What’s in a name?
THE “JIMMY ATTITUDE,” here represented by James Cagney, is a “blend of musicality and menace.”
First, there was Paddy. Penniless. Piteous. Dispossessed. A tattered tenant farmer, escaping a blighted homeland alongside millions more like him. “Most of them had never been three miles from their home,” says Peter Quinn, author of the personal and probing new essay collection Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America (Overlook). “They’re from the most primitive agricultural society in Europe, and six weeks later they’re in the fastest industrializing cities in the world.”
The welcome was not warm. This man, with “neanderthal physical characteristics” (as the eugenicist Madison Grant put it), “the great upper lip, bridgeless nose, beetling brow with low-growing hair, and wild savage aspect,” represented a threat to the WASP elite in cities like Boston and New York. By the years after the Civil War (even though Irish brigades fought valorously for the Union), these teeming immigrant masses were looked upon in much the same light as the newly emancipated blacks.
One Thomas Nast cartoon, from 1876, shows Sambo and Paddy sitting in a scale, grinning dumbly at each other. North and South. White and black. Two “underclasses that weigh down the future of America’s recently reunited Anglo-Saxon republic,” Quinn writes. Visiting the United States in 1881, English historian Edward A. Freeman remarked, “This would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a Negro, and be hanged for it.”
But by the early years of the 20th century, things had changed. Paddy, who’d arrived in this country without money, without skills — “bereft,” Quinn writes, “of a usable past” — had found strength in numbers. And he had realized that “whoever the streets belong to gets to define what it takes to belong.” It wasn’t long before Paddy changed his name. Now he was Jimmy.
“Jimmy,” in Quinn’s formulation, is an amalgam of two archetypes: pug-faced Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Walker, the singing, swinging Jazz Age mayor of New York. It was this new identity, he writes, that “personified Paddy’s transformation from mud-splattered, simpleminded, shillelagh-wielding spalpeen into skeptical, fast-talking urbanite who could never be mistaken for a greenhorn or rube.”
It was a remarkable transformation, says Quinn from his home in New York. “In 1840, the Irish were the most rural people in Europe. A hundred years later, the prototype of urban behavior are the Irish.”
Their agrarian skills useless here, Irish immigrants were forced to reinvent themselves, and they did it first with language. Since the west of Ireland was hardest hit by the famine, it has been estimated that as many of 1.5 million immigrants were native Irish speakers. When they learned English, theirs was a “pliable and elastic” version, Quinn writes, “a device with which to . . . soften their dislocation and assert their own identity.”
Quinn points out several Gaelic coinages that came to identify the street-savvy early-Irish experience in the US — slang words that, having “percolated through mongrel networks of saloons, theaters, political clubhouses, union halls, and precinct wards,” exist to this day: snazz (snas — polish, gloss); pizzazz (píosa theas — heat, passion); ward heeler (éilitheor); slugger (slacaire); crony (comh-roghna); scam (‘s cam).