The war of the words

An Irishman’s Diary about American and Irish English

‘I note that in the US cultural calendar, today is “Dictionary Day”: so designated in honour of the lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born on October 16th, 1758.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘I note that in the US cultural calendar, today is “Dictionary Day”: so designated in honour of the lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born on October 16th, 1758.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Wed, Oct 16, 2013, 01:00

It’s hardly an occasion for fireworks, except maybe verbal ones. But even so, I note that in the US cultural calendar, today is “Dictionary Day”: so designated in honour of the lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born on October 16th, 1758.

Although he arrived a little too late for participation in the war of independence, Webster would in time make his own contribution to the cause, his leadership of the revolution’s linguistic wing culminating in a seminal 1828 work: An American Dictionary of the English Language.

Not only did this include thousands of words previously denied sanction by keepers of the language, it also promoted a simplified, but uniquely American, spelling system. Webster believed English had been corrupted by the influence of Britain’s aristocracy, which had made it needlessly complicated.

So it’s to him that we owe such now-standard Americanisms as “color” and “labor”. And this also makes him responsible for the irony – not unpleasant – that the most obvious examples of English in the US are words without Us.

Anyway, US Dictionary Day reminds me of a recent e-mail from a reader, also about language. I apologise to the person who sent it, because I accidentally deleted the message and can’t now recall either the name or the exact question.

But it concerned the slang version of the verb “to dig” – meaning “to understand or appreciate” – whose origins are usually traced to black American jazz musicians of the 1930s, especially Lester Young and Louis Armstrong.

The reader’s question, broadly, was whether this “dig” could be related to the Irish verb “tuig”. Which also means “to understand”. And which, in the second person interrogative – “do you understand” (or “you dig?”, as 1930s jazz musicians put it) – takes a D that silences the T (“An dtuigeann tú”), thereby replicating the slang term’s sound.

The reader may also have have mentioned tuig’s Hiberno-English cousin: the verb “to twig”. Which, while not having the D sound, does at least suggest that “tuig” crossed into English at some point, making it more plausible that “dtuigeann” might have followed, en route to New Orleans and Mississippi.

And it certainly is plausible. But unfortunately, in the matter of word origins, plausibility is never enough. Charming as it would be to think that Satchmo and his friends were using borrowed Irish, the truth is we really don’t know.

Many languages have influenced English. Irish is definitely one of them. It’s just that, in every vernacular, you could find phonetic coincidences with words spoken elsewhere. Unless you can also cite examples of where, when, and (ideally) why they jumped the species barrier, you can’t assume the coincidences are more than that.

In his exciting but controversial 2007 book, How the Irish Invented Slang, the late Daniel Cassidy largely bypassed this approach. Like Webster, Cassidy was a would-be lexicographical revolutionary, except that his book was more of an argument than a dictionary.

Proceeding from the premise that Irish was vastly underacknowledged as a source of English words, he mined the mother tongue for a whole quarry-load of derivations: those of “dig”, and even “jazz” (from “teas”, meaning “heat”, he suggested)
included.

He was like a frontiersman, staking claims to the linguistic wilderness. And like many frontiersmen, he was soon under fire from counter claimants, his death in 2008 not entirely ending the conflict.

His book’s premise, at least, was beyond argument. Almost a century earlier, HL Mencken had expressed puzzlement at the paucity of acknowledged Irish loan words in English. “Perhaps shillelah, colleen, spalpeen, smithereens, and poteen exhaust the unmistakably Gaelic list”, Mencken wrote, exaggerating only a little.

And underlining his point, even now, my old hard-back copy of the OED still claims not to know where the colloquial “to twig” comes from, attributing it only to “18th c., of unkn. orig”. Whereas the editors of Brewer’s Dictionary could have told them: linking it to the Irish “tuigim”, and explaining to those without Gaelic that the correct pronunciation has no W.

So Cassidy did at least have a basis for his argument. And if he and Webster shared little in the way of methodology, they would probably have agreed, at least, in identifying an element of imperialism in the mindset of the language’s traditional keepers.

This may explain why England’s oldest and closest colony – whose inhabitants are famous for talking – has been undervalued as an etymological source. It might even explain the mystery of why acknowledged Gaelic loan-words in English do not much outnumber Irish winners of the Nobel prize for literature: the most recent of which, incidentally, was synonymous with a poem called Digging.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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