Speaking in Irish Tongues

a review of How the Irish Invented Slang by Daniel Cassidy

Ivan Illich told us that grammars and dictionaries were part of the project of nationalism and the formation of the nation-state. Certainly for many of us the first dictator we came across was the elementary school English teacher who’d tell us what we could and couldn’t say. She was followed by those grown-up authorities who shut up our first glimmer of intellect with the command to look it up in the Dictionary. After years of such education and only after repeated prostrations in the temple of correct language we at last were permitted entry into the sanctuary of words itself, the Oxford English Dictionary (1857-1928), the empire of language, with its universal and totalitarian pretensions. Centralized, enclosed in its many volumes, or microscopically printed so that a magnifying glass is required for simple legibility. Human communication was reduced to a crystal ball in which a fantastic universe of quotations seemed to swim about in the lens. Inasmuch as print unless given tongue is dead, it was dead.

Moreover there were other universes of words, the world of work being the main one, so the OED was answered by the six volumes of Thomas Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1898), so that those scholars interested in working-class consciousness would have a place to go, otherwise when asked in Coventry to pass the “Birmingham screwdriver” you might overlook the hammer. For the Americans it wasn’t just trade talk; the independent nation required its own literature, its own dictionaries, but could it be both postcolonial and imperial? This was the problem facing H.L. Mencken.

For the white supremacist, slave languages were beyond the pale. Hence, the Black Atlantic. Here the mother continent in African American voices, lexicon, rhythms, which, representing a whole realm of struggle, we summarize in the 13th and 14th amendments. “Beyond the pale” refers to the palings, or the fencing, which English conquerors of Queen Elizabeth I’s time drove into the ground to stake out the ‘mere Irish’ from their own bogs and hills and woods and earth: on one side, English spoken, on the other, the Gaeltacht. Like fences everywhere, however, there were ditches, trees, and holes to get under, over, or through, and the less known about them the better. So not just the noble ‘wild geese’ fled Ireland with their aristocratic manuscripts, melodies, and epics, but masses of others fled to build, clothe, feed, and soldier for Angleterre. In addition to the urban and rural infrastructure, they left an imprint in the English language first noticed in the canting dictionaries of thieves’ talk where they remained to be thumbed only in the magistrate’s night court.

In America there wasn’t even this. According to Mencken, there wasn’t anything, apart from “speakeasy”, “shillelah”, and “smithereens”, as if drinking, fighting, and destroying was all there was to Irish. He forgot talking. He too found himself dumbfounded by the post-Famine generation, unable to recognize either Irish eloquence in English or the Irish silences accompanying English atrocity and trauma. Scholars estimate that between one fourth and one third of the post-Famine emigrants spoke Irish, and another fourth were the children of Irish speakers. At the same time authority and experience seemed to conspire in Ireland to say English was the language of modernity. Except for the scholarly connoisseur, the Irish language seemed finished, and the Irish speaker consigned to a pre-modern existence.

This now will change thanks to Daniel Cassidy’s amazing dictionary. The efflorescence of Irish-American cultural studies which has taught us (referring to a couple of other books) how the Irish saved civilization or how the Irish became white, has now explained How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads (2007). Cassidy’s entries are often little essays of social history expressed in caustic wit and erudition, similar to the work of those other people’s lexicographers of the San Francisco Bay, Iain Boal and Ambrose Bierce.

James Joyce identified three responses to the twin imperialisms of Crown and Church; silence and exile we knew, but now thanks to Cassidy we can now understand the third, cunning. The repressed has returned not to England or to Ireland but to America without our even knowing it. Irish language resides in our slang, the living language, not in the philological traditions of academic study. The vigor, the muscle, the wit, the force of American language comes from this slang, slang itself an Irish word. That bad English we were forbidden to speak in school, those bad words that formerly were not found in any dictionary, those words like slang itself whose OED etymology only says “a word of cant origin, the ultimate source of which is not apparent” is shown in mirthful page after page to be nothing less than Irish.

Under the postcolonial order much is inverted. Correct English, the King’s English, becomes the slang of prigs who write essays and histories, the wonks who peddle hokum, the scribblers who pass off bunkum. All those academics who took the linguistic turn didn’t really go anywhere except it circles. They didn’t speak differently or say anything or talk to new people. Pretty much the same ol’ same ol’. The ruler on the palm. Standing in the corner.

The diction of the faro table, the dealer’s talk at poker, the petitions to the ward-heeler, the tally talk at the turf or the ring, the sound of the rag and jazz is the Irish language in America. It is at the cross roads, between continents, between country and city, across physics and metaphysics, it is the authentic talk – the razz, the razzamatazz, the malarkey, the baloney, the yacking and the yelling and hollering. Holy Cow! Gee Whiz! Hot Diggity! Holy Mackerel! Hot Dog! It is the talk of the 19th century American cities, themselves the consequences of the post-Famine condition – New York, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco. It is the lexicon of the working stiff; both longshoremen and the shape-up explain that it is the frontier language, the border talk, between land and sea, the cross roads. And for a working class contribution not much beats free eats.

If it was an English speaker who said there’s no free lunch, surely it was an Irish one who gave us lunch. On the one hand the Irish distrusts extravagance or b.s. and is quick to spot a phoney or name a wanker or a twerp or a nincumpoop, a hick or a jerk. On the other hand it is capable of all the malarkey and baloney you’ll ever need. It supplies ‘fighting words,’ the pigeon, the sap, the punk, the mug, and the puss, and follow them with a wallop, a slug. And it’ll keep you in stitches, going helter-skelter, in a generalized hilarity of the giggle from the proletarian quarters. I’m talking the shack or the shanty, the slum in other words. To get out of trouble you can skip, or scram, scoot, or skidoo. As for style, for something swank or swell, you’ll find it here. The slob and the slacker won’t find the knack, but maybe a gimmick, for finding the jack or the moolah.

If you grew up in a big American city you can’t help smiling with this book, the inward smiles of recognition and verification. The book is essential to reading James Farrell, Eugene O’Neill, or Pete Hamill, and belongs on every writer’s reference shelf. The whole jargon of the city-desk, the arena, the wharf, the street-corner, detention hall, not to mention the joint, is here. When Seamus Heaney gave his Nobel prize lecture in 1995 he referred to the power to make “an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being.” We find this in slang, for here is that cunning which permitted survival following communal trauma, and found a cunning articulacy in the oppressor’s language.

The parents of Finley Peter Dunne — his mother was from co. Kilkenny — came over after the Famine. His fictive Irish stereotype, Mr Dooley, explained, “A constitootional ixicative, Hinissey, is a ruler who does as he damn pleases an’ blames th’ people.” And so it has been with English and slang, until now.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com


Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com