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

October 12, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

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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