How the Irish invented modern English

8 likes 6 years ago

Are Americanisms really just Irish-isms? Are the Irish the gods of English slang? Hip terms and proverbs of Irish origin fill the streets of New York. And YOU speak it!

Did we Irish give the Yanks the gift of our gab?

English speakers began colonizing America over 400 years ago. But is American slang a corruption of Irish after we arrived in the New World by the boatload in the 19th century?


American vernacular is steeped in Irishness. With our hungry bellies from our mouths we somehow fed the English language. Today the urban streets of America are teeming with colloquialisms rooted in the ‘ol sod.

Video: visitors to Ireland explain what they think Irish slang phrases mean.

Daniel Cassidy says it all in his controversial book ‘How the Irish invented slang’. The now deceased author debunked the origins and myths of the English language, citing Irish as a key influence.

The author argues that a list of American-English words derived from Gaelic.

Examples include:

Twerp: from the Irish for dwarf, ‘duirb’.

Snazzy: from ‘snasach’.

Brogue: from the Irish for ‘shoe’.

Sucker: which Cassidy believes is from ‘sách úr’ meaning ‘big cat’.

Do you dig this article?

If you ‘dig’ something it’s a bastardisation of the Irish ‘dTuigean tú?’, prounounced 'digging tu?', as in ‘to understand’.

The list goes on as Cassidy says the world should be grateful to the Irish for the adjective ‘swell’ (from ‘sóúil’ which means rich and luxurious) and ‘big shot’ which he maintains comes from the Irish for king, ‘seod’. In Cassidy’s dictionary he writes that ‘dork’ is like the Irish ‘dorc’ for ‘a small lumpish person’.

Then there are Irish expressions like ‘gee whiz’, ‘holy cow’, ‘holy mackerel’, ‘top of the morning’ and ‘thanks a million’ which the etymologist says are Anglicized translations.

‘Holy cow’! Cassidy says the phrase comes from the Irish.

If the Irish influence on English wasn’t widely accepted, Cassidy, who used to teach Irish Studies at the New College of California, puts it down to prejudice and not wanting to give the Irish their due. When the Irish emigrated to America, we were the underdogs, the poor new arrivals looked down upon by the American middle-class, he claims.

Speaking after his book won the American Book Award for non-fiction back in 2007, Cassidy remarked:

‘Irish was a back-room language, whispered in kitchens and spoken in the saloons.’


Many of Cassidy’s claims seem speculative and wishful thinking. The American lexicographer, Grant Barrett, said Cassidy’s assertions are preposterous and ‘no more believable than leprechauns and their pots of gold’.

Basing many of his claims on phonetic similarity allegedly casts doubt on Cassidy’s work and especially as he was a New Yorker who didn’t speak Irish. Barrett hammers home his anti-Gaelic mindset:

‘This is Cassidy’s primary mistake: he has wrongly assumed that similar spellings or pronunciations between words prove a connection. They do not.’

Although it’s indisputable that the Irish language has a long association with English, some academics, loathe to grant the currency of words to us Irish, say that only a handful of Irish words translated over to English, among them being the word ‘whiskey’.

'Whiskey’ is the Irish spelling while ‘whisky’ denotes Scotch whisk(e)y.

Internet knowledge

There’s much debate about the origins of English words and their tentative Irish roots. Examples can be found on the internet and a smorgasbord includes:

Jazz: from the Irish ‘teas’ which means ‘heat, warmth, passion, enthusiasm’. The common adjective associated with jazz is ‘hot’.

Marijuana: Louis Armstrong used refer to it as ‘gage’ which has origins in the Gaelic word ‘gaid’ meaning ‘twisted branches, cord or hemp’.

Dude: as a term used by marijuana smokers it is said to come from the Irish word ‘dud’ meaning ‘stupid or silly looking’.

Cop: from the Irish ‘ceap’ which means ‘a protector, a leader, a chief’ while the Irish verb ‘ceap’ means to seize, stop, catch or put into custody.

Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

Growing up in Queens, Cassidy in a New York Times interview said he was nicknamed ‘Glom’ which his mother told him was ‘because you are always grabbing, always taking things’ and thus began his fascination with the Irish vernacular. But did he? Did Glom take things, did he take too many liberties? And if so lets balance them against the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Although the OED loftily purport to record the meaning and development of the English language. But is that British English or global English? And how more plausible is it that they get to cherry-pick what word is a dictionary definition? For a word to qualify for entry in the OED it needs to have been in use for at least the last ten years as evidenced in books and newspapers.

Midway through 2015 and the OED has added 500 new word entries. According to OED ‘twerk’ dates back to 1820 which referred to a twisting or jerking movement or twitch. Fast forward to the MTV awards in 2013 and Miley Cyrus has turned it into a suggestive dance move.

Cue its appearance in the Oxford Dictionary.

Twerk: verb.

Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.


  • just wait till they catch their daughters twerking to this song

  • twerk it girl, work it girl

What would the twitterati make of that? Other words that the OED sees fit to admit to their pages include:

Fo' shizzle: meaning "for sure".

Meh: an interjection expressing lack of enthusiasm and popularised by the Simpsons.

Guerrilla: describing activities carried out in an irregular and spontaneous way.

Webisode: an original episode derived from a television series, made for online viewing.

Selfie: a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.

Freegan: a person who eats discarded food, typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants, for ethical or ecological reasons.

It’s a scam fo’shizzle!

The word ‘gimmick’, Cassidy says, came  from ‘camag’ which means a trick or deceit. And might the word ‘scam’ have come from the Irish expression ‘S cam é’ meaning a trick?

Who’s being tricked? Nobody. Linguistic references are always sketchy. But what’s undeniable is that Irish-English is not English-English. It’s English with a twist. But who ultimately owns the English language? And indeed should American not be considered a language of it’s own?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all a bit meh about it all. Fo' shizzle!

And you? Comments below please.


Sign in or become a Citizen of the Irish Empire to join the discussion.

No.1 Irish social network worldwide.

Join for FREE