Just before he died, Daniel Cassidy released a pioneering book that begins to prove how American slang has a root in the Irish American urban experience. As usual, snoots would rather fall on the side of error than to end the kibosh on ascribing Irish origins to any aspect of Anglo-American society. Ireland has a native civilization older than England or France, and it has out-proportioned contributions to modernist culture, but it is more usually described as derivative rather than an originator of trends. Despite stubborn refusal, “jazz” and “poker”, “moolah” and “spunk” all derive from Irish Gaelic, which was used in New York by the Irish like Yiddish and Spanglish was used later-on in the city. Some dismiss these theories without any real understanding of the Irish Gaelic language they existentially must disallow had mixed with English--jerks without the knack to dig it. Others dismiss the theories in loyalty to academia's wine and cheese status quo, and don't wish to seem too maverick, or too "street," like Cassidy who had an unabashed Brooklyn accent. There's an element of snobbery involved in the outright refusal many swells have for this working stiff's tome.
Cassidy was among those who have begun to case the hidden history, anyway, and show how gambling slang, underworld lingo, street gang terms, street-wise cant, merchant code and political jargon in New York City is teeming with Irish Gaelic that melted into American English. Yellow politically-minded academics present English history and culture as being spic and span of Irish influence, and so ignore impulsively, both Irish American slang-smiths in the modern period and Irish Gaelic teachers who taught the early Medieval English how to read and write. They prefer to label Irish words in English as unknown, or originated in more swank cultures like Latin or French. It's basic prejudice on the side of the common hegemony, rooted in ignorance.
This is a small taste compiled from Daniel Cassidy's boss book, How the Irish Invented Slang, and from Niall Ó Donaill's Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla.
We don't normally exclaim "Gee whiz" or "Gee whilikers" anymore. We associate such talk with a classic time in New York, when Irish Gaelic was the secret language of the slums, an Irish Gaelic word which means 's slom é, or "it's bleak." In the slums it was common to hear Irish people say Dia Thoilleachas, Gee Hillukus, which became Gee Whilikers, and means the "will of God." "Gee" is the approximate pronunciation of Dia, or the Irish word for God. "Holy cow" means Holy Cathú or Holy Cahoo or Holy Grief. "Darn" is another Gaelic exclamation. In Irish you say daithairne ort, which means, "darn on you" or "misfortune on you." Gee whiz comes from Dia Uas or Geeuh Woous which means "noble god."
Irish love words were once all over pop songs pumped out from Tin Pan Alley. Mother Macree, or mother of my heart, was a huge hit from those early days of pop. A big name in early popular theater, was Irishman Dion Boucicault who wrote The Streets of New York, and included lots of Gaelic in the titles and dialogue of his blockbusters. Irish pet names like peata, or pet, are still current, as is báb or bawb, which is babe today. Love songs were published as sheet music for people to sing to at the piano, and it was commonplace to hear Irish pet names like Avourneen, Mavourneen, Acushla, Agrah and other lovely words like that. The Irish were pioneers in pop culture, and they littered American popular entertainment from Mother Macree to Huckleberrry Finn with snippets of their language.
If you want to cully support, you're calling on your cuallaí, or friends to help you. In modern Irish, collaí has the sense of being carnal or sexual. If you want to gather people together you make a ballyhoo about the gathering, which in Irish is bailliú, and pronounced like ballyhoo. You might use a slogan in your ballyhoo to promote the gathering, as slogan comes from slua ghairm, the yell of a crowd or a battle-cry. Ballyhoo entered the language at the circus, where Irish people would use slogans to make ballyhoo about a new show everyone should come out and see. Buddy is another Irish Gaelic word, which comes from the Irish expression, a vuddy, or a bhodaigh, which means something like "pal." The root of the word bhodaigh is strangely, bod, which is the Irish word for penis, and pronounced like bud.
Speaking of body parts, the Irish put their Gaelic mark all over the stiff, or corpse, which comes from the word staf or "big guy." If someone has their snoot in the air, they're acting like snoots, which comes from the Irish expression snua aird or when someone appears to be on high, and is acting like a swank swell with his nose in the air. Swank is the Irish word somhaoineach or "valuable" in disguise. Swell is the word sóúil or "luxurious" dolled up to suit the English speaker. If you kick a rich guy in the can, you're kicking him in his ceann which is the "extremity" of a thing, and also "head," which is at the other end from the tail end. Dogs comes from do chos your feet. The vulgar word for the vagina, pussy, isn't so bad, it just means pus or pouty lips in Irish Gaelic. It's a descriptive term, and not insulting. Mug, however, is insulting, and the common phrase "ugly mug" comes from the word muic, which means pig.
Irish Gaelic was a secret language in Éire, which was once an Ireland riddled with foreign spies, and so it was a language to keep the copper (the catcher, the thinker) from catching on. Cop comes from ceapaim, and means "I catch, think etc." You try to keep the cop from figuring out your racket, or your reacaireacht, your "dealing, selling or gossiping." Poker comes from the Irish word for pocket, or póca which is pronounced with a long ó as in poker; as also craps is an Irish game, coming from (Irish: crath abair, "shake the dice and call it"); and other gambling games like faro are Irish in origin, not to mention chess from the pre-modern period when the Irish called it fidchell. Here's a nice article on the Irish origins of chess. The kitty is the pot of moolah in the middle of the table. Kitty is cuid oíche or the "night's share" of moll óir or moolah or "pile of gold."
The most hated idea in Cassidy's book is that the Irish invented the word--not the music--jazz. The Irish had a good role to play in jazz music, from the genesis of tap dance to the Dorsey Brothers, but the word is a separate thing. Cassidy quotes Billy Taylor: "Duke Ellington hated the term, as many jazz musicians do. We're saddled with it. But the music was always called something by someone that had nothing to do with the music itself. ... Duke called jazz, Negro Music, because he was trying to trying to write music that reflected the thoughts and feelings and the expressions and emotions of the African-American race." The term jazz came from the newspapers. The first use of "jazz" came from the hot writing of Irish American sportswriter Edward Scoop Gleason in the San Francisco Bulletin in the spring of 1913. He used it repeatedly, and it stuck, so much so that he was given a couple of column inches by his editors to define the new word for curious readers who would go on to make jazz the hottest slang word of the 20th century. The word is uncontroversiablly the work of an Irish American writer who propogated it from the street speech of Irish San Francisco. It was later applied to the music. Scoop Gleason's area of Irish San Francisco is called Boyes Hot Springs, where there are bubbling naturally hot water springs. That's where jazz comes from. In Irish teas is pronounced chass or jass and means heat. Cassidy's essay is much more detailed on Gleason's use and defintion of the word jazz that was put on Negro Music by music writers who lifted it from the sports pages. Jazz was first used to describe a slugger at bat unleashing the jazz at a ballgame, just like it was applied later to the trumpet player in the speak easy joint unleashing his jazz music. There is no argument I have found that Scoop Gleason is the first writer to use the word repeatedly in print. The argument is whether or not the Irish speaking Irish of San Francisco had achieved the passing of their Gaelic Irish word for "heat" into American English in the familiar form of "jazz." Instead of considering this, the snoots prefer to say the word jazz comes from the unknown, leaving Scoop, with lots of Irish writers using Irish speech, in the dust of neglect.
The Irish word for "language" means "tongue:" teanga. It's one of those ancient words common to most European languages. The Irish word caint means talk, as in, táim ag caint, I am talking. Cant is an American slang word for the slang spoken by gypsies and tight communities like that. Cant is also a word used by the travellers in Ireland for their secret language which uses Irish Gaelic words like old urban American slang does.
Just like the word bailiff came from the Gaelic word baille for bally or homevillage, the word in New York for the cop on the beat, was the ceap on the béad, the protector on ill-deeds. Another kind of Big Shot is the racketeer, who can be a cop or a goon--glommers collecting grift--official or underworld. There's little difference when you boil it down between official thieves and illegal ones, and the Irish knew this, observing the most organized acts of criminality enacted by a dolled up British state, exploiting and criminalizing their own civilization. Big Shot is the Irish word for chief in disguise: seoid, meaning "jewel" or figuratively, "chief." Racketeer is also related to the Irish word reachtaire which was the title for the money-taking administrator at a colonial big house or at a church office back in Ireland. On the streets of New York, the racketeer has translated the duties and strategies of the colonizer into street crime rackets for himself--the oppressed learn the methods of oppression better than any one.
A word that should be brought back is "joint" for place or establishment or room. It's a word that instantly conjures an entire world of old New York. It comes from the Irish word for protection or shelter, a place with a roof, such as in the root of the Irish word for penthouse, díonteach or jeent-ock. If you want to ditch a joint, and skedaddle in a jiffy, because some dick has copped on to your whereabouts, you want to de áit a díonteach or de-place a joint, and sciord ar dólámh or make an all out slip in a deifir in a "hurry," because some dearc or "eye" or PI, has ceaptha or thought or caught on to your whereabouts.
Eugene O'Neill was another huge name in early American pop culture. His plays were also high art, but riddled with Irish themes and language. His favorite word for money was jack, which is a straight-up glom from the Irish tiach, or money or purse. A guy with a jack-roll, was a guy with a wad of cash, spoondoolies or dollars, rolled up. Spoondoolie is one of those old slang words that got resurrected recently in video games, along with Simolions, the currency of Sim City, an urban planning computer fantasy. They're weird English takes on Irish Gaelic expression for a big pile of money or suim oll amháin.
Not everyone is hip to the process where words in one language get misheard and pronounced differently in the new language. In Irish if you want make sure someone understands your meaning, you say, Diggin tú? It's a normal phrase you hear at the end of sentences all the time. In America, An duigeann tú? Became Diggin you? or You dig? It takes a certain knack to understand how closely related the concepts and sounds of tuig and dig are to each other. Most scholars go by their goofy hunch, that tells them that Irish Gaelic is some dead language no one ever spoke. In fact, it was the first language of most Irish Americans that came here in the big flood of Irish after the famine, when that famine adversely targeted Irish-speaking areas first and foremost, sending Irish speakers to America before anyone. In the anti-Gaelic mind, Irish language is a queer idea, and way too vast a thing to even engage--easier to kill it than to incorporate it into an academic's repertoire of reference. The academic makes this decision usually because he or she is already burdened with three centuries of censorious English state propoganda about the meaning and origin of Anglo-American civilization, which did not come about like their poets' tell us it did.
A lot of what goes for true is really fake. We believe a lot of bunkum about our civilization, from noble Columbus discovering America to the glory of Shakespeare's royal hagiographies. It takes a spirit akin to the rebels that overthrew royalty to overcome the propoganda aspect of art in the English language. A lot of British empire mallarkey passes for common sense. So while someone might look back longingly on Victorian society, they miss the fact that the Victorian elite were probably enslaving their relatives in a sweat shop system the Irish politicos in New York smashed with progressive reform on work week hours and health benefits. The injustice of common historical conceits is bountiful. For example, the main weapon the administrators in London had against the rest of the peoples of the world in conquering and building their empire, was their willingness to Double Cross the law of hospitality. Where old civilizations practiced this ancient law of welcome, the London planners would accept warm invitations from abroad, and then double cross this trust with armies or infected blankets or food export policies in famine times. It was a tactic of perfidiousness that ruined native cultures around the world, especially in the Celtic lands that surrounded and threatened London existentially. The baloney that is imperial propoganda affects our institutions from government to the academy, where the rebel's perspective--the critic of empire--is belittled, defamed and ridiculed, so as to protect the status quo of the victorious Victorians and their imitators today.
Another reason Irish Gaelic is neglected as an original source for American slang, is because a lot of the street slang that the Irish made up, relates to a world of vice and crime, some Irish would prefer did not exist. There is shame associated with the destruction of native Irish Gaelic civilization, because the Irish lost their literature and institutions with the victory of the British Empire over their native government. They were impoverished, and took up crime in some instances. The Irish share with Black people and Jews, an urban legacy in America that is not squeaky clean, but rather dirty, like life is dirty when you have no money. Desperation and ambition made many young men turn to the racketeer for work. When you work for a big shot, you do his dirty work, like a goon is supposed to do. There's little difference between the petty grifter collecting grift from local businesses for protection, and the racket undertaken by political shills legitimately taxing people for the benefit of corporate tax-dodgers who have bought out democracy to make cronies of our elected representatives. It's a nasty world.
Having street smarts is one way to look at the world realistically, and not be dooped by those who would double cross you to take your jag on the personal level or your natural resources on the imperial one. Those who first come to the city as hicks or boobs, come with the law of hospitality firmly entrenched in their hearts, only to awaken from such kindness by the cruelty of urban America. It's dangerous to be a dork or ninny in the dog eat dog world. That's why there are so many words for the person-pre-conditioning, the person before he develops the cop-on that accompanies an ambitious life post-nincumpoop to make it in New York.
One way to wake up is to get slugged in the face and have your jag jacked. The Fighting Irish is a common aptronym that describes the occupation of many a brawler that had to whale on an opponent to survive or climb the ladder leading out of the rat race. The Irish were tough and had to be to make. As an organized people, they were sparring with the much better organized establishment. The Irish bickered with the WASP elite until the established order in New York broke down, reformed the sweat shop system of labor in Victorian Anglo-American society, and conceded to the unions and political machines the rights and benefits that created the middle class from the working class that the establishment would have been happy to see slaving away in sweat shops to this day. Instead, the Irish organized and fought for a conception of America that yielded working people an American Dream, a chance to climb out of the slum and into a middle class job and lifestyle.
Lace curtain Irish is a term that describes the middle class Irish who climbed out of the slum into the spic and span homes of the American dream. They left behind a time in American cities when the Irish were smack dap in the middle of street life, theater, pop entertainment and politics. The swells from the WASP tradition who owned the banks and institutions of American society tried everything to defame and prevent the Irish from joining their swank ranks, but that ended, or so the story goes, when JFK broke the barrier that separated the WASP from the Irish, and went from Harvard to the White House, key bastions of the establishment's institutional power. One of the ways the Irish got there was by giving up their jazzy speech for the snazzy touch that remade them into crackers and honkies. Although it's commonplace to describe the Irish today as white establishment members, par excellence, they come from Irish Gaelic roots that put them in the middle of New York street life. We're comfortable enough now where we can re-engage that original condition, and reclaim for ourselves a key position in the history of American pop entertainment, language and culture.