‘S lom to Slum

AllAnglo-American dictionaries agree that the origin of the word “slum” is a mystery.

Slum, n., a “section in a city where the poorest people live… (1825) originally a cant or slang word meaning a room…of unknown origin.” (Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology)

‘S lom, (pron. s’lum), means “is bare, naked, poor” in Irish and is the origin of the mystery word slum.

A slum is not just poor, it is bare naked poverty and distress, stripped and laid open to the elements, like the Five Points of New York in the 19th century, and the Gaza Strip today.

‘S, (contraction), is, (copula; pron.  iss), is. Lom, (pron. lum), adj., bare, bleak, naked, shorn; thin, lean, spare, worn, scarce; poor, penniless. Lom, (pron. lum), n., a bare place or thing; an unprotected or vulnerable place; poverty, distress.

‘S lom, (pron. s’lum), is bare, bleak, naked, impoverished, poor. ‘S lom, (pron. s’lum), is an exposed vulnerable place. ‘S lom, (pron. s’lum), is thin, lean, threadbare. ‘S lom, (pron. s’lum), is penniless. ‘S lom, (pron. s’lum), is distress.‘S lom, (pron. s’lum), is poverty.

Mo lom! Alas! My ruin!

In 1842, the future communist leader Frederick Engels was sent to England by his father to work for the family textile business of Ermen and Engels. In Manchester, Engels met Mary Burns, a young working-class Irish woman, and her sister Lizzie.  It was the Burns sisters who introduced Engels to the Manchester slums.

“It has been calculated that more than a million (Irish) have already immigrated…nearly all of whom enter the industrial districts, especially the great cities, and there form the lowest class of the population…These people have grown up almost without civilization, accustomed from youth to every sort of privation, rough, intemperate, and improvident, bring all their brutal habits with them…

“The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink.  What does such a race want with higher wages? The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by Irishmen. Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognizes at the first glance as different from the Saxon physiognomy of the native, and the singing, aspirate brogue which the true Irishman never loses. I have occasionally heard the Irish-Celtic language spoken in the most thickly populated parts of Manchester.” (F. Engels, Condition of the English Working Class, 1844.)

Despite Frederick Engels’ disgust and revulsion with the Irish, the upper-class German revolutionary fell in love with Mary Burns’ clever Irish puss (pus, mouth, lips, fig. face). She became Engels’ “mistress” and lived with him secretly for more than thirty years. On her death in 1878, Engels began a relationship with her sister, Lizzie, who he would finally marry on her deathbed, when he was in his sixties. Under the influence of the two Burns’ sisters, Fred Engels’ fear and loathing of the Irish slum had been transformed into its opposite. He saw its power!

“What people! They haven’t a penny to lose, more than half of them have not a shirt to their back, they are real proletarians and sans culottes, and Irish besides – wild ungovernable fanatical Gaels… If I had two hundred thousand Irish I could overturn the whole British monarchy” (Frederick Engels; quoted in G, Meyer, 1936)

In the last decade of his life, Frederick Engels was teaching himself the Irish language and working on A History of Ireland. He had learned from the Burns sisters that slums give birth to revolutions.

James Connolly and James Larkin were children of the slum. Connolly was born in 1868 in The Cowgate, Edinburgh’s most notorious slum. His parents were Irish emigrants from Monaghan. Jim Larkin was born in 1874 in a Liverpool slum. By his early twenties he had become a leader of the militant Liverpool dock workers. In 1907, Larkin would move to Ireland and found the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, leading the Irish working-class out of the Dublin slums during the Lockout of 1913. Three years later, Connolly would be shot by a British firing squad for his leading role in the Easter Rising of 1916.

The first and most infamous “English” slum was the Seven Dials and St. Giles.

“The Seven Dials – the core of the evil apple that has been so repeatedly pared- remains still intact… how it passed so completely into the hands of the Irish, history sayeth not… but when one sees nobody but Irish people, never Scotch, never Welsh, the sole inhabitants of localities given over to filth and squalor, one is almost brought to entertain the question – is it the Irish that make wretchedness and depravity, or is it wretchedness and depravity that make people Irish? Let it be how it may, one thing is certain, the Irish have got hold of Seven Dials beyond redemption. The Seven Dials and the Irish are identical…” (James Greenwood, Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, Ch.XVIII, 1867)

Slum first appears in print in “English” in the early 19th century as a “cant” word for a room. Cant (caint, speech, talk, spoken word) was a name for the vernacular of the slum. “Slum, a room.” (J.H. Vaux, Flash Dictionary, 1812).

A room, a tenement, or entire district that is a slum ‘s lom (is an exposed place; is bare, naked, bleak, and poor) in Irish caint (speech).

This is no linguistic scam (‘s cam, is crooked, deceitful, “a trick”). Irish caint (speech) was a foundational tongue (teanga, language) of the slum.

“But the worst was when we got out into the street; the whole district had become alarmed, and hundreds came pouring down upon us… they tore up the very pavement to hurl at us, sticks rang about or ears, stones, and Irish – I liked the Irish worst of all, it sounded so horrid, especially as I did not understand it. It’s a bad language.”  (George Borrow, Lavengro, 1851, Everyman edn [1961], in Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged, 292)

This room is a slum (‘s lom, is an exposed place, is bare, naked poverty).

“In the first room, the windows of which were filled with tins, wood, rags, &c., we found a middle-aged Irishman mending the trowsers of a lad about eight years of age, whom he was going to dispatch to ‘worruk, to get his living, God help him.’ The room above presented a scene of still greater destitution. …There was not a single piece of furniture in it; three beds were rolled up on the ground.” (London Shadows, by George Godwin, 1854 – Chapter 2)

This building is a slum (‘s lom, is an exposed place, is bare, naked poverty).

“Few would suppose that these dilapidated buildings were inhabited, and that too in the midst of winter, by human beings. In some parts the glass and framing have been entirely removed, and vain attempts made to stop out the wind and snow by sacking and other matter. The basement is occupied by donkeys and dogs. In one of the rooms we found a very old Irish woman (who said she was more than five score years of age), crouching over a little fire; her son, a man about thirty years of age, lives with her. There was no bedstead or other furniture in the room; the ceiling was cracked and rotten, and the window destroyed. The rent of this room is 6d. per week.” (George Godwin, London Shadows, 1854 – Ch. 2).

The neighborhood called the Five Points was a slum

The first and most famous American slum was the Five Points: “91% of its residents were born in Ireland.” (Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap dance, Stole Elections, and became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, 2004, 43, 44)

To the New York Times the children of a slum were frightening.

“They are human children, ragged, dirty, premature, horrible, delighting in idleness, ignorant of decency; prone hurrying to perdition…We cannot kill twenty thousand intending burglars, murderers, thieves, and vagabonds who swarm in the back slums and the alleys of our gorgeous capital. Can we do nothing else with them?” (N.Y. Times, May 25, 1857, 4)

But to some newspapers in the 1890s, an Irish slum was fun.

“One hundred and eight years ago this week, on May 5, 1895, readers of the New York World found a new addition to their usual spread of Sunday cartoons. “Hogan’s Alley,” widely recognized as the first American comic strip, debuted that day.

“Set in the Irish slum wards of New York City, it centered on the humorous exploits and observations of a pack of street urchins and a host of neighborhood characters. Chief among them was Mickey Dugan, soon to be known as the “Yellow Kid,” a bald, toothless boy dressed only in a yellow nightshirt.”  (Edward T. O’Donnell, Irish Echo, N.Y., July 11, 2006, no. 27)

In 1896 William Randolph Hearst lured cartoonist R.F. Outcault away from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. The “Yellow Kid” and his gang moved out of Hogan’s Alley and into a new color comic strip (and slum) in the New York Journal called“McFadden’s Row of Flats”.

“SAY! Hogan’s Alley Has Ben condemed
By De Board of Helt
An We Was Gittin Tired of it Anyway

No Sentiment About Us – We
Are Outer de Dough – Keep De Change

A Foxy Move — Be Gee!

From de Alley now we go
Down into McFadden’s Row
Mickey Dugan – Molly Brogan an de rest
But we’ll be de same ole crowd
Where no quiet ain’t allowed
An te make ye laff we’ll all us do our best

Fur de alleys on de bum
An its got ter be a slum
An we ought te have a better place te stay
So we geddered up our traps
Our hats, an shoes an wraps
An we’re glad to say we’re goin te move away.
(By) Chimmie de Laureate

Next Sunday come an see us in
McFadden’s Row of Flats”  (R.F. Outcault, E.W. Townsend, (cartoon) “McFadden’s Row of Flats,” New York Journal, Dec. 13, 1896)

Mickey Dugan was a wise-cracking little dork (dorc, a small person, a dwarf) from a slum in New York who became most famous cartoon character in America.  He was tiny; he was a cartoon; but he wasn’t a twerp (duirb, a worm, an insect, an insignificant person.)

The Yellow Kid never cried “Uncle” (Anacal, mercy).

Eugene O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill, was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, in October, 1845, during the first week of The Great Hunger of Ireland. Fleeing starvation, the O’Neill family emigrated in 1852 to New York and the notorious dockside slum of Buffalo’s First Ward.

By the time he was in his late twenties, James O’Neill had risen from the slum to become one of the most famous actors in America. But like so many others raised up in a slum, he could never escape its grip.

In Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the character Tyrone is based on his father James.

“Tyrone: ‘My mother was left a stranger in a strange land, with four small children, me and a sister a little older and two younger than me. My two older brothers had moved to other parts. They couldn’t help. They were hard put to keep themselves alive. There was no damn romance in our poverty. Twice we were evicted from the miserable hovel we called home, with my mother’s few sticks of furniture thrown out into the street, and my mother and sisters crying. I cried, too, though I tried hard not to, because I was the man of the family. At ten years old!

In 2006, PBS presented a documentary on the life of Eugene O’Neill, son and grandson of Irish famine immigrants, and child of an immigrant child of the slum. The PBS documentary barely mentioned O’Neill’s Irish immigrant heritage, or the brutal poverty of his father’s life in the slum.

One could understand, then, why O’Neill had once complained to his son and namesake that “. . . the critics have missed the most important thing about me and my work—the fact that I am Irish” (Edward Shaughnessey, Eugene O’Neill in Ireland, The Eugene O’Neill Review, 1998; Bowen,  p. ix).

O’Neill’s first play, The Web, and his greatest plays: The Hairy Ape, Anna Christy, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, are filled with the Irish voices of the colony and the slum.

The cultural gatekeepers and dude (dúd, pron. dood, a foolish-looking fellow; a dolt, a numbskull; a clown; an idiot; a rubbernecker; a long-necked eavesdropper) scholars will never understand the language of a slum, whether it Irish, African, or Arab.

The slum called the Gaza Strip ‘s lom (is bare, naked, poor, is an exposed, vulnerable place; is poverty, is dispossession, is distress) in Irish and in Arabic.

The language of the slum will always be a mystery to the Anglo-American dudes of empire, because it is the many-tongued cant (caint, speech) of the colony.

Labor Day, 2006.


(1) The Irish synonyms for lom are anás (need), bochtaineacht (poverty), daibhreas (indigence), dearóile (frail, feeble; puny, insignificant; mean, lowly; needy, poor; wretched), deilbhíoct (bareness, scantiness, poverty), loime (bareness, threadbareness, scantiness, thinness, meagerness, bleakness, openness), and ocras (hunger; poverty, scarcity).

(2) Irish lom, Old Irish lomm, Welsh llwm: *lummo-, *lups-mo-, root lup, peel, break off; Lithuanian lupti, peel, Church Slavonic lupiti, detrahere; Sanskrit lumpami, cut off. (MacBain’s Gaelic Etymological Dictionary, Sec. 24)

DANIEL CASSIDY is founder and co-director of An Léann Éireannach, the Irish Studies Program, at New College of California in San Francisco. Cassidy is an award-winning filmmaker and musician. His research on the Irish language influence on American vernacular and slang has been published in the New York Observer (“Decoding the Gangs of New York”), Ireland’s Hot Press magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Lá, the Irish-language newspaper.His book, The Secret Language of the Crossroad: How the Irish Invented Slang, will be published by CounterPunch Books in Spring 2007. Cassidy was born in Brooklyn and lives with his wife Clare in San Francisco. He can be reached at DanCas1@aol.com









Daniel Cassidy is the author of How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads, CounterPunch/AK Press., 2007.