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How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads

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In a series of lively essays, this pioneering book proves that US slang has its strongest wellsprings in nineteenth-century Irish America. "Jazz" and "poker," "sucker" and "scam" all derive from Irish. While demonstrating this, Daniel Cassidy simultaneously traces the hidden history of how Ireland fashioned America, not just linguistically, but through the Irish gambling u In a series of lively essays, this pioneering book proves that US slang has its strongest wellsprings in nineteenth-century Irish America. "Jazz" and "poker," "sucker" and "scam" all derive from Irish. While demonstrating this, Daniel Cassidy simultaneously traces the hidden history of how Ireland fashioned America, not just linguistically, but through the Irish gambling underworld, urban street gangs, and the powerful political machines that grew out of them. Cassidy uncovers a secret national heritage, long discounted by our WASP-dominated culture. Daniel Cassidy is the founder and co-director of the Irish Studies Program at New College in San Francisco.


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In a series of lively essays, this pioneering book proves that US slang has its strongest wellsprings in nineteenth-century Irish America. "Jazz" and "poker," "sucker" and "scam" all derive from Irish. While demonstrating this, Daniel Cassidy simultaneously traces the hidden history of how Ireland fashioned America, not just linguistically, but through the Irish gambling u In a series of lively essays, this pioneering book proves that US slang has its strongest wellsprings in nineteenth-century Irish America. "Jazz" and "poker," "sucker" and "scam" all derive from Irish. While demonstrating this, Daniel Cassidy simultaneously traces the hidden history of how Ireland fashioned America, not just linguistically, but through the Irish gambling underworld, urban street gangs, and the powerful political machines that grew out of them. Cassidy uncovers a secret national heritage, long discounted by our WASP-dominated culture. Daniel Cassidy is the founder and co-director of the Irish Studies Program at New College in San Francisco.

30 review for How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads

  1. 4 out of 5

    James

    The Irish make up one of the biggest ethnic groups in the English speaking world of Britain, the USA, and Australia. As the first colony of England, where much of later British imperialist policies were perfected and tested, the Irish were the laborers, the soldiers, and the maids of the Anglo rulers in the United States and Britain. Irish women were especially popular in the States as servants because they spoke English. However, it is very easy to forget that the Irish's native language is not The Irish make up one of the biggest ethnic groups in the English speaking world of Britain, the USA, and Australia. As the first colony of England, where much of later British imperialist policies were perfected and tested, the Irish were the laborers, the soldiers, and the maids of the Anglo rulers in the United States and Britain. Irish women were especially popular in the States as servants because they spoke English. However, it is very easy to forget that the Irish's native language is not English, but Irish-Gaelic. Yet, for a group whom was so emerged in English speaking culture after they were conquered by the English, and crushed over and over again in rebellions, very little of the Irish language appears to have influenced the English, at least according to most mainstream English dictionaries, like Oxford. In "How the Irish Invented Slang", Daniel Cassidy lays out an argument that most English linguistic study have all overlooked the Irish influence, most because much of the words come from working class language of the Irish slums, and therefore much of our "colorful" language actually is descended from the Irish Gaelic language, though the spelling has changed and origin was often listed as "unknown" by the scholars. Therefore, Irish-Americans can take heart that their language is still spoken in the bars and streets across the US, especially amongst working people. He explores popular songs, like railroad songs, cowboy songs, and baseball songs, to how the Irish influenced popular card game lingo, to cowboy lingo, to how the book and movie "Gangs of New York" got the name of the gang Dead Rabbits completely wrong. In the back is a nice dictionary of words that Cassidy attributes to being descended from Irish-Gaelic, a language not crushed out of existence by Anglo culture after all. For examples, listed below are 45 slang/descended-from-slang words which Cassidy attributes to the working-class Irish. 1. Babe (sexually attractive young woman) 2. Baloney (as in foolishness) 3. Bee's Wax (as in "none of your…") 4. Booze 5. Brat 6. Chuck (as in "to throw") 7. Cop (as in policeman) 8. Dork 9. Dude 10. Fluke 11. Freak 12. Gams (as in legs) 13. Geek 14. Guzzle 15. Hick (as in peasant or country fool) 16. Honky 17. Jerk 18. Lunch 19. Lick (as in to beat someone) 20. Ma/Pa 21. Mug (as in someone's face) 22. Malarkey (foolish talk) 23. Mutt 24. Phoney 25. Pussy (as in vagina, or whiner) 26. Puss (as in mouth or lips) 27. Slugger (as in baseball hitter) 28. Queer (as in odd) 29. Razzamatazz (showing off, high spirits) 30. Root (as in to cheer for) 31. Slew (as in large number, a whole… of 'em) 32. Shanty 33. Shindig (party) 34. Shoo 35. Whiskey 36. Skinny (inside information) 37. Slacker 38. Slogan 39. Smack (as in to hit) 40. Sock (as in to punch) 41. Spunk (spirit, energy, semen) 42. Sucker (as in fool) 43. Taunt 44. Yacking 45. Yellow (as in cowardly) This is a great book for anyone curious about language and why certain words arose. In a country where working people are often slammed for their language as being outrageous or overly emotional or dramatic or offensive, and while working people are told how stupid they are for they way in which they talk or continuingly corrected their entire lives, it's very nice to read a history of where those "dirty words of the rabble" come from. It's nice to not feel stupid when people are talking about language for once.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tom Schulte

    Personally, I think Cassidy goes to far and puts forward probably cognates as actual etymology, such as actually bothering to try and say we say "Mommy" and "Daddy" due to the Irish. But, the book is fun and convincing that he has actually cleared up a lot of "derivation unknown" slang, like "case the joint", "Dead Rabbit", "jazz", etc. Regardless of how valid the linguistics, the plethora of period quotes, newspaper excerpts, etc. and underworld details make this a fun read, even the dictionary Personally, I think Cassidy goes to far and puts forward probably cognates as actual etymology, such as actually bothering to try and say we say "Mommy" and "Daddy" due to the Irish. But, the book is fun and convincing that he has actually cleared up a lot of "derivation unknown" slang, like "case the joint", "Dead Rabbit", "jazz", etc. Regardless of how valid the linguistics, the plethora of period quotes, newspaper excerpts, etc. and underworld details make this a fun read, even the dictionary portion. A fun, whimsical assault on language history, this has the cartoonish appeal that could be make it a light, opening featurette to one of my fave books, John McWhorter's "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English".

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brian McCarthy

    A more astounding book about word etymology than I would have ever imagined. I had always thought most English words were derived from old Germanic or French or Greek. The influence of the native Irish language was an unacknowledged secret until this book brought it out. A real head-slapper.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Russell

    I know Irish. I speak Irish. It's always bothered me how so many Irish words sound like English words that are similar in sound. AND those English words have NOTHING to do with a similar English word like "Raspberries." Now I can sleep at night. (The book makes so much more sense if you can speak "as Gaeilge."

  5. 4 out of 5

    John

    Great book and Cassidy obviously angered some of the snooty academics he criticized in the book. The big criticism of the book is that modern native Irish speakers don’t approve of his interpretations of the language into American (New York) English of Irish terms. The problem with this of course is that the people who spoke this form of Irish came to New York in the aftermath of the Famine. Last count there were three modern dialects of Irish and though speakers of different dialects can unders Great book and Cassidy obviously angered some of the snooty academics he criticized in the book. The big criticism of the book is that modern native Irish speakers don’t approve of his interpretations of the language into American (New York) English of Irish terms. The problem with this of course is that the people who spoke this form of Irish came to New York in the aftermath of the Famine. Last count there were three modern dialects of Irish and though speakers of different dialects can understand each other, their use of local slang is precisely the thing which makes them all....different dialects. So it’s very possible that words that had currency in early to mid 19th century Ireland, among peasants of the West, slowly fell into misuse after they had left Ireland but continued to be used in America. Pre-Famine Ireland was markedly different from Post-Famine Ireland especially in the accelerated decline of the language and the conscious turning away from all things Gaelic. After all many words and phrases from 19th century American English are either no longer used today or have evolved into different usage. Few people today speak like Abraham Lincoln, Wyatt Earp or Teddy Roosevelt. It’s unrealistic to think that the loss of 1 million speakers of Irish didn’t somehow affect the language either at home or abroad. But leave it to the Irish to condemn anything they haven’t thought of themselves, let alone something written by a Yank. Interestingly a modern historian has theorized that New York born gangster/cowboy Billy The Kid was a native Irish speaker who would have learned Irish growing up probably in the Five Points ghetto - recent evidence which supports Cassidys theory but which is conveniently ignored by his critics.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Maria

    I don't normally read non-fiction, but if I could find more non-fiction like this, that might change. My mother is taking an Irish history class, and she chose this book to do a book report on. She enjoyed it a great deal, so I decided to read it too. Only about 80 pages of the book is writing by the author, the rest is a Gaelic-English dictionary, so it's a much shorter read than it leads you to believe. Unbeknownst to me, there was a consensus among linguists that, unlike almost every other la I don't normally read non-fiction, but if I could find more non-fiction like this, that might change. My mother is taking an Irish history class, and she chose this book to do a book report on. She enjoyed it a great deal, so I decided to read it too. Only about 80 pages of the book is writing by the author, the rest is a Gaelic-English dictionary, so it's a much shorter read than it leads you to believe. Unbeknownst to me, there was a consensus among linguists that, unlike almost every other language of people who assimilated into the english speaking world, no gaelic remained in modern speech. The author, given a dictionary of gaelic words from a friend who passed away, with no background in the language, looked up one word a night in honor of his friends memory. He started to see a pattern when he compared definitions and their pronunciations. Rather than not leaving a mark at all, the language left huge swaths of words taken directly from the gaelic and infused into street talk, slang, and terms particularly centered around gambling and cheating, which the Irish essentially ran in the 1800's clear across the country. Words like slugger, scam, slum, poker, jazz, crony, phoney, shindig, finagle, baloney and countless others have almost exact pronunciations and meaning taken from Gaelic. A fascinating read. It makes me wonder about all the things we think we know and understand, but really don't.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    A fascinating, maddening read - the central thesis (much American slang of unknown origin is actually straight from Gaelic) is compelling, and the surrounding sociology is interesting, but the organization makes it very difficult to read fluently. Every Irish-derived word is bolded and followed by the definition of the source word in parentheses, even if the same word was defined one page before. Many of the stories and sociological observations are used as connective tissue between definitions A fascinating, maddening read - the central thesis (much American slang of unknown origin is actually straight from Gaelic) is compelling, and the surrounding sociology is interesting, but the organization makes it very difficult to read fluently. Every Irish-derived word is bolded and followed by the definition of the source word in parentheses, even if the same word was defined one page before. Many of the stories and sociological observations are used as connective tissue between definitions rather than fully explained. And Cassidy spends too much time detailing convoluted outdated etymologies for words which he then proves must surely be Irish in origin - after the first few times, I was happy to assume that there were plenty of bunk (contraction of bunkum - buanchumadh, pron. bun cume, n. perpetual invention, a long made-up story, a shaggy dog tale) explanations to be had and I just wanted to get to the true stuff. It's a great thesis, though, and the dictionary which comprises the second half of the book is amazing. Incidentally, the most surprising bit of the book to me, and one I wanted to see explored much further: many words we think of as African-American slang (jazz, you dig, daddy-o) are also Gaelic in origin, probably because there used to be a lot of African-American native speakers of Gaelic, including Dizzy Gillespie's family. For real! There's your sequel, Daniel Cassidy, come on!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Seán

    This book is pure fiction. Cassidy was a fantasist and it is incredible to me that he managed to hold down a job as an academic. The level of his scholarship is ridiculously low. An intelligent elementary school child could do better. And in case people think I'm just sounding off for the sake of it, here are a few facts. A great many of the phrases that Cassidy claims as the "origin" of obscure words in American slang are complete fabrications. If you look up uath dubh, sách úr, béal ónna, boca This book is pure fiction. Cassidy was a fantasist and it is incredible to me that he managed to hold down a job as an academic. The level of his scholarship is ridiculously low. An intelligent elementary school child could do better. And in case people think I'm just sounding off for the sake of it, here are a few facts. A great many of the phrases that Cassidy claims as the "origin" of obscure words in American slang are complete fabrications. If you look up uath dubh, sách úr, béal ónna, bocaí rua, teas ioma, naíon ar chuma bub and a host of other Cassidy compositions on Google, you will find that there are no references apart from those relating to Cassidy. If you look up a few common Irish phrases (real ones, that is) you will find the opposite. They get lots of hits from lots of sources, proving that they are real Irish phrases used by Irish speakers. Try it with, for example, "cothrom na Féinne", or "púca na sméar". Then, to prove to yourself once and for all that this book is a worthless pile of buffalo-chips, try looking up the origin of some of the words that Cassidy claims come from Irish, words like giggle, clamour, racket, quirk(y), mayhem. All of these words entered English centuries before the Irish flooded into the slums of NY and other cities. So how could they come from Irish? At a push, there might be ten correct entries in the book but that is really pushing it. The vast majority of this book is just embarrassing nonsense.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mira

    This book is incredible. It goes through a mass of words and traces their history from America back to the depths of Irish pre-history in some cases. Most interesting parts are on words used in gambling that reach back to almost mythological meanings in Celtic culture and gambs (legs!). Also interesting how African, Italian and Irish Americans blended language as a way to confuse the Republican elite in matters of business and crime and general joking around. Two can play at the doublespeak game. This book is incredible. It goes through a mass of words and traces their history from America back to the depths of Irish pre-history in some cases. Most interesting parts are on words used in gambling that reach back to almost mythological meanings in Celtic culture and gambs (legs!). Also interesting how African, Italian and Irish Americans blended language as a way to confuse the Republican elite in matters of business and crime and general joking around. Two can play at the doublespeak game...eh? I'd like to see a book written like this about Australian words...I'm sure sheila (woman) comes from Sheila Na Gig...hahaha

  10. 5 out of 5

    Eingram

    Ben gave me this book and I didn't read it for a long time because it was in a box. Honestly I didn't even read all of it now because it is TERRIBLE. Interesting concept, but bad, bad research and execution. I'm sure some of those words did come from Irish/Gaelic, but a lot of them I've never heard of and please come up with a better way to present them than flitting about history throwing them in everywhere you can. I'm not even sure the author read over his own book once he put the chapters to Ben gave me this book and I didn't read it for a long time because it was in a box. Honestly I didn't even read all of it now because it is TERRIBLE. Interesting concept, but bad, bad research and execution. I'm sure some of those words did come from Irish/Gaelic, but a lot of them I've never heard of and please come up with a better way to present them than flitting about history throwing them in everywhere you can. I'm not even sure the author read over his own book once he put the chapters together, because he repeats himself a lot. Apologies to Ben. It does look interesting at a glance.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Victory Wong

    I read about this book in "Ask a Mexican!" In the village voice-- he didn't really say much beyond it's good but I have always been interested in linguistic history and facts so I think I'd like this.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tam

    Great premise, but the writing style did not impress.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Paul Roper

    Very interesting and it explained an awful lot of words I have known all my life.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Houdini Douglas

    Although it has a few essays, this book is more about etymology, and has great glossary.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Blessy

    brilliant

  16. 4 out of 5

    Padraic

    Either he's right or he's wrong. I still don't know. Good question though: how could a language spoken by so many disappear so quickly? Explains why my mom used to call me an amadan.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Under_rubble

    Probably the worst edited thing I have ever read.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    I really am reading this, it's just kind of slow going. Hahahah, who am I kidding: I am never going to finish this book. I am having a hard time buying the premise.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Olga Werby

    For those interested the origins of phrases like “say uncle,” check out Daniel Cassidy’s “How the Irish Invented Slang.” This is a fascinating read for English speakers.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ocianain

  21. 5 out of 5

    Isabella

  22. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kimmy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Krishna

  26. 4 out of 5

    MS Meagher

  27. 4 out of 5

    Anne-Elizabeth Straub

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jade Elwess

  29. 4 out of 5

    Micheal Ua Seaghdha

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

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