The tangled web of bologna

« previous post | next post »

Ry Rivard, "Duke Faculty Say No", Inside Higher Ed 4/302013:

“This had more to do with the politics of telling the provost he didn’t consult enough with the faculty, which I feel was bologna,” [Professor of Physics Steffen] Bass said. “But, yeah, that’s how it went.”

I strongly suspect that Prof. Bass actually said "baloney", pronounced something like [bə'loʊ.ni]. I don't think I've ever heard anyone use the pronunciation [bo'loʊ.ɲjə] for the meaning "nonsense", though I sometimes see it spelled "bologna". But this word (or words) is (or are) an orthographic, phonetic, and semantic mess.

All the dictionaries that I've checked agree that bologna has two senses, one a kind of sausage and the other an Italian city. Thus  Merriam-Webster has (1) "a large smoked sausage of beef, veal, and pork; also : a sausage made (as of turkey) to resemble bologna", and (2) "commune N Italy ∗ of Emilia-Romagna at foot of the Apennines pop 379,964".

The dictionaries also all agree that baloney (sometimes spelled "boloney") has two senses, one a kind of sausage and the other a kind of nonsense. Thus Merriam-Webster has (1) "variant of bologna", and (2) "pretentious nonsense : bunkum —often used as a generalized expression of disagreement".

The dictionaries also generally agree that the sausage can be pronounced [bə'loʊ.ni] even when it's spelled "bologna".

And finally, the dictionaries agree that these two (orthographic) words have three senses between them, with "sausage" being shared, and the other two not:  baloney isn't an Italian city, and bologna isn't nonsense.

The traditional view is also that the "baloney" spelling (and pronunciation) are derived in some obscure way from the Italian city and its eponymous sausage. Thus the OED glosses baloney | boloney, n. and int. as "Humbug; nonsense" and gives the etymology as

Commonly regarded as < Bologna n. (sausage) but the connection remains conjectural.

However, Wiktionary suggests that baloney "nonsense" is "From the Polari slang word balonie", and provides a link that explicates the etymology of Polari as

From Italian parlare (“to talk”). The loss of the first r and the changing vowel quality of the non-stressed vowels is due to the non-rhotic UK accent which reinterpreted the phonemes. The adoption of the infinitive form means that the word probably came via a Romance-based creole or pidgin like Lingua Franca, which use the infinitive of source words to fill every grammatical purpose of the pidginised verb.

and give its meaning as

1. A cant used by the homosexual community in Britain, in the London fishmarkets, and in the theatre, attested since at least the 19th century and popularised in the 1950s and 1960s by the camp characters Julian and Sandy in the popular BBC radio show Round the Horne.

2. A cant used by the Romani people in the theatre, fairgrounds, and circuses of Britain.

However, there's no further explanation in the Wiktionary entry of where putative Polari balonie came from — other entries in Polari wordlists are variously associated with origins in languages such as Italian, Romani, Gaelic, and Yiddish. And the Polari citations in the discussion tend to be a bit, shall we say, diffuse: "Some old book a gay friend of mine has translates various phrases and lists "balonie" as meaning 'rubbish'" (but see the Hugh Rawson's About Words post, quoted below).

Other conjectures relate baloney "nonsense" to blarney, or suggest that it began as a joking way to start saying "bullshit" and then to switch to a more neutral word, like "fudge" for "fuck".

The OED's earliest citation for baloney "nonsense" is

1928   Sat. Evening Post 28 Nov. 21   Gee, that's a long shot. Boloney! That's not the ball—it's the divot.

Barry Popik explains that

Variety slang writer Jack Conway popularized the slang “nonsense” meaning for the word “balogna” or “baloney” in the early 1920s. Al Smith (1873-1994 [sic]), the New York governor who ran for president in 1928, frequently used the “baloney” slang term in 1928 and in the early 1930s.

and give a 1926 citation:

9 May 1926, Baltimore (MD) Sun, “No Matter How Thin You Slice It: Gab Of Collegiate Papas And Self-Starting Flappers Is Always Bolognie Anyhow And In Sort Of Code” by Katherine Scarborough, pg. MS1:

“NO matter how thin you slice it.” Which, as every flapper knows is merely, bologna (pronounced “bolognie") served in the grand manner.

The entry for "No matter how (thin) you slice (cut) it, it's still baloney",  in The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, gives the same Baltimore Sun citation, and adds a 1927 Billy Rose song, "No Matter How You Slice It It's Still Bologney", giving also a 1928 quotation from Al Smith ("… says he will pose for no boloney pictures").

A 2011 post by Hugh Rawson in the Cambridge Dictionaries About Words blog attributes early uses to Rube Goldberg:

Rube Goldberg, whose cartoons featured wonderfully complicated mechanical contraptions, often concluded his comic strips in the 1920s with a “snapper” or “zinger,” such as “That’s the baloney,” “It’s a lot of baloney,” or a simple “Baloney!”

A quick search didn't turn up any such strips — if a reader can point us to some, I'll be grateful.

Rawson also offers a possible Polari etymology:

The origin of the nonsensical or foolish senses of baloney is not known for sure.  Governor Smith’s comment about slicing shows he assumed that the metaphorical baloney came from the bologna sausage, in turn, from Bologna, Italy. The linguistic connection has not been proven, however.  Other suggestions are that the extended sense comes from the Chicago stockyards, where a tough old bull, was known as a bologna because nothing else could be made from it, or from peloné, a Romany word for testicles.

Anyhow, etymology aside, I believe that the "nonsense" meaning remains pretty firmly associated with the "baloney" pronunciation; and I'm betting that it was Ry Rivard (or some copy editor at Inside Higher Ed, if they have any) who put "bologna" in Prof. Bass's mouth.

Update — Ben Zimmer details the early history of boloney/baloney: "How 'Baloney' Got Phony", Word Routes 5/3/2013.


  1. richardelguru said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 6:36 am

    It's at times like these I wish I had my edition of Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang by Paul Baker (2004) to hand.

    BTW I remember listening to Round the Horne and Beyond our Ken when I was young… so many years ago [sigh].

  2. Brian T said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 8:07 am

    If "baloney" was in vogue to mean "nonsense" among flappers in the 1920s, there must have been some overlap and/or conflict with the flappers who used "banana oil" to mean the same thing:

    Lulu: "Why do you say 'baloney'? 'Banana oil' is the bee's knees!"
    Maisie: "Baloney! 'Banana oil' is ridic!"

  3. Scott said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 8:13 am

    I had to go double-check that Al Smith didn't actually live to be 121 years old

    [(myl) I added [sic] to indicate that 1944 ↠ 1994 was Mr. Popick's original typo.]

  4. Mr Punch said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 8:22 am

    As the early citations are American, the Polari derivation seems dubious. B/bologna refers to the Italian city and by extension to the local sausage (it's like, say, mocha, or bordeaux), whereas the derivative baloney loses the geographic reference and may be applied to the sausage (does the EU regulate this?) or by extension to nonsense. The latter derivation is not particularly mysterious (except in the "mystery meat" sense): the sausage in question is, even more than most sausages, an undifferentiated mixture of various ingredients some of which may be questionable or worse. It may be made of meat, but it's not real meat.

  5. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 9:09 am

    A character in one of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels is New York police Inspector Mologna, pronounced "Maloney"–he's Irish-American–but often mispronounced, to his irritation, like the Italian city, or as Mo-log-na (second syllable to rhyme with "bog").

  6. David L said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 9:11 am

    Adding to the confusion, there's also a spelling "polony" that's used in the UK.

    Also, I like the newspaper story that says "bologna (pronounced 'bolognie')" — now I just need to know how to pronounce 'bolognie.'

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 9:20 am

    The University of Bologna (traditionally claimed to be founded in 1088) is often said to be the oldest university in the western world (although that's one of those questions that probably can quickly devolve into definitional quibbling). I don't know how good/prominent the current linguistics faculty is there. The possible semantic associations that could lead to the name of a prominent university becoming a synonym for "nonsense" are left as an exercise for the reader . . .

    Come to think of it, there is or at least used to be a plaque on the wall at Northwestern's law school with a quotation circa 1930 from the then-dean noting that Bologna was famed down the centuries for both sausagemaking and legal education and it was his ambition for Chicago to have the same dual claims to prominence.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 9:29 am

    Setting aside the hypothesis at hand, are there other instances (i.e. where Polari origin is the uncontested conventional wisdom) of words originating in Polari that were current in AmEng as early as the 1920's?

  9. Theophylact said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 9:40 am

    From HMS Pinafore:

    I've treacle and toffee,
    I've tea and I've coffee,
    Soft tommy and succulent chops;
    I' ve chickens and conies, and pretty polonies,
    And excellent peppermint drops.

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 9:57 am

    The accounts payable manager of a DC law firm once advised me to use "baloney invoicing" for services. Invoices over a certain amount had to be approved by the managing partner, which sometimes took weeks. If you submitted several invoices, each for just below the critical amount, they could be paid automatically. I didn't find an instance of this use on Google though it seemed to be a common concept among accountants.

    This was just after that manager told me that the fax machine on the partner's yacht was out of order and that payment of my (non-baloney) invoice would therefore be further delayed.

  11. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    @J.W. Brewer — I believe that "phony" is from Irish fáinne (ring) via Polari. There's a festschrift on the subject behind the Wiley paywall. Maybe someone with an institutional account can reconnoiter and report back.

    [(myl) The paper is Paul Cohen, "The genuine etymological story of phon(e)y", Transactions of the Philological Society 2011. Note that membership in the Philological Society, which includes a subscription to the transactions and (I believe) access to back issues, costs a mere £10 a year.]

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:44 am

    Using an entirely different metaphor from that Dan Lufkin heard, the practice of avoiding federal reporting requirements associated with cash transactions of $10,000 or more by e.g. making multiple cash withdrawals or deposits (often via multiple associates) of $9,990 etc. is commonly known as "smurfing." Alas, it turns out that structuring ones financial affairs this way to avoid the reporting requirements is itself a federal crime and people can and do get prosecuted even when it is pretty clear that they just had an eccentric dislike for paperwork or eccentric love of privacy and were not actually engaging in money-laundering or conducting an unlawful all-cash business such as cocaine trafficking.

  13. Quicksand said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    baloney isn't an Italian city

    Oh, sure. And now you're going to tell me that denial isn't a river in Egypt.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    Hilariously enough, the wikipedia article on Smurfing (crime) (a/k/a/ Structuring) has a cross-reference to the article on "Salami slicing," which is perhaps some degree of metaphorical kin to Gov. Smith's baloney-slicing as well as Dan L.'s baloney accounting. (The particular sense of salami slicing discussed is "a series of many small actions, often performed by clandestine means, that as an accumulated whole produces a much larger action or result that would be difficult or unlawful to perform all at once".)

  15. Adrian said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    I've often assumed that baloney/polony was connected somehow with Poland, i.e. Polish sausage. Although I dare say that's baloney, it does surprise me a little that the ending of Bologna became an ee sound.

  16. SlideSF said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    Could not the "buncombe" meaning of boloney come from a mid-course correction from those not wanting to use the word "bullshit" in polite company? Much as someone telling someone to "Go to Hel…sinki!!", I have a friend who is wont to say. "That's a bunch of bull…oney!" I can certainly imagine an etymology like that, correctly or not.

  17. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    I was going to suggest Bologna as a possible expletive for European academics due to the Bologna Process, but I see Prof. Bass left Europe in 1997.

    Around here there is a kind of large sausage called Polnische, ie. polish (as in: from Poland) and I always presumed that was where baloney came from.

  18. Brett said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    "Salami slicing" is also used in discussions academic publishing. It refers to the practice of breaking down the results of research into LOPs ("least publishable units"), so as to maximize the number of one's separate publications.

  19. Vance Koven said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    A few random thoughts:

    1. In Bologna, the local sausage is called Mortadella (I always wondered whose death was involved);

    2. I have always taken Buttercup's mention of "polonie" to relate to Polish sausage (i.e., kiełbasa), but the Italian can't be ruled out;

    3. If the couplet "phony baloney" goes back as far as plain "baloney," then the reference to the sausage becomes more plausible, per Mr. Punch.

  20. Theodore said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    Google ngrams shows the first instance of "baloney" in 1912 and "boloney" in 1915.

    This one from 1918 is definitely in the sense of "nonsense".

    [(myl) Sorry, you've been misled by Google Books often-unreliable metadata. Volume 28 of Case and Comment: The Lawyers' Magazine was published in 1922; Volume 86 was published in 1981; interpolating, we guess that Volume 53, where this quotation appeared, dates from about 1946.]

    This catalog of copyright entries from 1919 includes a song "When Tony Baloney Flies Up So High".

    [(myl) That's "Boloney" — and the world's only extant copy seems to be in the British Library, so perhaps one of our U.K.-based readers would like to track this lead down.]

    Earlier ones include a parish in Ireland.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    The earliest hit google books has for "phony baloney" (although I didn't try all possible spelling variants . . .) that isn't an obvious metadata glitch is from 1939.

  22. Lazar said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    A bit off-topic, but is there a term for when a transparently foreign word is used with a more specific meaning than it has in its source language, like "kiełbasa", "tempo" or "salsa"?

  23. Q. Pheevr said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

    J.W. Brewer said:

    The possible semantic associations that could lead to the name of a prominent university becoming a synonym for "nonsense" are left as an exercise for the reader . . .

    I would look to the commedia dell'arte, and the stock character Il Dottore—a scholar from Bologna whose defining feature is his ability to spout pretentious malarkey.

  24. You say baloney. I say bologna. said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

    […] discussion by Mark Liberman at Language Log. Filed Under: […]

  25. Rubrick said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

    Re: the post's title, "The tangled web of bologna" — I believe this is generally referred to as simply "the Web".

  26. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

    There's a nice discussion in Wing Sing Lung & Co. v. United States, 180 F. 392 (1st Cir. 1910), of whether the imported-from-China sausages before that court were tariff-free as "Bologna" sausages. The court found that their geographical origin wasn't determinative (after all, a variety of German sausages had been treated as "Bologna" for the purpose), but that the challenged sausages were crude and unsavory looking, not equal to Bologna in quality.

  27. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

    Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang has examples of the "nonsense" meaning of baloney back to 1922. You can see it used in the June 30, 1922 issue of Variety here (PDF).


    (ETA: More history here.)

  28. CuConnacht said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    Assuming Rawson is right that peloné is "testicles" in Romany, then a Polari extension to the meaning "nonsense, bosh" would be an exact semantic parallel of (and perhaps a calque on) British "bollocks".

    On the other hand, the change of the last syllable from a schwa to the ee sound sounds like pre-WWII rural America I can't be more precise myself); cf. Californee, pianee, and the hypercorrected pronunciation Missourah.

    I like the minced "bullshit" explanation myself, if "bullshit" = "nonsense" existed early enough.

  29. Noogie said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    I'm no expert on Italian, but is it the case that the plural of bologna (sausage) is bologne ? If so, it's easier to make the leap to baloney from there. I can imagine an Italian-American shop with a sign for bologne, and a non-Italian speaker reading it as baloney (or boloney, and then with time it shifting to baloney)

  30. maidhc said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

    Round the Horne and Beyond our Ken are frequently rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and are available online for a week afterward.

    Right now they have this episode up:

  31. Viseguy said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

    Re "salami slicing": cf. "salami tactics", a phrase that always reminds me of the priceless scene from Yes, Prime Minister in which the P.M.'s scientific advisor quizzes him about the nuclear deterrent (

  32. Alex Blaze said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:25 am

    I haven't heard about polari in years. I'd love for that to be the origin, however far-fetched it might be. And of course sausage seems like something to base slang words on in a gay language.

    I remember my first grade teacher used to say "baloney sausage" when she thought someone was lying. It took me years to understand what she was really saying.

  33. CuConnacht said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 8:29 am

    Noogle, I'm no expert on Italian either, but I doubt that bologna exists as a count-noun for a sausage of the right type, so that you could have una bologna, due bologne. I suspect it would be something due salume bolognese, or due salsicce di Bologna.

  34. James Wimberley said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    Re salami tactics: Balleine's History of Jersey (not to hand) cites a contemporary chronicler likening the stealthy predation of the twelfth-century Geoffroi d'Anjou on the Duchy of Normandy to a man eating an artichoke.
    Does Sun Tzu have a foodie metaphor for the presumably ancient tactic?

  35. Rich Rostrom said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 2:12 am

    There are attestations for "phonus-bolonus" before 1939: a 1936 letter of Eugene O'Neill; Damon Runyon's opinion of the1928 Tunney-Heeney fight.

    I'd guess that it was a "formalized" version of "phony-baloney", which would have to be least as old.

  36. boynamedsue said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    I don't know why there is even any debate about this, surely it's from the attested South Italian "ballone" meaning "big lies".

  37. boynamedsue said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    @Noogie: Boloney is sometimes called "Bologna" rather than the more common "mortadella", but it's an uncountable noun, you can't have "due bologne"

  38. Off topic: Breakup coaches, baloney, QWERTY, shark deaths, suicide rates, from Russia with love | SiliconBeat said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    […] GMSV 9507 Off Topic 306 Behold the breakup coach. Baloney, bologna — it's a linguistic mess. More about the origin of the QWERTY keyboard. Sharks and humans killing one another, an […]

  39. mollymooly said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 10:16 am


    Earlier ones include a parish in Ireland.

    That's an OCR error for Bodoney. There is also a townland called Balloony.

RSS feed for comments on this post