An Inside Higher Ed article recently quoted Duke University physics professor Steffen Bass as describing the foolish stance of some of his colleagues as "bologna." As Mark Liberman pointed out on Language Log, Prof. Bass surely said "baloney." Bologna is pronounced "bo-LO-nya" and can only refer to the sausage (or the Italian city that gave the sausage its name). Baloney is a spelling that represents an Americanized pronunciation of bologna, and it also came to mean "nonsense" in the 1920s.

There are many conjectures about how baloney came by its nonsensical meaning (the Language Log post sketches out the major theories), so it's worth going back to the early citations for baloney (or boloney) to see how its meaning shifted over the years. In the nineteenth century, baloney was already emerging as an American pronunciation spelling referring to the sausage. The earliest I've seen is in some dialect humor from 1857: "baloney sassage" is included in a burlesque sermon written by William H. Levison using the pen name Julius Caesar Hannibal. There was also an old vaudeville song called "I Ate the Baloney" (or "Boloney"), evidently dating back to the 1870s.

Starting around 1920, baloney began developing a number of interlocking humorous meanings. With the spelling boloney, it was used on several occasions by Harry Charles Witwer in his serialized story about the boxing world, "The Leather Pushers," first published in Collier's in 1920 and 1921. Instead of chapters, Witwer labeled his installments "rounds," and in "Round Two" (appearing in the June 5, 1920 issue of Collier's) he used boloney three times to refer to an oafish boxer who is easy to knock out. (Palooka would be used similarly in the '20s.) Witwer would continue to use boloney in the 1921 book based on the "Leather Pushers" serial, as well his 1923 followup for Collier's, "Fighting Blood."

Soon baloney/boloney was applied to big, clumsy galoots outside of boxing, as it entered the "flapper" slang of the early '20s. Two examples from 1922 newspaper articles:

"Co-Eds Can't Be in Chorus with No Place to Wear Pins," Kansas City Star, Feb. 10, 1922
The way to address a stage manager is: "Say, you big baloney —" or "How do you get so Ritz, you poor fish?"

"Gen and Gert Find New Name On State's Office Building; Princeton Boy Sets 'Em Straight," Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, May 11, 1922
"I gotta date t'night with a boloney. Tuh go t' the movies!"

Perhaps the oafs were thought to have bologna sausage for brains, or perhaps their lumbering stature recalled a sausage shape. In any case, the jocular potential for baloney spread in another direction that year, thanks in part to Jack "Con" Conway, an editor at Variety who specialized in writing slang-filled articles fashioned as letters to his friend "Chick." In the June 30, 1922 issue of Variety, Con says of two baseball players, "The local papers are full of baloney about the pennant bein' in as soon as this pair get out of their uniform."

Jack "Con" Conway uses baloney to mean "nonsense," Variety, June 30, 1922

Conway gets the credit in Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang for the first known use of baloney in its modern sense (perhaps influenced by blarney), but an article from earlier that year in the New York Evening World suggests the new meaning was already known. Under the headline, "Promising Oasis Yields Only a 'Lot of Boloney'" (Jan. 23, 1922), the article tells the Prohibition-era tale of a man mistaking a delicatessen for a speakeasy. He sees a customer receiving a package and assumes it's illicit booze, but the proprietor tells him it was only "half a pound of bologna." The man doesn't believe it: "Finally, his face a picture of melancholy and his head bent low, he shuffled out, muttering something about 'a lot of boloney.'" That implies baloney/boloney already could be understood as a double entendre, at least among in-the-know New Yorkers.  

Regardless of whether Conway was the originator of the new sense (he's also been credited with scram, bimbo, payoff, pushover, and, yes, palooka), it took a couple of cartoonists to popularize baloney as an incredulous interjection, handily euphemizing more forceful words for nonsense beginning with "B." In 1924, boloney appeared as an exclamation in two comic strip series created by Harry J. Tuthill: "Home, Sweet Home" and "The Bungle Family."

Panels from H.J. Tuthill's "Home, Sweet Home," Sept. 27 and Sept. 30, 1924

Panel from H.J. Tuthill's "The Bungle Family," Oct. 19, 1924

And in 1925, the great Rube Goldberg used boloney in his strip, "Life's Little Jokes."

Panels from Rube Goldberg's "Life's Little Jokes," Feb. 28 and May 23, 1925

From then on, baloney outpaced boloney, as it quickly circulated in its now-familiar meaning. (See, for instance, Barry Popik's website, which dates the saying "No matter how thin you slice it, it's still baloney" to 1926.) Much as we saw with malarkey, we can thank sportswriters and cartoonists of the '20s for enriching our language with an evocative word for phony, insincere talk. Just don't spell it bologna.


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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.