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Onward and upward with Gaelic

Posted by Jan Gardner  November 26, 2007 11:47 AM

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A reading recommendation from Southie native Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of "All Souls" and "Easter Rising":

"I just read Daniel Cassidy's 'How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads,' a long overdue look at how Irish ('Gaelic') influenced so much of the language we all speak. While the Oxford English Dictionary has largely ignored Irish influence on the English language -- aside from the obvious ones like 'hooligan' -- Cassidy's book offers not only Irish etymologies for words like scam, slum, snazzy, sucker, fink, moolah, baloney, and even jazz, but reveals a fascinating social history of the Irish. That the story of Irish language influence has been ignored for so long is amazing, considering how many native Irish speakers emigrated to America, how loquacious the Irish are known to be; and how thoroughly they moved through American society, from the nannies who looked after the children of the ascendancy, to the political bosses who became the ascendancy. Oh yeah, and then there's the writers. Cassidy looks at the Irish Gaelic influence on the texts of writers like Eugene O'Neill who, in a letter to his son, said 'The critics have missed the important thing about me and my work. The fact that I am Irish.'"

This is an expanded version of MacDonald's recommendation in one of my recent Shelf Life columns. You can hear Cassidy himself explain his word search in a video (acompanying a story) at the New York Times site.

Addendum: A colleague has pointed me to criticism of Cassidy's research; perhaps the most complete critique is lexicographer Grant Barrett's post: Humdinger of a Bad Irish Scholar.

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Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.
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