How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads

Daniel Cassidy, How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads (Petrolia, California: CounterPunch, 2007).

Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang is a specialist work of linguistic scholarship, but it cuts across many academic disciplines. This explains its particular power, for it cannot be reduced to linguistics, Irish studies, American studies, ethnography or cultural theory, and yet none of these disciplines can remain the same as a result of his work.

Cassidy’s study is in this way like the “owl of Minerva” so often invoked by the later Hegel: a philosophical interpretation of contemporary America that is no longer obliged to “welcome and to acknowledge” the new departures of the mind but instead sets out on its flights only as dusk begins to fall. For Cassidy, the dusk (the past) is an Irish-directed interethnic crossroads: vibrant cross-cultural Irish working-class communities that once thrived in America. He argues that diasporic Irish-American communities are largely responsible for the mainstream language and the major styles of American literature and culture.

This seems upon first glance, however, a tenuous reading of his text, since well over half of it is a formal dictionary of Irish-American vernacular, and the philosophical or theoretical side of the work is less than a hundred pages, advanced in an idiosyncratic, conversational tone in eight short and discretely organized chapter studies. Still, Cassidy has set out to prove an avowedly paradigm-shifting thesis: that Irish-Americans have remembered the ancient Irish language without knowing it. The academic implications of his thesis are profound and the mental territory he covers immense, but the presentation itself is easygoing, as if he’s delivering all his humdingers in a spiel at some local joint while lollygagging with a few hep kids from the block.

In his perspicacious etymological research and analysis, Cassidy demonstrates convincingly that “humdinger,” “spiel,” “joint,” “lollygag” “hep,” (hip), “kid,” and “block” are all Irish words. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Jazz,” “dude,” “babe,” “beef” (as in to complain or accuse), “billy” (as in billy club), “ma” (as in mother), “boondoggle,” “cop,” “root” (as in root root root for the home team), “gimmick,” “mumbo jumbo,” “slum,” “knack,” “mark” (as in a sucker), “pussy” (as in a whiner or crybaby), “queer” (as in peculiar or unusual), “rookie,” “cant” (as in spoken word), “smack” (as in a blow with the palm of the hand), and “stiff” (as in a working stiff) are also either Irish or Gaelic in origin.

By the end of Cassidy’s study not only is the claim that Shakespeare was Irish plausible, but also many mysteries of American vernacular, extremely perplexing hitherto, are finally solved – the offensive word “pussy,” for example. From a feminist standpoint, the word is pornographic and its use morally indefensible, as it associates the female genitalia with weakness and cowardice, thus belonging to misogynist discourse. Cassidy shows that “pussy” is an Irish word, both a noun and an adjective (pusaire: n., a crybaby; pusach: adj., pouting, whimpering, sulking). In Irish, “Don’t be a pussy!” means “Stop crying all the time!” or “Be brave!” Of course this is how American boys and men, and girls and women too, always use the word, but without knowing its Irish root they’re indeed guilty of deploying it in sexist way, by comparing their (almost always male) object of ridicule to a female’s private parts – what everyone wrongly assumes when they say it. The original Irish meaning of the word is actually gender-free – it can refer to a male or a female – and has no connection whatever to the Latin word pusa, which refers to the labia. “Pussy,” like all the Irish words in Cassidy’s text, was passed down from one generation of Irish-Americans to the next, and then adopted by Americans of all languages and ethnicities, both because of its appealing lyrical quality and its special knack for signifying precisely what the speaker is trying to say.

While the “pussy” lesson might seem a bit sensational, it crystallizes very well Cassidy’s overall thesis, which is presented in a complex, multilayered fashion. In fact, there is nothing straightforward about it, despite the work’s easily accessible language and rhetorical style. The pleasures of his scholarship come from this method, of overlaying a painstaking empirical linguistic project with literary and cultural criticism, family history, dialectical theory, as well as U.S. labor historiography and politics.

As indicated, one of his main points is that, contrary to the prevailing view, Irish Americans did not lose their Irish identity after coming to America. The opposite is true: with the Irish language they transformed America, and in the process they made everyone culturally Irish. It has been a surfacing process of titanic scale, happening first at the level of the spoken word and popular expression and social organization (i.e. in civil society: clubs, dance halls, gangs, unions, sport, and song), and then in art and literature – and not just in pulp fiction, Broadway, and Hollywood. He shows that without the Irish language, a great deal of classic American literature could not have been written.

And so, without arguing it directly, Cassidy completely undermines the liberal bourgeois notion of the melting pot. For the Irish case proves that rather than melting into an already constituted classless and “pluralist” amalgam called “American culture,” immigrant groups in the U.S. are more of a gumbo stew, in which dynamic working-class philosophies (or forms of class consciousness) are expressed verbally, in a basically unreconstructed way, in direct relation to each other, producing as they socially intermix an authentically democratic American culture. In short, the making of American national identity is and always has been a raw and totally open-ended process, culturally interracial, and socially working-class.

Of course many American multiculturalists already agree with this conclusion, but their metaphor is the rainbow not the crossroads. In the main, their emphasis is on assimilation and integration into an American social order whose whiteness they simply take for granted. The “negotiation of cultural differences” is thus their organizing principle, and likewise their approach tends to be interdisciplinary – unlike Cassidy’s, which is cross-disciplinary. The main distinction between the two is that the interdisciplinary approach works from within an existing constellation of academic fields whereas the cross-disciplinary method is a traveling theory: it is speculative in nature, critical in intent, syncretistic in function, and systematic in presentation. The interdisciplinary approach is basically a problem-solving methodology. That is, while the aim of any interdisciplinary research program is to address an already identified problem, by integrating one field of study with another (for example, psychology with multicultural education, or women’s studies with ethnic studies), the purpose of cross-disciplinary inquiry is to raise new philosophic questions and then pursue them systematically, by recourse to whatever fields of knowledge might help it along. In short, the cross-disciplinary approach is dynamic whereas the interdisciplinary one is pragmatic.

Due largely to its compatibility with the downsizing of the humanities over the past twenty years, the interdisciplinary approach has become predominant in the U.S. academy and, as a result, its methodology taken as common sense. Yet while the shortcomings of the interdisciplinary method are obvious especially in cultural studies – a marked absence of speculative thought – rarely are the distinctions between the interdisciplinary approach and the cross-disciplinary method identified up front. Indeed, today the cross-disciplinary method of cultural critique is a renegade practice in American humanities departments, operating mainly on the margins, evident in the fact that Cassidy’s groundbreaking academic research has been published not by a major university press but by a small, non-academic one (CounterPunch). This is so precisely because the cross-disciplinary method’s concrete principle – to discover in every culture’s development and change an immanent logic – is anathema to the fusing together of discrete disciplines. Instead of integrating or de-localizing highly specialized academic disciplines, the cross-disciplinary method sees in every existing field of knowledge a wealth of particular information essential for the further enrichment of theory itself, of a general theory of historical development and change. To put it another way, whereas the interdisciplinary tendency is counter to historical materialism –- it favors radical heteronomy over the logic of immanence – the cross-cultural approach is entirely consistent with it.

Above, all, American rainbow multiculturalism is, as evidenced by its name, a color-struck discipline: rather than seeing race as historically relative, as Cassidy does, it treats race as psycho-cultural – as a social construct arising from within human beings rather than made by a particular ruling elite in whose class interest it is to have racial identity continue on. To put it another way, American liberal multiculturalism has never offered a work of scholarship like Cassidy’s because it’s unable to conceive of American culture as made by laboring people always on the move. While its concept of racial identity is dialectical – that race cannot be understood outside of the socialization process – its approach to social class is not. Notice, for instance, how instead of being opened up to include all those violently dispossessed and radically displaced by Western European and U.S. imperialism, which would include first and foremost the Irish (the ongoing British military occupation of the North of Ireland is by far the oldest in world history), the concept of diaspora has been limited to the “racialized” peoples of the world exclusively. In consequence of this kind of identity politics, the explosive dialectic of American culture – what Cassidy calls “the crossroads” – has been robbed of its liberatory working-class potential.

Cassidy’s project is a concretely utopian one. This is richly illustrated by the centerpiece of his study, an examination of the word “jazz” and where it came from. He proves that “jazz” derives from the old Irish word “teas” (pron. j’as), which means heat, passion, excitement. His archival research into the first use of the word in American popular culture indicates that Irish-American speakers usually deployed the word in explicitly sexual contexts, as in sexual heat, passion, excitement. Jazz was a sex word, which led the originators of so-called “jazz music,” such as Buddy Bolden, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and Fletcher Henderson, to vehemently reject the term as a description of their new music. Ellington preferred “Negro music,” while Armstrong was content with “ragtime music.” Bechet put it tersely: “Jazz, that’s a name the white people have given to the music…. Jazz could mean any damn thing: high times, screwing…. It used to be spelled Jass.…”

Thus Cassidy’s first line of inquiry into the “jazz” controversy is to establish its Irish etymology, which he carries out swiftly. The next move is more complex: explaining how this particular Irish word gained, over a relatively short period of time (the 1890s through the 1920s), such an extraordinary mass appeal, an appeal completely independent of music. As he shows, the incredible plasticity of the word accounts for its sudden popularity at the turn of the century, its spread like wildfire through African-American communities, and then across the country and ultimately the world. In fact, in the early 1900s it was considered a “futurist” word. A San Francisco columnist named Ernest Hopkins defined it as “anything that takes effort or energy or activity or strength of soul.” He wrote: “It is ‘jazz’ when you run for your train; ‘jazz’ when you soak an umpire; ‘jazz’ when you demand a raise; ‘jazz’ when you hike thirty-five miles of a Sunday; ‘jazz’ when you simply sit around and beam so that all who look beam on you.” Baseball writers in particular favored the word, and headlines on the sports page routinely featured titles such as “The Seals Totally out of Jazz – Fall to 9-13.”

Today, most Americans associate slang with African-American culture, hip-hop music in particular. The recent controversy over the right-wing radio shock jock Don Imus’s reference to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” brought to the fore once again the volatile relations between slang and race. Indeed, it is not uncommon at all to hear white mainstream commentators using African-American slang expressions such as “My bad” or “Gimme my props” or “On the down low.” Yet this has only increased tensions between African Americans and whites rather than lessening them. The adoption of African-American vernacular styles and tropes by the music industry and Hollywood is rightly seen as co-optation and super-exploitation, not genuine cross-cultural exchange. Moreover, most African Americans are keenly aware that the arrival of hip-hop culture in the early 1980s was greeted not with enthusiasm and respect but with categorical rejection and the nastiest scorn. Interesting, then, that the adoption of Irish-American slang by the mainstream media in the early 1900s was not accompanied by any controversy whatever. Rather, Irish-American slang was praised for its inventiveness, its everyday usefulness, and its scintillating lyrical quality.

That Cassidy doesn’t address this question is not, in my view, a weakness of his scholarship, since everything in his work takes direct aim at it and in many ways assumes it. To wit, that the Irish experience in America should be seen not merely as a microcosm of the whole but, rather – and much more crucially – as carrying within it America’s total contradiction. That despite being able to avoid the racial stigmatization experienced by African Americans, the Irish were nonetheless culturally victimized in a very costly way: their profound contribution to American language and literature was completely erased by this society’s linguists, its philologists and cultural historians. Thus his task was to unearth a story that’s never been told, and in this Cassidy succeeds admirably, at many points thrillingly. For the inevitable conclusion of his study is that if American identity has been all along made by “the secret language of the crossroads” – an originary place of Irish-American and African-American social intermixing and cultural exchange – then this can surely happen once again.

Telling in this respect is that Senator Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry – his maternal great-great-great grandfather, Falmuth Kearney, arrived in New York in 1850 before settling in Ohio – is now being stressed by many Irish-American groups and congressional representatives who support his candidacy for president. On the surface level a transparent act of political pandering to Irish-American voters (in this case in Pennsylvania during the weeks before its Democratic Party Primary on April 22), there is, pace Cassidy, a much deeper level to be recognized here: a utopian longing for the interracial crossroads, a desire which, according to Cassidy, has always been latent in the American working classes. His work, in a nutshell, is about bringing this national longing for the crossroads to popular recognition and civic consciousness.

One clear lesson from his book is that the left-liberal concept of coalition politics, of rainbow multiculturalism, is a displacement of this distinctly American working-class crossroads. Its main shortcoming is not only a lack of concrete historical knowledge about who the American working classes really are, of where they came from and how they’ve shaped American language and culture, but a historyless (and hence wasteful) way of approaching the utopian politics of ethnic intermixing inherent in all American social movements. That is to say: coalitions founded on single issues (universal healthcare, reproductive rights, antiwar protest, affordable housing, gun control, etc.) miss one essential fact – that lasting popular movements are formed on the basis of deep and long-standing affinities, not multiple identities.

In the case of Irish Americans and African Americans, the affinities are the stuff of legend, from the militant American abolitionist movement in New York led by the antislavery Irish revolutionary Daniel O’Connell, to the blackface minstrelsy tradition pioneered by Irish-American vaudeville entertainers.1 While the latter – the reactionary, white supremacist manifestation of the affinity – was, under a century of Jim Crow and then during the “white backlash” of the 1970s, by far the dominant one, the former tendency has never been extinguished. Cassidy’s work offers the proof.

Close attention to the dialectical interplay between Irish-American and African-American culture is given a tremendous boost by Cassidy’s scholarship, and it’s exciting to think of all the different kinds of scholarly and creative work on this subject that might come in the future. Until now, the dominant approach in the U.S. to this compelling affinity has been anti-dialectical, has looked only at its bad side, of which of course there is a great deal to say (as exemplified in Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White and David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness). But this bad side of the affinity is the same bad side of every European-American immigrant group (white racism directed against African Americans). The good side (anti-white supremacism and working-class intermixing between African Americans and European Americans), on the other hand, is expressed in a particular shared history of Irish- and African-Americans: the experience of degradation and exploitation under English/Anglo-American racial oppression. Although hardly ever acknowledged in the U.S., in Ireland this commonality has long been treated with suppleness and precision – by Irish academics and everyday people alike.2

While in bourgeois society interracial mixing between European Americans and African Americans has been happening only since the era of desegregation, the lived experience of Irish Americans and African Americans, reflected clearly in Cassidy’s book, reveals a much older connection, one that goes back to the beginnings of America – that is founded on resistance to British/Anglo-American racial oppression. No other immigrant group in America has this shared history with African Americans. The task now – and the prospect of an Obama landslide victory in November is making it more and more manifest – is to transform this old affinity’s good side into new conscious forms of resistance against Anglo-American ruling-class oppression and a new solidarity at the old Irish-American crossroads.

Reviewed by Jonathan Scott
Bronx Community College
City University of New York
jonascott15@aol.com

Notes

1. For the story of Daniel O’Connell, see Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Vol. 1 (London and New York: Verso, 1994), 177-199, and for the history of blackface minstrelsy Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

2. The Irish historian David Beers Quinn was one of the first to write about the analogous experience of American Indians and African Americans under Anglo-American white racial oppression and the Catholic Irish under English/British colonialism. See his authoritative work, The Elizabethans and the Irish (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966). In popular culture, the Irish musicologist Brian Cross has written eloquently of the love, passion, and deep respect shown by Irish youth to African American hip-hop groups, such as Public Enemy, whenever they toured Ireland. See his book, It’s Not About a Salary (London and New York: Verso, 1993).

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