The legacy of Danny Cassidy


Hettie O’Hara, a native Irish speaker and a woman of penetrating intelligence who teaches Irish at the University of California at Berkeley, once told me that when Cassidy first came to her with his radical insight into “Paddy Works the Railway,” she found it hard to credit. How could something so obvious, she wondered, have been so obscured? “It was as if it stayed hidden in plain sight because we were conditioned not to see it,” she said. Ms. O’Hara became an invaluable resource to Cassidy in the compilation of How the Irish Invented Slang.

Others have been far less receptive. Though no American university or college offers a degree in etymology and few American etymologists have even a slight understanding of Irish, a cadre of soi-disant professional etymologists has done its best to deride, dismiss and, whenever possible, ignore Cassidy’s work. In the year since his death, relieved of his insistent challenge to their blank refusal to consider the evidence of the influence of Irish on American slang, the “dictionary dudes” (that was Cassidy’s term for them) have happily returned to their policy of benign neglect. I have no doubt that their fervent hope is that his thesis will wither from inattention and quietly blow away.

I sincerely doubt it. The central insight of Cassidy’s work and the evidence he marshaled in its support is now part of the record, and despite his sickness, he continued his research right up until the end. A few weeks before he died, he called me to share his enthusiasm for a book he was reading entitled White People, Indians and Colonial Encounters in Scotland and America (Oxford U. Press, 2008), by Dartmouth professor Colin Calloway.

Cassidy pointed out to me that Professor Calloway established the wide usage of Scots Gaelic in America well before the arrival of the Famine Irish, a fact that Cassidy had touched on in his own book. As Calloway puts it:

“Gaelic was easily the third most common spoken European language (after English and French) in British North America in 1815. Even after it was no longer spoken, it still influenced speech patterns in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina into the early twentieth century.”

More importantly, Cassidy felt that Calloway had put his finger on the very process of cultural/linguistic adaptation and hybridization that created slang:

“Contrary to popular expectations that other peoples’ cultures are ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ only if they have survived without change, cultures survive only if they do change. People do not pass their culture from generation to generation as a complete package; they select, rearrange, and reemphasize different pieces of it as time and circumstance change.”

Cassidy believed very strongly that his work was only a start and that much more remained to be done. He knew it would be questioned and tested, which he felt was all to the good. As he once told me, the sheer novelty and revolutionary nature of his challenge to the orthodoxies of the Oxford English Dictionary guaranteed Newton’s Third Law would go into effect: “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

 The evening he spoke at the State Museum, Cassidy was introduced by none other than Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy. Equally impressed by the ground-breaking nature of Cassidy’s book and by the force and persuasiveness of his argument, Kennedy took note of the critics. Time would eventually decide who was right, Kennedy said, and time is on Cassidy’s side.

The truth that Danny Cassidy worked so long and hard to disinter, laboring in obscurity, spending his own resources, bearing the ridicule and scorn of the smug and tenured, isn’t going to be re-interred. The singer may be gone, but not his song. His voice will continue to reach us, whether in fragments or whole, audible between the blasts and blather of the dictionary dudes, a fervent melody, a persistent verse. It will be heard. Danny Cassidy’s legacy will endure.