Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in the DOMA decision had some harsh words, to say the least, for the majority opinion. But the word everyone has been fixated on is rather light-hearted: argle-bargle.
As I have said, the real rationale of today’s opinion, whatever disappearing trail of its legalistic argle-bargle one chooses to follow, is that DOMA is motivated by '"bare . . . desire to harm"' couples in same-sex marriages.
No sooner had the decision come down than I received an email from Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic Wire inquiring about the origin of argle-bargle (it's Scottish). You can read her piece here, and further thoughts from me in my Word Routes column for the Visual Thesaurus here. From the Word Routes column:
But 'tis a Daffin to debate,
And aurgle-bargain with our Fate.
—Allan Ramsay, "Poems"
"Argle" (a playful perversion of "argue") goes back to the 16th century, and "argle-bargle" is formed from it by rhyming reduplication, a common kind of word formation in Scots. As I discussed in a column about "Hobson-Jobson," rhyming reduplication tends to be either juvenile ("Humpty Dumpty," "hokey-pokey") or pejorative ("namby-pamby," "mumbo-jumbo"). Scalia didn't go for anything as prosaic as "mumbo-jumbo" when he was looking to cast invective on the majority opinion, however, reaching for the rare "argle-bargle" instead. (I confess I only know a variant of "argle-bargle," namely "argy-bargy," as the name of a 1980 album by the band Squeeze.)
I should note that it's not just rhyming reduplication that works well for putdowns of quarrelsome argumentation. If you look up the synonyms for argle-bargle and argy-bargy in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, you'll find an example of "ablaut reduplication" (vowel substitution) as well: wringle-wrangle. I think it's just a matter of time before we see that one in a Scalia opinion, too.