While watching a recent episode of the History Channel show “America’s Secret Slang” I found myself questioning more than usual some of the assertions being made. I always take the “facts” presented in such programs with a grain of salt, especially on the History Channel, which is usually about anything but history (Ancient Aliens?).
This particular show was asserting that many of the American slang expressions we use every day actually have their origins in Irish (or Gaelic), but that this has been unknown up until recently. Their source? A “controversial” book on the contributions of Irish immigrants to American English called How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads written by Daniel Cassidy.
As I said, I take such things with a grain of salt. This expression was included in the program. Not Irish. But, other food expressions were claimed to be Irish such as “full of baloney” which the show/book claims has nothing to do with the cured sausage Bologna, but instead comes from two Irish words, beal and onna.
The Gaelic word beal means “mouth” and onna means “foolish.” Put them together — beal onna — and you get bealonna or “foolish mouth.” Since saying someone is “full of baloney” means you think they are saying foolish things and are “full of hot air,” Cassidy supposes that it must have come from this Gaelic expression. What’s the problem? He doesn’t seem to have verified at all whether this IS A GAELIC expression. According to many Irish speakers, it is not. If you search for the word “bealonna” or “beal onna” and include the search terms “Gaelic” and/or “Irish” the only reference to this you will find is from the author himself.
What seems to have happened, and this is according to the author himself, is that he simply searched through Irish dictionaries and searched for words that sounded phonetically similar to common English slang. He doesn’t seem to have looked for any confirming evidence, for the most part. The book, all in all, is a complete claptrap, a word that is similar to poppycock and probably comes from a theatrical term of the 18th century which referred to a dialogue or scenes that were contrived just to get the audience to clap but didn’t really add to the piece — just an “applause trap.”
Cassidy has certainly received more than his fair share of applause for this un-scholarly piece of work. Don’t take my word for it, read this review by Michael Patrick Brady. The book even pissed someone off enough to start a blog expressly for the purpose of debunking Cassidy’s claims, saying. “[I] intend to cover a good proportion of the hundreds of words in Cassidy’s book, explaining why they are nonsense and pointing out his poor methodology and outright dishonesty.” The blog does a good job of countering the claims of a “conspiracy to cover up the Irish origins of American expressions and slang.” I am not sure the word “bealonna” exists at all, and as well, it is not clear that the majority of the words brought up in the book actually exist in the form they are given.
Origin of Idiom ‘Full of Baloney’
If Cassidy had bothered to do something other than peruse Irish dictionaries, he may have found references that help to bear out the supposition that the expression “full of baloney” does indeed stem from the cured sausage Bologna, which derived its name from Bologna, Italy. This Italian sausage became popular in the United States.
First, at least as early as the 1930’s, in the cattle trade, old bulls were called baloney bulls, which meant they were destined for the sausage factory being “good for nothing but sausage, or “baloney.” We can see, already, some possible antecedent for baloney being associated with “good for nothing.” However, a 1930’s jingle my tell the tale: “Dress it in silks and make it look phoney, No matter how you slice it, it’s still baloney.” Since baloney was often made with leftover or otherwise “worthless” bits, as well as old bulls past their prime, is it that hard to imagine that “full of baloney” came to mean the same thing as “full of bullshit?”
But let’s look at other variations of this expression. We have “That’s a bunch of baloney,” as well as its opposite, “That’s no baloney.” We also have the term “phoney baloney.” How do we explain a word, if it were to exist, like bealonna meaning “foolish mouth” following a linguistic path that takes it to the equivalent of “full of foolish mouth?” What about “phoney foolish mouth?” Or “that is not foolish mouth?” Perhaps we can surmise that “foolish mouth” became “foolish person” or just “foolishness.” However, it is best to remember that the theory that relies on the fewest assumptions is usually the better one. First, we cannot assume there was ever any such word as bealonna. Therefore, any further assumptions about it’s path to the modern expression are unwarranted.
What’s the take home? Don’t watch the History Channel, and certainly America’s Secret Slang for educational purposes, without doing your own research. A good bit of the slang origins outlined in this program seem to be correct, but since the producers do not seem to bother with vetting their sources, the entire program should be “taken with a grain of salt.”