November 30, 2016
Influence of Early Irish Immigration on New York City English
It is ironic that immigrants that were met with signs that said “No Irish Need Apply” would come to be known as some of the most hard working and achieving citizens in the history of the United States. They contributed mightily to our young culture and their hard work ethic is part and parcel of the American dream and experience.
Immigrants from Ireland have long sought opportunities for a better life on U.S. shores. During the 1800s, especially mid-century due to the great famine, millions came through our ports, primarily Ellis Island, hoping to gain entry and citizenship. In fact, between 1820 and 1930, the U.S. had absorbed over 4.5 million Irish into the country with most settling in their point of entry (History.com).
There seems to be some controversy with respect to the contribution the Irish made to American English and, specifically, New York slang. H.L. Mencken writes in his 1937 landmark work The American Language, “The Irish… gave American, indeed, very few words; perhaps speakeasy, shillelagh and smithereens exhaust the list” (Cassidy 1). However, with so many millions of them arriving, thriving and living in close knit communities, this assertion seems hard to believe. With numbers like those, there can be little doubt that as they settled into the port city of New York and made their home amongst their Irish brethren, many of their Irishisms had to have been integrated into the street language of the city whether we recognize them or not.
“New York is distinctive in the American context. New York’s remarkable ethnic and racial diversity, its immigration history, and its institutions have combined to make it a receiving city” (Foner 1000). As a receiving city, mid- nineteenth century New York was (and largely still is) a world famous melting pot. In this melting pot, immigrant groups make their mark on the language of this country by interweaving familiar words from home. They also develop their own shibboleths to both signify they are part of a certain group and in order to keep outsiders at bay. Slang “is an ever changing set of colloquial words and phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social identity or cohesiveness within a group” (Eble in Mattiello 10). These words often make their way into the slang of the street. And, in this melting pot, language grows in spurts and is disseminated in the urban population, often flowing outward from the inner urban ring to the suburbs and beyond (Bronstein 19). Language in New York experienced just such growth during the great waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The New York melting pot was dominated by three main groups, the Jews, Italians and Irish. In fact, “in the postwar years, aspiring leaders visited the three I’s – Israel, Italy, and Ireland – the touchstones of so many Jewish and Catholic voters” (Wakin in Foner 1003). It is well documented how Yiddish made its way into New York English. It would only make sense that the Irish contributed just as much to New York slang as their Jewish counterparts.
Linguist Daniel Cassidy grew up in Queens, New York deeply connected to his Irish roots. As he slowly learned Irish, he began to attribute certain words and phrases to Gaelic. He contended that the Irish had contributed substantially to the slang of New York and sought to prove those connections. His book, How the Irish Invented Slang was first mocked and then awarded the 2007 American Book Award for nonfiction and denigrated again. Today, there are still those who vehemently oppose his conclusions.
Cassidy maintains that his mother nicknamed him glom as a child because it means to snatch or grab (Kilgannon), which he apparently did a lot. He lists hundreds of words formerly of unknown origin and attempts to trace them back to Irish.
Cassidy’s interesting etymologies include:
In dutch (duais) meaning trouble;
Say uncle (anacal) meaning mercy;
Snazzy (snasach) meaning glossy or elegant, and
Of course, Dude (dud, dudach) meaning foolish looking person (Cassidy 2).
Other sites bring his words to life as well (Loingsigh):
Baloney from Beal Anna meaning silly, foolish talk;
Finagle from Finonna aclai an ingenious invention;
Slob from Slab meaning a dirty, slovenly person, and
Stool pidgeon from the Irish Steall beidean meaning a falsely accusing informer.
There is, of course, the problem that many of the Irish immigrants were illiterate (O'Reilly). As such, so much of the richness of the new slang was not documented in letters as it might have otherwise been. Thus, without confirmation and corroboration, we are left to wonder if the connections Cassidy makes are valid or fiction. Due to the dearth of sources, many have glommed on to his research and swallowed it whole cloth, even if some of the connections seem barely tenable.
There are some strong critics who claim that Cassidy had little to no proof of his theories. One book review writes, “Throughout the book, Cassidy relies almost exclusively on phonetic similarities between words to explain their connection ... Rarely does he indicate that he sought out further supporting information to confirm his hunches, or to exclude competing explanations for a word’s etymology” (Brady). Cassidy himself admits to picking up his very first Irish dictionary in 2000 only to give birth to a whole new book on the subject of Irish etymology by 2007. Grant Barrett, Vice President of the American Dialect Society, writes, “Cassidy’s primary mistake: he has wrongly assumed that similar spellings or pronunciations between words prove a connection. They do not” (G. Barrett).
It would seem that word origination is a complicated business. For example, Cassidy says that the word for policeman, cop, came from ‘ceap’ meaning protector or chief and the verb ‘ceap’ can mean to catch or intercept (Wynne). Others attribute its origins to the old French verb caper meaning to seize. However, by that reasoning, it could just as easily have originated from the Yiddish word khap meaning to grab or even the Hebrew kaf meaning the palm of the hand. Herein lies the controversy surrounding Cassidy’s theories; detractors feel he is way too sloppy.
Still, there are other sources and examples of words of Irish origin from more academic sources (Hutson):
Shanty is probably from the Gaelic sean-tigh meaning old house
Slug from the similarly pronounced slog meaning gulp or swallow
Slew from similarly pronounced sluagh meaning a great number in American and a host or multitude in Gaelic
Hooligan from Uillegan meaning Willie morphing into the phrase “O Willie!” similar to “Hey Mac!”
Whether or not Cassidy’s specific work is of merit or a “bit of the blarney”, it must be conceded that the Irish had to have had a palpable impact on the language. If Yiddish has been widely credited for adding a host of words to New York slang such as klutz, spiel, megilla and haimish, is it not logical that the Irish would have done the same? The Irish had just as much chutzpah and moxie as their Jewish co-immigrants.
There may be several reasons the effect the Irish have had on the language has been inadequately documented. In fact, it is more than likely that their contributions were grossly overlooked if not lost. Richard Bailey succinctly got to the heart of just how complex language development is and the immense difficulty in ascribing credit. “Language does not speak with one voice; it is not created by brilliant individual innovators. It comes from people speaking to other people, old and young, and some of the speakers arrive in the community (as infants or immigrants) and other depart (by death or departure)” (Bailey 5). Words flow in, words get mangled or adjusted and words flow out. Language originates from innumerable sources always changing - coming in and out of fashion.
There is reason to believe that the Irish contributions to New York slang and American English in general went unnoticed. Features of language often “can survive for long periods without anyone particularly noticing” (Bryson x). People often assimilate words into a language seamlessly leaving it a mystery when and where a word came from. Thus, it is hard to concretely point to this word or that definitively coming, or NOT coming, from the Irish Gaelic. Compound that with the fact that so many Irish words moved from Ireland to England and then onto America and one sees how hard it is to pinpoint when and where they came from and forces us to make hypotheses as to their origination. Under these circumstances, there is yet more support for the argument that the Irish contribution to New York slang was seriously overlooked.
Children are extremely flexible when it comes to language and, probably due to their intense desire to fit in, they take to new ones very quickly as immigrants. In the words of linguist E.H. Babbitt circa 1890, “no child under ten retains any trace of any other pronunciation after two years in the New York school and street life” (Bailey 136). “Native born in-migrants were surrounded by language patterns of American English spoken in the schools, heard over the radio…. At the local motion picture theater, and on the streets of their neighborhood” (Bronstein 23). They assimilate to the point of adopting an almost native accent. The new immigrants during those early waves of immigration were no different.
The young Irish naturally embraced American English and lost the accent of their home countries. It is clear how the Irish were likely even more assimilable than the Italians or Jews from Europe and Russia. They mostly spoke English and had strong associations with the British. Though the “urban lexicon” of the young immigrants “was often sprinkled with Irishisms” (J. R. Barrett), it is not hard to imagine that their contribution might have been overlooked since they more easily blended in.
Some believe the great uniting of America came about through the public school system. Arthur Schlesinger credited it with ironing out the differences between the disparate groups that came to make their home in America. This same paradigm is true today “the children of immigrants come of age, new cultural patterns, often referred to as cultural hybrids, are emerging as they grow up, go to school, work beside, and sometimes intermarry with the long-established native born” (Foner 1015). Children have a tendency to adapt and assimilate, the Irish children of that time frame were no different.
Interestingly, the Irish were mandated by the church “to send their children to the parish school, unless it (was) evident that a sufficient training in religion (was) given either in their homes, or in other Catholic schools” (McCluskey in Russo 179). Parochial schools would have served as the best breeding grounds for a unique Irish slang. With a diminished interaction with the other ethnicities, the Irish should have developed even more Irishisms in their schools. “(S)lang is fresh in the sense that it is mainly used by young people, like adolescents, teenagers and college students. Young people feel that slang is consistent with their attitudes and trends, and they are stimulated to give their contribution to its vocabulary” (Mattiello 17).
What might have happened to the this in-bred slang?
Four possibilities come to mind. First, their private slang might have just stayed within the group without being assimilated into the urban town square. The Irish, always suspect of outsiders, could have kept their private language “close to the vest” to maintain that privacy. After all, “Irish Gaelic was a secret language in Eire, which was once an Ireland riddles with foreign spies, and so it was a language to keep the copper (the catcher, the thinker) from catching on” (Keane). They were used to code switching when speaking to different audiences.
Second, America was suspect of the Catholics in general questioning their loyalty to country over church. Perhaps this private language was a way for the Irish to protect themselves as a community and were loath to share it. They clung together as a group and actually used their Catholic identity as an advantage using it to work their way up in politics as a unified group (U.S. Department of State).
Third, it might have traveled with them to parts outside of the New York City core as they moved out for opportunity or upward mobility to the suburbs and exurbs that Bronstein speaks of. At that point, it might have been hard for their new neighbors to distinguish their adjusted English from the English they spoke with the world at large that was already an amalgamation of much of the British English they arrived with.
Finally, as they moved up in the ranks, they could have purposely shed their street language opting for a more refined way of speaking. “As they moved across the tracks and into the lace-curtain class, they shed, perhaps deliberately, most of the Gaelicisms which marked their dialect. The use of these words marked one as a greenhorn, a shanty-Irishman” (Hutson 23). Once they advanced personally from illiterate to literate, they might have been more interested in losing the associated slang rather than clinging to it as a sort of ethnic refuge. It might have also been a painful reminder of the New York Five Points neighborhood slum [from s’lom meaning poor bleak room or barren life (Cassidy 11)] they came from.
The English language skills of the Irish enabled them to both be more easily assimilated into the culture and have their contributions easily subsumed under the rubric of American culture as a whole (Kenny). Many of the Irish who emigrated to America brought their Gaelic with them from the home country. Gaelic “was the first language of most Irish Americans that came here in the big flood of Irish immigration after the famine” (Keane). Irish immigrants are often dismissed in terms of American English development from a lack of understanding that they came here with their own native tongue.
Cassidy’s work specifically is less interesting than the fact of his work. It testifies to the Irish being made to feel like second class citizens, a feeling lingered on for at least 100 years or more coming to a symbolic denouement with the election of President John F. Kennedy. Cassidy’s work is living proof to the feelings of inferiority the Irish had as an underclass. It was almost a result of a drive to prove his ancestors had made a huge contribution to the New York language and experience. Mencken himself is proof that the Irish were discriminated against linguistically. His out of hand casting them aside in such an arrogant manner screams of bias and neglect. More attention should have been paid at the time to the linguistic contributions of the group.
The final chapter is yet to be written as to the contribution by the Irish to New York English. Scholars seem to feel there is more to it than the shillelagh Mencken spoke of. We anxiously await their findings as history has shown they have made colorful additions to our urban dialogue.
Bailey, Richard W. Speaking American: A History of English in the United States. New York: University Press, 2012.
Barrett, Grant. Humdinger of a Bad Irish Scholar. 9 November 2007. Web. 25 November 2016. <http://grantbarrett.com/humdinger-of-a-bad-irish-scholar>.
Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. New York: Penguin Press, 2012.
Brady, Michael Patrick. How the Irish Invented Slang by Daniel Cassidy. 17 October 2007. Web. 26 November 2016. <http://www.popmatters.com/review/how-the-irish-invented-slang-by-daniel-cassidy/>.
Bronstein, Arthur J. "Let's Take Another Look At New York City Speech." American Speech 37.1 (1962): 13-26. Web. 20 November 2016. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/453992?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents>.
Bryson, Bill. Made In America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Cassidy, Daniel. How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads. Petrolia: Counter Punch, 2007.
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O'Reilly, Edward. "The unadulterated Irish language": Irish Speakers in Nineteenth Century new York. 17 March 2015. Web. 19 November 2016. <http://blog.nyhistory.org/the-unadulterated-irish-language-irish-speakers-in-nineteenth-century-new-york/>.
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