Joe Biden’s use of ‘malarkey’ renews attention to the word’s origin

Visual Thesaurus | The Economist

Horsefeathers. Hogwash. Piffle. Flapdoodle. Baloney. Hooey. Hokum. Blarney. Twaddle. Poppycock. Applesauce. Tommyrot. Bushwa. You can drain your thesaurus for some time before exhausting the English language’s many words for “nonsense.”

And yet Vice President Biden chose the word “malarkey” to express his disagreement with U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan at Thursday night’s debate.

With the word, Biden deposited something of a flaming bag of claptrap on the doorsteps of America’s language bloggers. “The word malarkey, meaning ‘insincere or exaggerated talk,’ originally found favor in Irish-American usage, though its exact origin remains unknown,” Ben Zimmer writes. He quotes Michael Quinion, who says, “we’ll just have to settle for the unsatisfactory ‘origin unknown.’”

Perhaps some day the true origins of malarkey will come to light, but in the meantime we’ll just have to enjoy this cantankerous contribution to the American vocabulary.

The word was likely popularized, Zimmer writes, by an Irish-American cartoonist named Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, whose pen name was Tad.

Like Zimmer, The Economist’s language column pins the blame for “malarkey” on Americans, or the subset thereof who call themselves Irish no matter how long ago their ancestors arrived on these shores.

If “malarkey” is Gaelic, it would have been more likely to emerge in Irish English than in America, it seems. But the word is more common in America, and the OED’s first citation from outside America is from the (London) Sunday Times 1958. My (Irish-fluent) Irish colleague says that the word is not common in Ireland, and knows of no connection to an Irish Gaelic phrase.

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  • Anonymous

    well, uh, a lot of stuff ryan said, uh, IS laughable.

  • Egg Man

    Speaking of slang from overseas, remember the 1984 fiasco when Jesse Jackson called NYC as hymietown and referred to Jews as “hymies” when speaking with a Black reporter from the Wash Post at lunch and word leaked out later, I think it was Milton Coleman, and then a month later, Jesse apologized for the wrong language, since “hymie” is an ethnic slur that even in 1984 should not have been used. Strangely enough, in the UK, an elderly Jewish gent named Michael Winner, born in 1935, has just released a collection of Jewish jokes he has collected from readers of his Sunday Times food column and the title of the book, kid you not, is “Michael Winner’s Hymie Joke Book” and published by Robson Press there, Not released in the USA, but heavily advertised onlun in the Guardian, TElegraph and Daily Mail. ANd not one Brit has protested about the use of this term. Maybe “hymie” is a kosher word in Britain? Ben Zimmer can check? or Johnson at the Economist language column?

  • Egg Man

    we usually said baloney in my house in the 1950s

  • Anonymous

    His words didn’t matter, his behavior did.

    Overall, Joe ‘Da Bafoon’ Biden’s demeanor was rude, crude, and generally socially unacceptable. But it was indicative of the fact that he simply can’t play by the simple rules of a debate, so his off-camera behavior probably isn’t much different and he’s just “a heartbeat away” as the talking heads sometimes say…

  • BonzoDog1

    There was a lot of malarkey around my house when I was growing up in the 1950s in Pennsylvania-Dutch Pennsylvania, and there weren’t any Irish near-abouts.