November 09, 2007

Gullibility in high places

Suppose you hold some crank theory for which there is no evidence but which is likely to appeal to some specific audience.  Suppose, for instance, that you believe that Jesus and all of his apostles were gay, an idea that might appeal to some gay people (not me, but tastes and opinions differ).  You then write a book of stories detailing the hot hot man-man sexual exploits of these men, keying each story to a biblical passage.  You manage to get it published.  Does the New York Times then write an enthusiastic feature story about you and your work?  Do you win an American Book Award -- "the purpose of the awards is to acknowledge the excellence and multicultural diversity of American writing" -- for non-fiction?

It sounds unlikely, doesn't it?  But Daniel Cassidy has managed something similar with his book How the Irish Invented Slang (CounterPunch/AK Press, 2007), which maintains that great chunks of English slang came from Irish (an idea that is likely to appeal to some English-speaking people of Irish descent), supplying for each slang expression a (putative) Irish expression that resembles it in pronunciation or spelling.  And now the NYT has (gullibly) celebrated Cassidy and his preposterous book, and the book has (alas) gotten a 2007 American Book Award for non-fiction.

Of course, there ARE some Irish loan words in English -- galore, for instance (see the OED) -- and Cassidy catches many of these (though even there he doesn't cite his sources).  But the problem with the book is that there is no scholarship or real evidence at all in it.  As Grant Barrett says at the beginning of his blog entry on the book:

It is quite incredible that Corey Kilgannon would write in the New York Times about Daniel Cassidy's book How the Irish Invented Slang without talking to historical lexicographers, historical linguists, or experts in Irish Gaelic linguistics.

They would tell him that Cassidy's theories are insubstantial, his evidence inconclusive, his conclusions unlikely, his Gaelic atrocious and even factitious, and his scholarship little better than speculation. In short, his book is preposterous.

Cassidy paints himself as the maligned scholar, the unappreciated genius, the outsider. He may be all of those things, but he is them by choice: his work cannot withstand scholarly scrutiny so he simply cannot afford to join forces with any larger body of experts who do this sort of thing for a living. His book falls apart on first reading by anyone with some expertise in the field.

Read Barrett's blog for details.  For your immediate entertainment, here's a piece from the announcement of a reading and performance by Cassidy on the 6th at the Irish Arts Center in New York City:

In a fast-paced spiel (speal, cutting, sharp speech) of monologues, stories, and songs, Daniel Cassidy slices through the current Anglo-academic baloney (beal onna, foolish blather) which claims that the Irish have had no influence on the American language.

On the gullibility front: the event was sponsored by the Irish Arts Center in association with the Irish American Cultural Institute, NYU's Glucksman Ireland House, and CUNY's Institute for Irish-American Studies, and Pete Hammill and Peter Quinn were there as special guests.  You might want to check out the "critical acclaim" in the announcement, which includes this gem:

"Save the Irish dúid from the Oxford English dictionary!  Daniel Cassidy has shaken the study of linguistics in the U.S. with a startlingly new theory -- that much of American slang has been borrowed from Irish... Cassidy's ideas have rapidly gained academic respectability since the publication of his book early this summer. This book is truly amazing!" (Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph)

 By the way, dúid is Cassidy's source for English dude.

[Added 11/11/07: Mark Liberman took on Cassidy on the word bunkum last year -- and made the connection to the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who declares that English words (most remarkably, kimono) all come from Greek.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 9, 2007 01:47 PM