Word Routes

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Where Did Biden Get His "Bunch of Malarkey"?

In last night's vice-presidential debate, there was one clear winner: the word malarkey. Joe Biden used it not once but twice against Paul Ryan. First, in responding to Ryan's criticism of the Obama administration's handling of last month's attacks in Benghazi, he told Ryan, "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey." And then later, Biden euphemistically called Ryan's rhetoric "a bunch of stuff" before clarifiying, "We Irish call it malarkey."

Here's the video:

Biden certainly knows his way around a colorful Irish expression. The word malarkey, meaning "insincere or exaggerated talk," originally found favor in Irish-American usage, though its exact origin remains unknown. We can likely thank a cartoonist of Irish descent, Thomas Aloysius Dorgan ("TAD" for short), for popularizing the word. You might recall Dorgan's name from previous discussions of hot dog: there's an apocryphal explanation of the term involving a cartoon of his, supposedly drawn at a 1901 baseball game at the Polo Grounds. While there's no evidence that TAD ever drew that hot dog cartoon (and for that matter, hot dog was already in use for about a decade at that point), he nonetheless helped to circulate some other words in the American lexicon, among them malarkey, hard-boiled, and kibitzer.

When Dorgan began using the word, its spelling wasn't settled. In a cartoon of his that appeared on Mar. 9, 1922, the word Milarkey was used as a fictitious place name. Two years later, on April 2, 1924, he used the word Malachy, apparently with its nonsense meaning ("Malachy - You said it - I wouldn't trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch").

Slang expert Jonathan Lighter notes that along with Dorgan, another early popularizer of malarkey was Davis J. Walsh, sports editor of International News Service. Here are some examples from Walsh's syndicated columns (Lighter found the examples in the archives of The Oakland Tribune and other newspapers):

That the business is not so much Malarkey is indicated by the fact that [etc.]. (April 19, 1924)
We presume, however, that this kind if malarkey is to be expected from certain quarters. (May 20, 1924)
However, all talk of Eddie Roush figuring in any deal with the Giants is so much malarky, according to Hendricks. (Dec. 6, 1924)
His announcement, consequently, could be taken as so much malarkey. (Jan. 3, 1925)
It was just a lot of Malarkey. (June 25, 1925)

So where did Dorgan and Walsh get malarkey? It's hard to say. As Michael Quinion has noted, the various conjectures for its etymology are all rather tenuous:

Various theories have been advanced. Eric Partridge pointed to the modern Greek word "malakia" but he formed a group of one. His later editor, Paul Beale, noted the London expression "Madame Misharty", the personification of sales talk, exaggerated claims, and wild predictions, a name that was supposedly that of a fortune teller. But this is stretching a possible linguistic link to breaking point and, in any case, we know it started life in North America. Others point to the family name Malarkey, though who the eponymous member of the tribe might have been whose Irish-derived gift of the gab could have given rise to the name remains unknown. Jonathon Green likewise suggests a Irish origin in "mullachan", a strongly-built boy or ruffian, though this, too, seems a stretch of meaning.

Quinion concludes that "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. You can be sure we'll be hearing a lot more malarkey: Democrats are using the word in their fundraising appeals, and the Obama campaign reportedly is buying ads on Twitter for malarkey as a search term. Will it replace Big Bird as the campaign buzzword?

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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.