Friday, March 6, 2020


Irish Immigrants
By C.A. Asbrey

I'm sure it's not a surprise to anyone that Scottish and Irish immigrants to the USA have left an indelible mark on the country. As a Scot, it's a joy for me to see something straight out of my own culture writ large and proudly used a a part of America. It makes me feel included and that there's something in there for me. The way the USA has assimilated so many cultures and traditions is not only fascinating, it's a tangible link with the past still playing out in the present. In music there are so many obvious examples such as Alison Krauss singing this song which was so American it was featured in O Brother Where Art Thou.
And then there's the original version in Scottish Gaelic, Sios Dhan An Abhainn - which also means Down to the River.

My ancestors, both Scottish and Irish, also left a linguistic mark on American English in a way which is distinctly different to the English spoken by the English. Both Caledonian English and Hiberno English are recognized as dialects in which the Gaelic grammar and syntax leaks over to change the way sentences are built. It particularly impacts on descriptions, superlatives, and the use of gerunds. Over and above that, Scotland has another language called Lallans or Scots which mixes a Germanic language with old French and Gaelic. That also seeps over to the English spoken by Scottish people and was taken to the USA in the form of some very colourful expressions which we'll look at in this post.

There were also many famous American figures who may not immediately be associated with Gaelic. Henry McCarty, aka Billy the Kid, spoke fluent Gaelic. In fact, the poorer the immigrant the more likely they were to be Irish speakers as the rich were beginning to turn away from their native tongues in both Scotland and Ireland. Gaelic was as the first language of most Irish Americans who immigrated in the big flood of Irish after the famine. A recording of Clark Hust, a cowboy who reportedly worked on a ranch with the infamous gunslinger, tells us that Billy the Kid helped translate Irish for his employer. In the recording, Hust tells that while he and Billy the Kid were working at the ranch, the owner, Pat Coghlan, had a niece, Mary, who came from Ireland to stay with the family. The girl could only speak Irish and Coghlan spoke only English, so they used the Kid who spoke both English and Irish as a translator. Newspapers from the period were checked. Coghlan’s niece really did visit, which meant that Hust was not lying about her existence. 

Billy the Kid

Academics steeped in the classics and linguistic training based only on the English taught in the haughty circles of academia often dismissed some word origins as unknown or slang. It took a proper academic examination of the language by scholars who understood the linguistic roots of the Goidelic branch of Indo European tongues to pull apart words and phrases which were previously dismissed as Americanisms to find that they were, in fact, a form of Gaelic which melted into the lexicon of 19th century America.

Of course there are many in use in the English language in general like brogue (bròg) trousers (triubhas), slogan (sluagh-ghairm meaning battle cry) and even glamour (Lallans meaning magic, enchantment).

Daniel Cassidy's book, “How the Irish Invented Slang”, and Niall Ó Donaill's “Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla” has helped to unravel the origins of words now thought of as American. I've added a few of my own too.

Gaelic words used in American English -  both Irish and Scottish

Poker - Surely the most iconic of card games played by cowboys? Scottish - pòca Irish - póca.
The eagle-eyed of you might note that the word is the same but the direction of the accent changes. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are related  but they are not the same. There are many differences, but some words are, indeed, very similar.

Sap/saphead - This one is Scottish and comes from the Lallans word for bread soaked in milk to be given to invalids and infants. It literally means soft-headed.

Shindig - From sìnteag (Scottish) to skip, or jump around.


Whiskey or Whisky - Scottish spelling is without the 'e'. I'm sure everyone knows that it comes from the Gaelic and means the water of life in both Scottish and Irish.

Yeah, right  - That typical cynical response may not seem very Celtic, but it does seem typically American and defies the norm in English on double negatives and the apocryphal double positives. It does, however,  translate directly from the Irish phrase commonly expressed by many people challenging authority, "Mar dhea". It also perfectly displays the way superlatives are built in Gaelic by adding words together. Another example of this is the way the Scottish term for boss translates literally as 'the high head one.' Another example of this syntax came over to English as out and out. That is a direct lift from Scottish 'amach is amach' to add intensity to the words coming next.

Shanty - Irish and Scottish Gaelic sean taigh meaning an old house 

Gee is the approximate pronunciation of Dia, or the word for God in both Scottish and Irish Gaelic

Holy cow - is Holy Cathú or Holy Cahoo or Holy Grief.

Darn it is another Gaelic exclamation. In Irish you say daithairne ort, which means, "misfortune on you."

Gee whiz comes from Dia Uas pronounced Geeuh Woous which means "noble god."

Hillbilly - The pejorative term for people living in rural areas of the United States, particularly around the Ozark Mountains (Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas) and Appalachia, initially related to the 18th-century Ulster Protestant settlers in the Appalachian Mountains. Some think the term comes from supporters of King William III, Billy’s Boys; others point to a Scottish word for companion, “billie”, combining both the Ulster and Scottish terms. It should be noted that the protestant followers of William of Orange were natural enemies to the Catholic Irish, hence the unflattering connotations. 


Swell  - the word sóúil or "luxurious"

Ballyhoo - Is basically the phonetic pronunciation of bailliú, which means exactly the same thing.

Swanky -  the Irish word somhaoineach or "valuable".

Buddy is another Irish Gaelic word, which comes from the Irish expression, a bhodaigh, which means something like "pal." The root of the word bhodaigh is strangely, bod, which is the Irish word for penis, and pronounced like bud.

Can - If you kick a guy in the can, you're kicking him in his ceann which is the "extremity" of a thing, and also "head," which is at the other end from the tail end.

Skedaddle in a jiffy - you are sciord ar dólámh (make an all out slip) in a deifir (in a hurry). Trust me. They sound alike when I say them. Gaelic isn't very phonetic.

'Messing with'  and other gerunds - this gerund meaning, to trifle with was first seen in print in mainstream English in 1903, but like most colloquial terms was in full use long before it transmitted to the world of English academia. It's quoted in the Dictionary of Scots Language as far back as 1340 and is a direct transposition of the way the Scots words 'footer' or 'bauderin' are used. Gaelic doesn't have Gerunds, it has verbal nouns instead. Gaelic expresses habitual aspect in present tense. It also borrows from Gaelic syntax with the use of the durative tense, which means the translation of mess has to turn into 'messing'. Passive tenses in Gaelic speech patterns also show that things are at, or with, a person. Both Scots and Irish are more likely to say things like, "He is after eating his dinner" versus, "He has eaten his dinner" They are also likely to use the dative as in, "The fire went out on me" (very American) or "The soup boiled over on me". Therefore someone teasing or annoying someone is likely to be told they are 'messing with' them, using the verbs in a previously unEnglish way which is now very American.

Verb nouns didn't exist in Old English, but did persist in the Celtic fringes in a way which differentiated the way people actually spoke to the written form. John McWhorter stresses again and again in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue how unique English is, how odd these constructions are, and how therefore they must have come from the Celtic languages. It also explains why English is the only Germanic language to develop them.

The syntax leaks over in other areas too. Where British people would say, "She resigned on Thursday", Americans often say, "She resigned Thursday." US English will also drop the word 'on' before stating a date in a sentence.

I know many Americans are very proud of their ancestry. I hope this post helps you feel part of something else they left behind - their language - and it is still recognizable back in the old country to the present day.

After suffering a horrific loss, Nat and Abi must try to piece their lives together, build a future, and repair the past. But before they can figure out their own complicated relationship, they must unite to help Jake find his children—no easy task, since their mother has disappeared, and they’ve been left with a priest who is bent on giving them away!
In a maelstrom of grief, anger, and legal complications, one of Abi’s friends, Dr. Vida Cadwallader, also a female Pinkerton, steps up to help. As Vida tries to help The Innocents make sense of what’s happening, she soon becomes embroiled in mysterious happenings within the brutal insane asylum where she consults part-time. When one of her colleagues is murdered, Vida quickly becomes a suspect.
With no time to lose, Vida, Abi, Jake, and Nat band together to free one of the asylum’s unwilling patients who may hold the key to all their unanswered questions—if she only lives long enough to survive the escape.  Now, with an unknown murderer on the loose as well, time is running short for them to find the children, solve the crime, and spirit the patient away to safety. Can they keep their necks out of the noose and buy enough time to solve the mystery shrouding their lives? Can anyone make sense of this world of shadows, darkness, and madness?


A wobble on the mattress jolted Sewell out of the arms of his dream-woman. He grunted and shifted under the covers, moving onto his other side. He suddenly felt a dead weight on top of him, an immobilizing, ponderous pressure which left him paralyzed and unable to move. Sewell gasped, sucking in a breath of a sweet, sickly miasma which filled his lungs as he took short pants of fear. His eyelids opened snapped open as the horror of his immobility climbed. He was pinned beneath his bedclothes, unable to move a limb, except for the feet which flailed and floundered beneath the tangling sheets.

He tried to cry out but found his impotent screams lost in the fabric jamming his mouth. He lay, pinned to the bed, rigid and immobilized as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness and a figure loomed into view. Sewell’s heart stilled at the sight of a hideous crone looming over him, her wild white hair standing straight out from her head in a tangled mass in every direction. Her lips curled back in disdain around a mouth which appeared to be laughing, but not a sound was to be heard. The hag’s eyes were in shadow, lending her the appearance of a screaming skull floating above him. She sat on his chest, rendering him unable to scream, or even move as the smell filled his nostrils. It felt like powerful arms and legs kept him pinned down. What kind of nightmare was this?

The gorgon pressed close, so close he could feel the heat of her breath on his face. All he could do was blink and tremble, too stupefied to move. It seemed like the longest time before the blackness crept in, and his eyelids dropped closed once more. The nightmare didn’t leave, it took him; engulfing him entirely until he felt nothing.

Dawn crept in by inches, the dark transitioning from black to gray, until the low morning sunshine added a warming brightness to the scene. The shadows were as long as the sunbeams were cleansing, chasing down the retreating darkness to a mere frown until the morning smiled on another new day. The sun’s confidence grew, climbing higher in the sky, proud of the majestic light which gave life and succor to the whole planet—well, not all of it. Sewell Josephson never saw another day. That day saw him though, swinging gently by the creaking rope fixed to the newel post at the turn of the staircase on the top landing. The ligature bit into the neck below the engorged face from which a purple tongue protruded from his dead gaping mouth.

The only life in the house stared at the figure with unblinking black eyes and a twitching tail. The cat turned her head at the sound of a key in the back door. A human at last. Maybe the cook would know what do to?

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Chris Asbrey has lived and worked all over the world in the Police Service, Civil Service, and private industry, working for the safety, legal rights, and security of the public. A life-changing injury meant a change of course into contract law and consumer protection for a department attached to the Home Office.     
In that role she produced magazine and newspaper articles based on consumer law and wrote guides for the Consumer Direct Website. She was Media Trained, by The Rank Organization, and acted as a consultant to the BBC's One Show and Watchdog. She has also been interviewed on BBC radio answering questions on consumer law to the public. 

She lives with her husband and two daft cats in Northamptonshire, England—for now. She’s moving to the beautiful medieval city of York.
Where to find C.A.:
Blog - C.A Asbrey - all things obscure and strange in the Victorian period
The Innocents Mystery Series Group 
Link to latest book - In All Innocence -



Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thank you for being my guest today, Christine! I enjoyed the first book in your Innocents series and I'm looking forward to reading more. I'm hooked on Abi and Nat! Where will there adventures take them next? And oh, the romantic tension! American English is made richer by the additions of waves of immigration and it's interesting to pick apart the fabric to see the origins of some of the words we now take for granted. Good luck with your new release.

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thanks so much for your lovely comments, and for the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers. I hope they enjoy these musings in how the American dialect of English has developed in a unique, and fascinating, way.

Andrea Downing said...

What a fascinating post, especially about Billy the Kid. Who knew? We hear about him speaking Spanish fluently but not Gaelic. Learn something new... and good luck with your book.

C.A.Asbrey said...
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C.A.Asbrey said...

Thank you, Andrea. There are Gaelic pages on Facebook which pick up bits of research like the Billy the Kid story. I'm a member of a few of them, and we all loved finding that out. But it makes sense, since his mother's first language was Irish

Elizabeth Clements said...

I always enjoy your posts, Christine and always learn something new. In this case I learned lots of things. I particularly enjoyed reading about Billy the Kid who has so often been vilified in movies and fiction; therefore it was nice to see him in a new light. I can't recall the movie right now where it showed his good side before the incident with Sheriff Pat Garrett. I love origins of words and thus it was fun to see from where some of our slang originated. And you know I'm a big fan of your Innocents series. Best of luck with this latest release.

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thank you so much, Elizabeth. So kind of you.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Really interesting, C.A. I had no idea some of those words had Scottish/Irish origins. Great post!

C.A.Asbrey said...

Thanks, Kristy. There are so many. Too many to post. I had fun researching it, as I love etymology.

Renaissance Women said...

The origins of words are so fascinating. Having studied Latin, not well, but that's another story, I find myself always looking at similarities. Thank you for adding to the list.

C.A.Asbrey said...
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C.A.Asbrey said...

Thanks, Doris. I love the way language develops, and find it fascinating too.