Blarney, baloney, and etymology

I’m about to tear a strip off a guy who died in 2008. That may not seem fair, but what he did lives on, in his work and in the work of countless others who do the same damn thing. He presented his work as etymology, but it’s just plain baloney – or, as Daniel Cassidy would have said, béal ónna.

Daniel Cassidy would have said that because he was in the habit of saying that all sorts of American slang came from Irish. Slang can be very hard to etymologize, because it tends to originate in oral tradition, and so to show up rather late in print. But Cassidy was sure he had the skeleton key. He wrote a book: How the Irish Invented Slang. In it he looked at a variety of American slang terms, and explained how every last one of them really came from this or that Irish phrase. Stool pigeon was from steallaire béideánach (steall béideán being the related verb phrase), but stoolie was from steall éithigh, jazz was from teas, eighty-six from éiteachas aíochta, bunkum from buanchumadh, spiel from spéal… yes, really.

Cassidy’s method was fairly straightforward. He would seize on some slang expression and toss around for an Irish Gaelic phrase that sounded something like it (as the above do; teas is said rather like our chass, for instance) and had a meaning that could be tortured into supporting the connection – teas means “heat”, steall éithigh means “spout a false oath” – and then he would note that there were Irish immigrants in the area during the time that the phrase seems to have arisen, so it must be true. Never mind if the Irish source was never known to have existed as a stock phrase or cliché; never mind if it includes a rare word or an uncommon usage of the word; never mind if there was no reference made anywhere in history to an Irish origin; never mind if the phonological transformations he posited go beyond the expectable; never mind if there is a persuasive etymology pointing to a different source (as with bunkum, baloney and spiel). It makes a good story, it fits together, so it must be true.

Does this seem like shoddy methodology, nothing but hooey and blarney? Well, it is. A saying among linguists is “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.” Think of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding coming up with an etymology for Japanese kimono from Greek kheimon. Pure “below knee”—oops, baloney. Give us a smoking gun: citations. A clear connection.

But why should it matter, if it’s a good story? Well, for one thing, it’s bad history. For another, the real stories are often more interesting. For a third, if you want facts, don’t you want facts? And fourth, sometimes it’s done maliciously, as with the claim that picnic and nitty-gritty are racist terms, in spite of more-than-ample evidence to the contrary.

So enough with the blarney and baloney. Sound coincidences can be the spark of an investigation, but never more than that.

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8 responses to “Blarney, baloney, and etymology

  1. I don’t want to add to the wealth of fake etymology but my father always said that the American word “baloney” was initially a reflection on the ill considered University of Bologna.

  2. Interesting post, there’s some very daft etymology out there, especially for slang.

    My pet theory about baloney is that it comes from Italian, “balle”, meaning “lies”. With the suffix “-one” meaning “lies”. It would fit with the probable New York area origin of the phrase.

    Having said that, the most probable etymology is just as a tabboo avoidance for “balls”. I don’t know about the US, but in the UK we use that word to mean “bullshit”. Though the two could be combined, with the Italian meaning reinforcing the original innovation.

  3. “My pet theory about baloney is that it comes from Italian, “balle”, meaning “lies”. With the suffix “-one” meaning “lies”. It would fit with the probable New York area origin of the phrase.”

    Sorry, that doesn’t make sense.

    It should read “the suffix “-one” meaning “large”. “

    • I’ve long thought it probably came into use as a substitute for bullshit, which is more American than balls for “lies”. The transformation bologna > baloney is not unreasonable in colloquial English borrowing, which is not to say that’s what really happened (though it tends to be accepted as probable). I haven’t heard the ballone hypothesis before. I note, when doing a quick search, that Ballone is an Italian family name, and that’s what tends to come up in a search of Italian sites for the word. Ballone doesn’t seem to be in use to refer to lies, so we’d need some evidence that it was a common usage in that time and place.

      Very often when a word from another language is borrowed into English you get some early instances of it unmodified or differently modified, and sometimes written in quotation marks or with similar indications of foreignness. The closest we get with baloney is the early spelling boloney (which does seem to subtract from the ballone hypothesis). Oxford has a 1935 cite (7 years after its first citation for the word) that declares “Boloney must surely be for Bologna sausage (whence also the English polony, dating from the 18th century), influenced perhaps by the contemptuous sense associated with the German wurst.” (In fact, polony dates as far back as the 1600s and is still in occasional use, but always has meant literal sausage.)

      One thing’s for sure: in this as in so much of what he had to say, Daniel Cassidy was full of baloney. (It’s just breathtaking that he would trace an obvious German borrowing, not even respelled – Spiel – to Irish. I have also read that the accuracy of his feel for Irish – the very idiomaticity of his various phrases, and a fortiori their commonness – was, shall we say, questioned by some native Irish speakers. One thing’s for sure: he didn’t know enough about English, and he sure didn’t know enough about etymology.)

  4. I think your suggested taboo avoidance for “bullshit” is probably better than my sugestion, it’s usually only the initial letter that counts in those types of expression.

    I’ve had a look for uses of “ballone” meaning “lies”, but I can’t even find any modern ones on the internet. I have found it in informal contexts meaning something like “pain in the ass” or “useless thing”, probably as an extension of “palle” (testicles) which has the same meaning. Puglians, Campanians and Sicilians change initial p > b, so that would explain the spelling.

    You are right regarding the first “o” of “boloney”, for it to have an origin in “ballone” it would need to be a native English speaker mis-hearing an Italian item, or a bilingual speaker reducing the vowel to a schwa to (intentionally or unintentionally) make it sound the same as the name for boloney sausage.

    But that’s quite a complicated process to believe in with no direct evidence…

  5. Oh, there is one modern example of “ballone=bullshit” from answers.com…

    “il mio amico santoro è stato bocciato per la seconda volta e quest’anno andra a lavorare costruendo le gambe delle sedie di plastica. lui dice che al mese per questo lavoro gli daranno 800€!! hahahahahaha, che ballone; comunque prova anche tu, magari ti becchi davvero 800 € al mese, hahahahhahaha!”

    “My mate Santoro flunked for the second time this year, so he’s off to work making the legs for plastic chairs. He says that he’ll be taking home 800€ month for this job!! hahahahahaha, what bullshit; so why don’t you try too, maybe you’ll really get 800 € a month, hahahahahahaha!”

    My wife says it’s dialect, because she’s never heard “ballone”, and almost certainly from the South, because 800 € a month for making plastic chairlegs would be an insultingly low wage in Northern Italy, whereas this guy seems to think it’s too high.

    I don’t have to discard my pet-theory completely just yet…. :)

  6. One thing is absolutely certain – béal ónna is not a genuine Irish phrase. Nobody would understand it. The Irish given in this book is pretty much all baloney. Genuine Irish phrases like moll óir are very much in the minority, while Cassidy’s own compositions generally range from implausible (uath dubh) to completely ridiculous (uí bhfolaíocht án). In Irish we have a proverb – namhaid an cheird gan í a fhoghlaim, which means “the craft is an enemy if it isn’t properly learned”. Intelligent and well-informed people realise that Cassidy was a fool who didn’t know anything about Irish or linguistics. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of people out there who are willing to support this nonsense because it suits their world-view.

  7. Pingback: Everyone’s a critic … | cassidyslangscam

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