney’s, a bar and
restaurant on West 45th Street. He has worked as a merchant seaman, a
labor organizer and a screenwriter, and he lives in San Francisco,
where he teaches Irish studies at the New College of California.
He pulled out his pocket Irish dictionary and began pointing out
words that he said had been Americanized by the millions of Irish
immigrants who turned New York into an extension of the Ghaeltacht,
or Irish-speaking regions of Ireland.
“Even growing up around it, little shards of the language stayed
alive in our mouths and came out as slang,” he said, spouting a
string of words that sounded straight out of a James Cagney movie.
“Snazzy” comes from “snasach,” which means polished, glossy or
elegant. The word “scram” comes from “scaraim,” meaning “I get away.”
The word “swell” comes from “sóúil,” meaning luxurious, rich and
prosperous, and “sucker” comes from “sách úr,” or, loosely, fat cat.
There is “Say uncle!” (“anacal” means mercy), “razzmatazz,” and
“malarkey,” and even expressions like “gee whiz” and “holy cow” and
“holy mackerel” are Anglicized versions of Irish expressions, he
said. So are “doozy,” “hokum,” “humdinger,” “jerk,” “punk,” “swanky,”
“grifter,” “bailiwick,” “sap,” “mug,” “wallop,” “helter-skelter,”
“shack,” “shanty,” “slob,” “slacker” and “knack.”
Mr. Cassidy chatted with an Irish-born worker at O’Lunney’s, Ronan
O’Reilly, 21, who said he grew up in County Meath speaking Irish. He
nodded in agreement as Mr. Cassidy explained that Irish survived in
New York as slang.
“It was a back-room language, whispered in kitchens and spoken in the
saloons,” Mr. Cassidy said.
Mr. O’Reilly nodded and said, “Sometimes my friends and I will use it
amongst ourselves, sort of like an underground language.
“Some of your words here sound like they are taken straight from
Irish, even expressions directly translated, like ‘top of the
morning’ or ‘thanks a million,’” he continued. “In Ireland, we pick
up American slang from TV, like the word ‘buddy.’”
Mr. Cassidy laughed. “Buddy,” he contends, actually comes from
“bodach,” Irish for a strong, lusty youth.
Another employee came up, Lawrence Rapp, 25, who said he was an
Irishman from London, where the art of rhyming slang is practiced.
“If you have to piddle, you say ‘Jimmy Riddle,’” he said.
Mr. Rapp said Londoners often used the word “geezer” to describe
people, and Mr. Cassidy pointed out that the term derives from the
Irish word “gaosmhar,” or wise person.
“Even the word ‘dude’ comes from the Irish word ‘dúid,’ or a foolish-
looking fellow, a dolt,” Mr. Cassidy said. “They called the guys
dudes who came down to the Five Points section of Manhattan to chase
He showed a passage in his book that notes that the Feb. 25, 1883,
edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the coining of the word
“dude,” referring to, among other things, a man who “wears trousers
of extreme tightness.”
“You dig?” he said. “‘Dig,’ as in ‘tuig,’ or understand.”
|[IRISH-IN-CHICAGO] How the Irish created slang by Nan Brennan <>|