Irish in America: a Language Lost and Found

In 1799, troops with Napoleon’s army in Egypt unearthed an ancient tablet inscribed with a tribute to the Pharaoh in demotic script as well as Greek and hieroglyphs. As a result of this discovery outside the town of Rashid (Rosetta), the Egyptologist and linguist Jean-Francois Champollion was eventually able to reveal the meanings of a once-indecipherable language. What had been lost was found, and historians and scholars gained a new understanding of the past. Working with a pen (or more likely, a computer) rather than a spade, and serving both as digger and decoder, Daniel Cassidy presents us with revelations that are, for etymologists in general and Irish Americans in particular, every bit as momentous as those Champollion extracted from the Rosetta stone.

The discoveries that Cassidy has gathered into How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroad represent a hugely significant breakthrough in our ability to understand the origins of vital parts of the American vernacular. He has solved the mystery of how, after centuries of intense interaction, a people as verbally agile and inventive as the Irish could seemingly have made almost no impression on English, a fact that H.L. Mencken, among other students of the lan-guage, found baffling. What was missing, it turns out, wasn’t a steady penetration of Irish into English, but someone equipped with Cassidy’s genius — a unique combination of street smarts and scholarship, of memory, intuition, and intellect-who could discern and decipher the evidence.

Like the Frenchmen who uncovered the Rosetta stone, Cassidy’s discovery began with a serendipitous dig, a solitary stroke of the spade into the fertile earth of his own family’s history, at the spot where a piece of the past jutted above the layers of time forgotten or obscured in the form of a single word, “Boliver” (bailbhe, balbhán, mute, inarticulate, a silent person), the semi -affectionate, semi-sarcastic nickname used to refer to his taciturn grandfather. Beginning with that key, a la Champollion, Cassidy unlocks the secret of a centuries-long infiltration of Irish into English, exactly where it would be most expected, amid the playfully subversive, syncretic, open-ended olio of slang. “We were not balbh (mute) in Irish,” writes Cassidy:

“The slang and accent of five generations and one hundred years in the tenements, working-class neighborhoods, and old breac-Ghaeltachta (Irish-English speaking districts) slums (‘s lom, is a bleak exposed place) of Brooklyn and New York City held within it the hard–edged spiel (speal, cutting language) and vivid cant (caint, speech) of a hundred generations and a thousand years in Ireland: Gaeilge, the Irish language.”

Cassidy’s ability to see clearly what others — including myself — -had missed entirely, his originality and eagle-eyed insight in locating what was hidden in plain view, brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Purloined Letter.” At the outset of the story, C. Auguste Dupin is informed by the Prefect of Police that his men are nonplussed because the case they are trying to crack, which seemed simple at the outset, has proved unsolvable.

“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” replies Dupin. Later, he explains to his companion the underlying reason why the police, equipped with microscopes and following the rules of evidentiary logic, overlooked what was right before their eyes:

“[H]ad the purloined letter been hidden anywhere within the limits of the Prefect’s examination — in other words, had the principle of its con-cealment been comprehended within the principles of the Prefect — its discovery would have been a matter altogether beyond question.”

Dupin’s axiom – that while the obvious is often found in obvious places, locating it can require abandoning the safe harbor of theory for the open waters of reality and experience — underlies Cassidy’s work. Take, for example, his explication of the word “crony,” which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) speculates is perhaps from the Greek chronios (long-lasting) and was first recorded in English usage in 1663. The dating to 1663, the early days of the Restoration, with returning Irish exiles and refugees from the Cromwellian settlement abounding in English cities and towns, is a clue to the true origin of crony. More direct and, it seems to me, alto-gether beyond question, is the unadorned fact that the Irish word comh-roghna, pronounced co-rony, means, Cassidy tells us, “fellow favorites, mutual sweethearts, fellow chosen ones, figuratively, mutual pals.”
The story of the Irish language’s survival and its transatlantic impact is inseparable from the course of Irish history. Beginning with the dissolution of the Irish monasteries under Henry VIII through the Elizabethan conquest, the Flight of the Earls, and the aftermath of the Williamite victory, the old Gaelic order was gradually toppled and destroyed. Educated Irish-speaking monks, poets, musicians, genealo-gists, scholars, and brehons were driven from the scriptora, schools, castles, and courts where they had enjoyed the patronage of chieftains and, in some cases, of the Irish-Norman (“old English”) nobility outside the Pale.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Irish, the first literate vernacular in Europe, had become almost exclusively the language of vagabond storytellers and musicians, hedge-school teachers, peasants, and spalpeens, its purview the cabins, clachans, and cross-roads of the countryside, the vast half-hidden world beneath the new Anglo-Irish colonial order, the territory of the ‘s lom, or slum. With the great scattering driven by the Famine, the insular, self-referential confines in which most Irish speakers existed was broken open. The language was carried by immigrants, navvies, miners, travelers, laborers, and domestics to the New World. (There was an earlier influx of largely Scots-Gaelic speakers whose settlements reached from Cape Breton and Newfoundland to the Carolinas. Their impact on regional dialects and slang was profound and, as Cassidy is the first to point out, deserves the full attention of linguistic scholars.)

Just as important as the sheer number of those who left during the Famine decade is where they went. A sizeable chunk descended on the burgeoning cities of one of the world’s most rapidly industrializing societies at the very moment that railroads and telegraphs were revolutionizing the speed and impact of communications. Almost overnight, port cities such as New York, Boston, and New Orleans became home to large Irish communities, and newly emerging metropolises such as Chicago, San Francisco, and Kansas City weren’t far behind.

The exact proportion of Famine immigrants monolingual in Irish or bilingual in Irish and English will never be known. Estimates of pri-mary Irish speakers vary, running as high as thirty-five percent. In his masterfully written, deeply researched history of a single village’s fate during the Famine, The End of Hidden Ireland, Robert Scally relates how large numbers of arrivees in Liverpool tried to pass as English speakers, knowing that “speaking Irish above a whisper outside the Irish wards instantly marked the emigrant to both the authorities and the swarms of predators.” Though the precise numbers of Irish speak-ers will remain at best an educated guess, there’s no doubt that the breac-Ghaeltacht, or Irish-English speaking district, seeded itself in American cities, towns, and rural areas.

Sometimes these settlements were in mill towns such as Augusta, Maine, where Nathaniel Hawthorne recorded in his Notebooks sight-ing improvised cláchans, “the board built and turf-buttressed hovels of these wild Irish, scattered about as if they had sprung up like mushrooms in the dells and gorges, and along the banks of the river”; or near Walden Pond, outside Salem, Massachusetts, where he came upon “a little hamlet of huts or shanties inhabited by Irish people who work upon the railroad . . . habitations, the very rudest, I should imagine, that civilized men ever made for themselves . . .” Other times, the lan-guage was embedded among the tenement dwellers of the Five Points, in New York City, and in dockside communities along the East and Hudson rivers. Wherever Irish was found, it had an effect, spicing people’s everyday speech and percolating through mongrel networks of saloons, theaters, political clubhouses, union balls, and precinct houses, its spiel full of pizzazz.

The concentration of the Irish in the hub cities of America’s industrial coming-of-age made the Irish prime participants in the often intertwined professions of politics, entertainment, sports (along with its less reputable sister, gambling), as well as a major part of the local criminal underworld (which was not infrequently an ally of the local political machine). Cut off from the main avenues of social advance-ment and power — the elite universities, Wall Street, the familial and fraternal networks of the Protestant upper classes — the Irish traveled the back streets and alleyways becoming a formative ingredient in the swirling mix of a still inchoate national identity.

Irish was an everyday part of the immigrants’ journey from mud-splattered outsiders to smooth-talking prototypes of urban cool, from the bard-fisted slugger (slacaire) of the Five Points to the street-wise ward heeler (éilitheoir) of the ubiquitous political clubhouses to the quintessential American con game, the scam (‘s cam é). The lan-guage was woven into the fabric of how they lived, labored, and relaxed. It melded into the musical productions of the prolific Edward Harrigan (whose plays were so popular that he had his own theater in which to house them), into the lingo of street gangs and the police forces created to control them, into hobo camps and cir-cus trains, into folk songs of east and west, into “Paddy Works on the Erie” and the cowboy anthem “Whoopie Ti Ti Yo,” into the speakeasy shtick of Texas Guinan and the groundbreaking dramas of Eugene O’Neill.

As Ann Douglas points out in Terrible Honesty, her intriguing, often brilliant study of New York City in the 1920s, there was- – and is — an underlying subversive dynamic to the American vernacular:

“The American language gained its distinctive character by its awareness of, and opposition to, correct British Standard English; white slang was played against conventional middle-class speak, and the Negro version of the language worked self-consciously against the white one. In both cases, the surprise came from the awareness of conventions being flouted.”

The Irish-American vernacular was a ready-made alternative to “conventional middle-class Anglo-American speak.” It provided a vocabulary that wasn’t used in the classrooms or drawing rooms of the “respectable classes” but that reeked of the lower classes (or “the dan-gerous classes,” as nineteenth-century social reformer Charles Loring Brace referred to slum dwellers in general and the Irish in particular).

The infusion of Irish-American vernacular into popular usage involved, as well, the usefulness of words, their quotidian and demotic ability to get a point across, to lubricate the conversation of the streets, which has always — and will always — value “snazz” (snas, polish, gloss) and speed over technological precision or highfalutin airs. It’s not an accident, I think, that slang words such as “lulu,” “snazzy,” “bally-hoo” — Cassidy’s list of Irish derivatives is long and enlightening — have an onomatopoeic resonance similar to that of Yiddish, which explains in part why the two together probably account for so much of American slang.

The evolution of Irish into American vernacular was a gradual vanishing act. The words became such familiar parts of everyday speech that many seemed simply to belong to the way Americans talked, natural ingredients of popular speech. Most were entered into dictionaries as “origin unknown,” or received farfetched etymologies. In some measure, this reflected a growing paucity of native Irish speak-ers — a process accelerated by assimilation, economic mobility, and access to higher education. (Few if any of the Catholic universities or colleges in the U.S., the great majority founded in the wake of the Famine, had Irish studies or Irish language courses until very recently.)

Ignorance of Irish wasn’t the sole culprit, however. There was also the active and aggressive “racial pride” of an immensely influential pan–Atlantic “Anglo-Saxonist” movement that fueled U.S. imperial expan-sion at the end of the nineteenth century, found widespread expression in the nativist-populist activities of the Ku Klux Klan, and helped drive the highbrow bio-racist paranoia of the eugenics movement. As seen by Anglo-Saxon supremacists, Irish was the tongue of grooms and hod carriers, a provincial vestige of a failed culture, a primitive artifact, and to credit it as influencing the language of America’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon civilization was as preposterous as it was insulting.

Time and again, whether the oversight was caused by passive neglect or active disdain, Professor Cassidy wields Occam’s razor (the theory that the simplest of competing explanations is always to be preferred to the most complex) to shred the frail guesses of dictionary makers and reveal a self-evident Irish root. Take, for example, good solid slang words like “slugger,” which Webster first finds in print in 1877 and traces to a Scandinavian root meaning “to walk sluggishly”; “fluke,” and “nincompoop,” which are all listed as “origin unknown.” Cassidy will have none of it. “Slugger,” he points out, is almost a homonym for the Irish slacaire, “a mauler or bruiser.” “Scam” fits the same pattern, sounding like a resonant echo of the Irish ‘s cam (é), “(it) is fraud, a trick.” “Fluke”‘, How about fo-luach, pronounced fu-lua, Irish for “rare reward or occurrence.” “Nincompoop”? The Irish is naioidhean ar chuma bub, pronounced neeyan [er] um boob, meaning “baby in the shape of a blubbering boob.” Think this is all a lot of baloney? Then consider the Irish béal ónna, pronounced bael ona, meaning “foolish talk.”

While the substance of Irish’s lexical presence was ignored or for-gotten, there has never been any question of Irish Americans’ impact on the American vernacular style. The rapid-fire, hardboiled, cynical, wise-guy banter that remains a defining characteristic of slangdom was perfected and popularized by a slew (from the Irish slua, a multitude) of great Irish-American character actors such as James Gleason (see his role as a Brooklyn detective in “Arsenic and Old Lace”); William Frawley (as a Tammany boss in “Miracle on 34th Street”); Brian Donlevy and William Demarest (together in Preston Sturges’s — himself the son of an eccentric Canadian-Irish mother – “The Great McGinty”); Eddy Brophy (fittingly cast in his final film, “The Last Hurrah,” as “Ditto” Boland); and the nonpareil big city Irish-American tough guy sharpster, Jimmy Cagney, whose influence continues right down to today’s Gangsta rappers. Like the words themselves, the Irish-American vernacular style is in the very bloodstream of who we are as a people.

For me personally, the “secret knowledge” that Professor Cassidy exposes to public view has resolved some of my own ruminations over the argot of turn-of-the-century New York’s underworld, which I encountered in researching my novel Banished Children of Eve. I suspected there was something going on under the always vivid, if often arcane slang but was at a loss to explain what. Thanks to Cassidy’s work, I’ve come to grasp not just the words beneath the words but also to see clearer than ever before that I wasn’t as far removed from the Irish language as I once imagined.

In my own case, my mother’s father had been born in Macroom, in County Cork, in the 1860s, which was an Irish-speaking area into the twentieth century. He said his prayers in Irish throughout his life, my mother informed me, a passing comment I filed away without much thought as to its significance. My father’s maternal grandparents came to America during the Famine, in 1847, exactly a century before I was born. The urban breac-Ghaeltachts were still within living memory, a penumbra whose presence that, even if we felt, we weren’t equipped to understand.

As kids in the Bronx, when we skedaddled or lollygagged or made a racket, we had no idea the descriptives we used were direct echoes of the Irish language. We didn’t hear it in our speech. The Irish past was hidden from us. It was there, of course, a determining factor in how we worshipped, socialized, and worked, in the framework of our dreams and expectations. But we didn’t know the Irish part of ourselves in any conscious way. As Irish Americans, we put the stress on the second part of’ the identity, and while proudly acknowledging our Irish legacy, our eyes were trained on the future. ‘The Irish language, we imagined, belonged exclusively to the old country and, like the place itself, was quaint, irrelevant, useless for making headway in the con-crete and competitive precincts of urban America.

We weren’t totally dumb, however, to the living elasticity of language, to its porousness and powers of infiltration.

In the Bronx of the 1960s, we listened to and sometimes adopted the Spanish of the emergent Puerto Rican diaspora, referring to beer as cerveza and pretty girls as muchachas. Puerto Ricans, in turn, began to blend Spanish and English into a patois known as “Spanglish.” Looking back, what’s most notable for me isn’t the pervasive existence of hybridity– the genetic, cultural, and linguistic mixing that is everywhere part of the crossroads (and isn’t that what America is, after all, a great global crossroads?– but the widespread obliviousness to the inevitability of such mixing and, sillier and more dangerous, the fanatic’s quest for an imaginary “purity” of race and tongue.

Cassidy’s ground-shifting thesis should transform and enrich much of the scholarly discourse about multiculturalism and the dialec-tic that drives and defines American society. Words and concepts like “jazz,” “poker,” “square,” “scam,” “sucker,” “slum,” “brag,” “knack,” etc., are as central to American culture and history as the language itself. What will people make of Cassidy’s strongly convincing argument that an Irish derivative – jazz — now identifies America’s most powerful and original art form, a creative achievement rooted in the hearts, history, and souls of black folks’? Will it help add to our recognition that, despite our differences, we Americans are hopelessly (and hopefully) entwined with one another, our histories, ancestries, stories, songs, dreams, lives wrapped around each other like dual strands of DNA?

This revolutionary challenge to long-standing orthodoxies embedded in the dictionaries of Webster and the monumental Oxford English Dictionary of Charles Murray and his followers will undoubtedly lead to Cassidy being dismissed by some as heretic or dreamer. Great reap-praisals, as Hubert Butler pointed out, are always threatening, espe-cially to those who’ve helped build and maintain the status quo. But, as Nietzsche (a professional philologist, let’s remember) once put it, what we need most times is not the courage of our convictions but the courage to question our convictions. The willingness to see the world afresh, to throw over old presumptions and consider new possibilities, to abandon routine and renew a sense of wonder, is as important to the scholar as the artist. Like the purloined letter in the short story by Poe (whose paternal ancestors were from County Cavan), the persistence of the Irish language was missed in part because it couldn’t be compre-hended through the narrow focus of conventional principles.

It is not just historians, I think, who come to grasp the proximity of the past, to pierce the illusion of the present’s novelty, and perceive in our midst, in our loves, fears, and expectations, on our very tongues, what has gone before.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the further we move away in time from where we began, the more our journey seems — in the spectacularly inventive, polyglot vernacular of James Joyce – “a commodius vicus of recirculation,” until we under-stand the extent to which today entails yesterday and how much the future is mortgaged to the past. Eventually, perhaps, whether as indi-viduals or a society, we must inevitably come upon our own purloined letters, truths that we failed to see or successfully disregarded but that w ere always there, at the center of who we are.

The explorations that Cassidy undertakes in How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads have a distinctly personal element, about which he is forthright and upfront. He starts with his Irish-American family and New York Irish upbringing. But in good American fashion, and follow-ing in the footsteps of Walt Whitman, who lived not too far from Cassidy’s ancestors in Brooklyn’s dockside Irishtown, Cassidy celebrates more than self or a single family and embraces an experience far wider than Irish or Irish American, penetrating to the dynamic of lan-guage-making itself, the most uniquely human of all our species’ endeavors

What Cassidy has done is nothing short of the miraculous: he has brought back to life that which was considered dead and settled. Rollover, Webster and Murray! In place of time-worn proprieties and stale assumptions, Cassidy gives us heat, passion and excitement of a past rediscovered and made new. And ain’t that the real jazz!

PETER QUINN is a novelist and essayist, and a chronicler of Irish-America. A third-generation New Yorker whose grandparents were born in Ireland, Quinn is the author of Banished Children of Eve (1994), which won the American Book Award. This essay forms the introduction to Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang. His latest book is Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America.