Don’t Be a Pussy, Dude – And Thank the Irish Americans for Creating Both Those Words

Categories: Media

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San Francisco’s Dan Cassidy explores how some of our most ubiquitous (and filthy) words came to be

By Joe Eskenazi

Dan Cassidy smells of a heady mixture of cigarettes and mint gum intended to mask cigarettes. He speaks in the thickest New York accent since Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo slapped his palm on the hood of a car and bellowed “I’m waukin' heah! I'm waukin' heah!

In this day and age when newscasters from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Maine all speak in the same hypnotically mellifluous non-accent, men like Cassidy – whose cadences don’t merely scream “New York” but “Brooklyn” -- are a rarity. Cassidy’s raison d’être is determining why people talk the way they talk, incidentally, so his accent fits right in.

I met Cassidy recently in Glen Park for an interview. He declined my invitation to chat in an Irish bar – he quit drinking years ago – so we instead settled into the back of a nearby bookstore. Many copies of his tome, “How the Irish Invented Slang” – winner of last year’s American Book Award – lined the shelves.

In the slowest and quietest bit of dialog he’d utter all night, Cassidy queried whether SF Weekly was an “R-rated paper.” I assured him it is. So he started right in on what sort of slang the Irish Americans have graced us with.

“You’ve heard that expression ‘Wipe that smile off your puss.’ Well, the plural of ‘puss’ is ‘pusa.’ It means lips.”

That’s right, the Irish invented “pussy.” But that’s not all. Cassidy admits the “filthiest word in my book” is “cuas” – or as we’d pronounce it, “cooze.” Literally, this means “hole.”

While Irish Americans' crafting of the two most aggressive terms for the female anatomy is not exactly the sort of thing one learns during heritage week in public schools, it’s a good example of how saturated the American English lexicon is with Irishisms – and nobody even knew.

Cassidy is the former longtime head of New College’s Irish Studies department as well as a musician and filmmaker. And prior to his 2007 book, scores of words arguably of Irish American origin were simply listed as “traditional” or “unknown” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Take, for example, perhaps the most Californian of all words – “dude.” While the OED has no clue where the word originated, Cassidy feels it’s more than a coincidence that Irish Americans of the 19th century referred to “numbskulls” or foppish, wealthy young swells as “dúd” (in fact, the term “swell” derives from “sóúil,” meaning “luxurious, rich or prosperous”).

So, it turns out The Stranger was right all along in describing Jeff Lebowski’s nickname as “something no man would self-apply where I come from.” Cassidy’s ongoing tête-à-tête with the writers of the OED has led him to start calling them “The Dictionary Dudes.”

Once you get started with the Irishisms, it’s hard to stop. Cassidy pops a stick of gum in his mouth and chews with enough energy to power a turbine. Then he puts up his dukes.

You see? There’s another one. In Irish slang, the word “tuargain” is pronounced “doogin” – and means “hammering." Hence “duking it out.” Cassidy knows this derivation is no fluke (and, in fact, the word “fluke” comes from “fo-luach,” meaning “a rare occurrence.”).

Cassidy laughs his minty laugh. He’s got a million of ‘em.

• “Snazzy” is derived from the Irish “snasach” (pronounced “snass-ay”) meaning “polished and lustrous.”

• “Glom” – Cassidy’s childhood nickname – hails from “glám,” to grab and “glámaire,” a grabber, a snatcher.

• The term “ciabhog” (pronounced “ky-ogg”) describes a forelock or sidelock, not unlike, say, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s. Less savory folks, however, used it to describe religious Jews – hence the term “Kike.”

• And, finally, while the term “Jazz” is synonymous with black-originated music, the term was first used by a young sportswriter for the San Francisco Bulletin in 1913 to describe the “jazzwater” members of the San Francisco Seals drank during spring training. Later it was used to praise crisp play on the diamond. For the Irish, however, it was “a sex word.” Originally spelled “teas” and pronounced “chas,” it means “heat, passion, excitement and enthusiasm.”

After we finish our interview (I think Cassidy ran out of gum) and head out into the chilly night, he continues to tell me how the “Dictionary Dudes” are full of baloney (derived from béal ónna, pron. bæl óna; foolish, humorous talk).

“The dudes from the Oxford Dictionary think ‘dude’ is an artificial word. Well, Oscar Wilde is the most famous dude in the world,” he says. And then he laughs. A minty laugh.

“Oscar Wilde, as you know, was Irish.”


Photo of Dan Cassidy | Joe Eskenazi


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