Malarkey

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Ben Mathis-Lilley, "Joe Biden Brings House Down at DNC With Raging Fireball of a Speech Highlighted by Use of Word 'Malarkey'", Slate 7/27/2016. Here's the passage:

According to Merriam-Webster's Trend Watch,

Malarkey rose to the top of our look-ups on the evening of July 27th, 2016, after Vice-President Joseph Biden used the word in a speech at the Democratic National Convention.

"He is trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break. That is a bunch of malarkey." —Joe Biden, quoted on Politico.com, 27 July 2016

Trend Watch observes that

Biden does indeed appear to have an affinity for this word, with dozens of recorded uses over the course of his time in the public eye, stretching back to at least 1983. […] In addition to newspaper reports of Biden using malarkey, there is a considerable body of citational evidence demonstrating his use of the word in Congressional and Senate hearings.

But, the article continues,

No one is certain where malarkey comes from, although a number of possible etymologies (such as it having descended from a Greek word, an Irish surname, or various forms of slang) have been proposed. Although the linguistic origins of malarkey are shrouded in doubt, we are fairly certain of its geographic roots: all of our initial evidence for this word comes from North America in the early 1920s.

Indeed the challenger has been so unimpressive in public that a coterie of volunteer pallbearers has made a practice of attending all workouts at the dog track and laughing immoderately at every move the Latin makes. They seem to think he is a lot of 'malarkey,' as it were.  —New Castle News (New Castle, PA), 8 Sept., 1923

Some attempt has been made to account for the defeat of the United States hockey team by the Canadians in the Olympic games by declaring that the result was the fruit of team work rather than individual brilliancy. This is so much malarkey, according to the best informed sources.  —The Evening Review (Liverpool, OH), 12 Feb., 1924

The OED's entry, updated in June 2000, gives a bit more detail about the murky origins:

A surname Mullarkey , of Irish origin, exists, but no connection is known between any person of that name and this word. Another suggested etymology is from modern Greek μαλακός soft, or its derivative μαλακία , in fig. use (see malacia n.).

Update — Ben Zimmer discussed the origins of malarkey in a Word Routes column back in 2012, following up on an earlier bit of Biden rhetoric: "Where Did Biden Get His 'Bunch of Malarkey'?", 10/12/2012.



7 Comments

  1. Lazar said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

    He also threw in a Game of Thrones reference for the young'uns. (The words of House Martell: "Unbowed, unbent, unbroken.")

  2. Matthew E said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

    Donald Westlake's novel _Why Me_ features a nonstandard use of the word: one character, an Irish-American New York cop, in discussing an investigation, refers to "our FBIers or state troopers or all them other malarkeys."

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 6:13 pm

    Perhaps the young Joe Biden was inspired to a career in public service when reading the funny pages by the Simple J. Malarkey character in Pogo?

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

    I devoted a Word Routes column to the history of malarkey in 2012 (when Joe Biden used the word in the veep debate).

  5. Tempy said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 4:25 am

    I cannot hear it without remembering "How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way?" in all its English as she is spoke glory.

  6. Sheena said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    In the 1924 cartoon it is spelled malachy. Could this be a clue? Wikipedia on St. Malachy:

    A "Prophecy of the Popes" is attributed to St. Malachy […] Most scholars consider the document a 16th-century elaborate hoax. […] "For myself – and even as a native Irishman – the 'Prophecies of St. Malachy' are a grand old fun tale that have about as much reliability as the morning horoscope". […] "St. Malachy's prophecy is nonsense."

  7. Robert Coren said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    And then there's Simple J. Malarkey, Walt Kelly's caricature of Senator Joe McCarthy.

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