Irish Apples

Jonathon Green slang at BLUEYONDER.CO.UK
Fri Jan 17 10:25:45 UTC 2003

Since Daniel Cassidy's assertion vis-a-vis the alleged Irish origins of Big Apple is currently occupying the list, I offer a letter I sent him after reading the original piece in the NY Observer ( In this he asserted similarly Irish origins for various canting (underworld)  terms, used in the movie _The Gangs of New York_. To precis, he suggested that 'rabbit' (a rowdy), 'rabbit-sucker', 'ballum rancum' (an orgy), 'crusher' (a policeman), 'lay' (a criminal occupation), 'mort' (a woman), and 'buckaroo', were all 'Irish', and cited the source words. I don't think, fwiw, that all these are wholly risible, as my letter indicates, but I took issue with his unswerving and what I feel is over-optimistic inclusiveness.

Jonathon Green


I was fascinated by your piece on the Irish input into NY slang, as
published the NY Observer (1/6/03) and enormously grateful for hitherto
unknown etymologies for '(dead) rabbit' [DC: ráibéad is defined as a big, hulking person] and 'rabbit-sucker' [ráibéad sách úr, which in Irish means "a fresh, well-fed, big fellow]. Being a
lexicographer, however, I must quibble. This is not to say you're wrong,
just to wonder. The problem with Matsell's Vocabulum [1859, from which he
takes his slang examples] is that in approx. 90% of its entries it is far
from 'encyclopedic' [as he describes it] but a simple ripoff of Pierce Egan's 1823 edition of the Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose, which first appeared
in 1785. It may be that New York villains used late 18C/early 19C London
cant, but quite so much?

Of the terms you mention, ballum rancum [DC: Ball iomrá na gcumainn: the place everyone is talking about], lay [DC: Lé: Leaning, partiality, inclination], and mort [DC: Mór te: fiery passion, high spirits, warm affection] are all in Grose.
Indeed mort can be found in a cant glossary of 1566 (as 'a harlot' or a
tramp's female companion) and lay, usually in combination and denoting some
form of criminal speciality (the clouting lay, the chiving lay) first
appears in mid-17C.

Grose defines ballum rancum as a dance at which all concerned 'dance in
their birthday suits.' The accepted etymology is that such events (were
there many?) were dignified by a  kind of 'cod-Latin', where ballum comes from ball, a dance and rancum from rank, stinking, putrid. The Irish ety. is
undeniably appealing, and there were certainly many Irish tinkers, tramps
and members of the contemporary London underworld, but did such orgies
happen so often for them to create the name?

Lay is doubtless linked to Lé but that in turn is one of various cognates,
in Portuguese, French, and other Romance langs. all of which come from Old
French lei and ult. Latin lex. So I don't see the origins of its slang use
as especially Irish.

Crusher [DC: Cuir siar ar (the s is pronounced "sh"): to force upon; an enforcer]: again, the prevailing ety. is not Irish. The image is of police
violence and even large, crushing feet. The term is not in Grose, but is
certainly on stream by 1835, and maybe earlier. Here I think you may be
correct. Again, however, we have to wonder just how influential the Irish
villains were. I appreciate, and this goes for all these terms, that they
had a massive presence in NY, but, as I see it, these terms were imports,
not creations. (The next question being, were these Irish immigrants, whom I
take as coming from rural Ireland, not London, up with the cant of London's

Then mort. Here I think you have cracked a centuries'-old conundrum. No-one
has ever been able to pin this one down. The OED is most honest: 'Origin
unknown' and other suggestions are pretty specious. The question remains,
was the Irish term in existence c. 1560?

As for buckaroo [DC: bocaí rua, "wild playboys" or "bloody bucks], the generally accepted etymology is the Sp. vaquero, cowherd. (See R.F. Adams Western Words, 1968). I like the Irish ety, but given the Spanish influence on so much Western language, I'm still inclined
to accept vaquero.


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