An Irishman's Diary

ON THE subject of Lester Young coining the slang term “to dig” (Diary March 5th), Vera Hughes has written to ask if the Mississippi…

ON THE subject of Lester Young coining the slang term “to dig” (Diary March 5th), Vera Hughes has written to ask if the Mississippi-born jazzman might have had Irish connections. “I have an idea that “to dig” comes from the Irish verb “tuig”, to understand,” she says. “Eg: ‘An dtuigeann tu?’ ‘Do you dig?’ ”

Well, Vera, had the great saxophonist ever become US president, I'm sure we would have had little difficulty finding an ancestor for him. But in any case, you're not the first person to think that one of the key verbs of the beatnik-hippy era had roots in Ireland. In his thrilling (though in linguistic circles controversial) 2007 book How the Irish Invented Slang, the Brooklyn academic Daniel Cassidy made just such a connection – laying claim on behalf of his mother country not merely to "dig" but to many of the most popular terms in the American-English vernacular, until then considered of unknown origin.

Even now, the most that mainstream sources such as the OED and Brewers will allow “tuig” is that it is the root word of an older English slang verb “to twig”, meaning the same thing. Cassidy went further, arguing that, when transplanted to the US, “twig” had sprouted a leaf called “dig”.

Inter alia, he attributed the latter’s popularisation to another southern jazzman, Louis Armstrong, whom he quotes speaking colourfully of a dead musician: “The world really missed something by not digging Black Benny on that bass drum before he was killed by a prostitute.” But here is Cassidy’s typically feisty argument for the verb’s Gaelic ancestry:


"The American Dictionary of Slangsays 'dig' derives from the 'Celtic word. . .twig', meaning 'to understand'. There is no Celtic word twig, because there is no 'Celtic language'. The vernacular 'twig' and 'dig' are both derived from the Irish 'tuig'." On the derivation process, however, certainty deserted him. He speculated that "tuig" had been introduced to African-Americans by Gaelic speakers. But he also conceded that there was a lack of written provenance and added: "The early history of the word Tuig spelled 'Dig'is yet to be dug."

Here was the nub of the issue for some critics, who – even as the book was attracting rave reviews in the popular press –railed against him for flouting the time-honoured rules of etymological detective work. Among other things, he was accused of “crying Wolof”. This is a etymological joke – “Wolof” being a west African language widely and wrongly claimed to be the origin of the English slang word “hip”, based on similarities that were mere coincidence.

One of Cassidy’s more strident critics lectured: “Dated, continuous, in-context quotations from any written source will always be superior evidence over phonetic speculation based upon national, linguistic, or ethnic pride.” Cassidy had not been able to supply these, he added. “So he decided he would fill the gap by finding obvious phonetic and orthographic similarities between Irish Gaelic and English-language slang. Which is, of course, a big heaping load of hooey.”

But the lack of available written sources was also central to Cassidy’s argument, and that of his defenders. Could not the long suppression of the Irish language explain the scarcity of written evidence?, they asked. And could it not be that the traditional arbiters of English etymology were less objective than they pretended to be? Maybe even the compilers of the OED were, consciously or otherwise, biased.

How else to explain a mystery whereby a people famous since antiquity for talking, not to mention writing, had emigrated in their millions to English-speaking countries in which the language was notoriously receptive to new usages and yet, if the OED were to be believed, had bequeathed those countries about the same number of words as their home country had produced Nobel prize-winners in literature? Cassidy’s book – half-dictionary, half-polemic – simply refused to accept that this could be the case. And even his critics accepted that he got some things demonstrably right (while insisting that he had arrived at the correct conclusions by bad scholarship).

When his book first came out, I thought it would be a good idea to interview the author. So one day I waited until lunchtime in Ireland to ring, reckoning that even a New York academic would be up by then. Which was when I discovered that he lived in California. With admirable patience, he pointed out that it was 5am where he was, and suggested that maybe I would be better interviewing him later in the day, when he was awake.

Some of his critics claimed he was not quite as welcoming of their calls and e-mails, and complained that he refused to debate his ideas in forums where his etymology of, for example, “bunkum” (from the Irish “buanchumadh”, meaning “long, made-up story” or “endless invention”) might be publicly debunked. I don’t know if this was true. But either way, sadly, he has now gone where no phone call or e-mail can reach him. He died from cancer last October, in his early 60s.

As the man who published the book, Alexander Cockburn, said in a tribute, at least he got his revolutionary idea out of him before he went. Perhaps others will now take up the challenge of finding the linguistic fossils that would add weight to his argument.

So,to summarise, Vera, the jury is still out on the Irish origins of “to dig”. As it is on one of Cassidy’s even more startling claims, that the word “jazz” itself derives from Irish – specifically from “teas”, meaning “heat, passion, excitement”. In support of his theory, it is well known that “jazz” first referred to sexual activity, before being applied to the new music of early 20th century, for which “hot” soon became the ultimate compliment. But of course that was before Lester Young came along and, as we have noted, changed the prevailing aesthetic to “cool”.