The Irish Invented Jazz, You Dig?

Yes, if you liked Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization (But Then Blew It With Riverdance), then you should read Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads.

Yes, blame the Irish. Even H. L. Mencken has been at it, stating that Irish influence on US-English is evident:


“Use of intensifying suffixes, often set down as characteristically American (were) probably borrowed from the Irish. Examples are no-siree and yes-indeedy and the later kiddo and skidoo. The Irishman is almost incapable of saying plain yes or no; he must always add some extra and gratuitous asseveration. The American is in like case… The Irish extravagance of speech struck a responsive chord in the American heart.”

Actually, Cassidy’s work is a fascinating book for those interested in language evolution in the United States. It seems that Irish roots can be traced to words such as: babe, baloney, dig, dude, gee, whiz, hokum, Holy Mackerel, Hot Diggity, humdinger, jazz, jerk, punk, razzmatazz, scam, swanky, top, twerp, and so on.

In the case of “jazz”, the derivation is “teas” (Irish for heat, passion, excitement, sex). As for “dig” (as in “understand” or “get”) – it comes from “tuig” (to understand), for example: “You dig?” (“An dtuigeann tú?”). This is perhaps not that surprising, as Dizzy Gillespie recalled African Americans neighbors in Alabama who, at one time, spoke “exclusively in Scots Gaelic.”

Of course, the Irish have known all this for years. If you’re interested in a fun look at slang and language development, then check out http://www.urbandictionary.com/.

Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.

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