Scalia's argle-bargle

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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:

It shows up as early as 1808 in Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Tongue, and a variant appears in a Scottish poem from 1720 (which also uses the word "daffin" meaning "folly"):

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.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 9:50 am

    "Scottish Characteristics: A Prelection." By A Scoto-Celt (Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, 1869):

    Then, how disposed the Scotch are to be pedantic, and dogmatic, and oracular, and to dispute every statement, the most trifling and offensive! The tendency to what in Scotland is named argle-bargling makes the very best Scotchmen tiresome companions. […]

    Now, as story-tellers, as lecturing-machines, as crotchet-mongers, the English may display a genius as consummate for boring as the Scotch; but the Scotch go infinitely beyond the English as captious disputants, or argle-barglers. I have often fled in terror from my argle-bargling countryman. The odd part of the affair is, that it is principally the young among the Scotch who, as argle-barglers, are the most pertinacious, obstinate, and wearisome. […] Years and experience may soften or efface many of his obnoxious peculiarities; but an argle-bargler he has been born and an argle-bargler he dies.

  2. H.S. Gudnason said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 9:59 am

    My first encounter with the word was in the Season 4 Simpsons episode "Last Exit to Springfield," in which Kent Brockmann hosts a TV discussion among Homer, Mr. Burns, and Dr. Joyce Brothers to determine if the strike at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant is a hargle-bargle or a foofarard.

  3. Edward Vanderpump said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    Argy-bargy, in England at least, is often associated with physical violence, if on a minor scale, as in "There was a bit of argy-bargy and damage in the pub last night." Perhaps the idea comes from "barging" each other, a mild but robust confrontation that goes no further.

  4. Lazar said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    On Boston Legal, the judges played by Shelley Berman and Henry Gibson would often dismiss things as "jibber jabber" or "fiddle faddle".

  5. JM said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 10:52 am

    Argle-bargle, schmargle-bargle.

  6. DC said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    It feels to me like Justice Scalia misused argle-bargle. The context seems to indicate that he was searching for a substitute for mumbo-jumbo (i.e., nonsense). Instead he settled on a phrase meaning contentiousness. "Legalistic nonsense" fits, while "legalistic contentiousness" doesn't seem to fit the context at all, at least to my ear.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    Edward Vanderpump: Does that mean "argy-bargy" is pronounced with the "g" of "barge", not the "g" of "argue"?

    Some of us will never forget that Bored of the Rings contains the line "Argle bargle morble woosh." Some of us did forget the context, though. It's apparently what Frito asks after eating Tim Benzedrine's mushrooms and little round candies.

  8. richard said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    @Jerry Friedman, I am glad to know that I was not the only person who thought of Frito, Moxie, Pepsi, and Spam enjoying Tim Benzedrino's hospitality. The removes some of the embarrassment, at any rate….

  9. Y said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    I recall a character in Kingsley Amis's Ending Up who affected rhyming reduplication ad nauseam, but I don't have the book with me. I think she was just being cutesy, not Scottish.

  10. Simon Wright said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

    Jerry, I (southern English) pronounce "argy-bargy" with the "g" of "barge".

    Add "niminy piminy" to the list!

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    I, too, pronounce "argy-bargy" with the "g" of "barge". (Scotland)

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    I saw one specific example of this yesterday which I have already forgotten the details of, but "argle-bargle" is sufficiently obscure (and thus not contained in the dictionaries of many spellcheck-type programs) that it was rumored to have resulted in a wide range of amusing autocorrect/cupertinoism substitutes on the part of various people trying to add their own argy-bargy to the online discourse about the decision. (I'm not a big Squeeze fan, but I did wonder if that album title was somehow related before reading through the post.)

  13. MikeJ said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

    Squeeze had an excellent album "Argybargy". It's the one on which Pulling Mussels From the Shell first appeared.

    [(bgz) Yes, as mentioned in the post.]

  14. Kathy K. said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    Your mention of "ablaut reduplication" reminded me of an expression: riff-raff.

  15. Keith Ivey said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

    I can't find examples now because Scalia's use is drowning out other mentions in Google, but I seem to remember "argle-bargle" being used onomatopoeically as something that might be said by someone incoherent with rage.

    I did find this from a video game review: "The big guy lobbing fireballs is the villain of the piece. Sample dialogue: ARGLE BARGLE GRRRR DIE."

  16. Marcia said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    I hope argle-bargle becomes legal jargon. "Too darn bad", seems to be doing quite well in that direction.

  17. Ø said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

    I don't know what "argle-bargle" means, but I have always (no doubt wrongly) associated it with algebra.

  18. Eric Johnson said,

    June 27, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

    Cock Sparrer says it with the "g" of "barge" as well.

  19. John Walden said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 2:34 am

    Two with classical connections are "hocus-pocus" and willy-nilly". I'm not sure if the derivation from "hoc est corpus meum" is generally accepted or if "volens nolens/nolens volens" brought about "willy-nilly" or vice versa (which is almost a third). There is also some debate online about the merits of "will he-nill he/nill he-will he".

    Argy-bargy is quite familiar to me. Too much time in the rubadub. Rhyming slang is reduplication on a grand scale.

  20. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 6:12 am

    The BBC's In the Night Garden surely wins the prize for the most argle-bargular characters in a half-hour show, featuring as it does Iggle Piggle, Makka Pakka, the Ninky Nonk and the Pinky Ponk.

  21. tk said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 6:33 am

    Yes, Jerry and Richard, when I heard Scalia, my first thought was BoTR (PBUT), but my mind, perhaps stricken by Tim's 'hrooms, had onomato-morphed the third word into 'morgle' (hard g, like mogul).

  22. richardelguru said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 7:31 am

    I seem to remember hearing 'argy-bargy' quite a bit during the Falklands war.

  23. zythophile said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 8:24 am

    Indeed. "Is a mate/Who hauls freight/On the River Plate/ An Argie bargee?"

    Not to be confused with what you get on the menu in Buenos Aires curry houses: Argie bhajees.

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 8:33 am

    Random notes on all this tohubohu:

    Another mention in Bored of the Rings:

    “In the same year, the 1,623rd year of the Third Age, the Naugahyde brothers, Brasso and Drano, led a large following of boggies across the Gallowine River disguised as a band of itinerant graverobbers and took control from the high King at Ribroast. *”

    “*Either Arglebargle IV or someone else.”

    …extended by Rich Drushel in a parody of Tolkien's Appendix A:

    These are the names of the Ranger Chieftains in Northern Exile at Ribroast: Æroplane, Ærodróme, Ærodyne, Æroflot, Arglebargle I, Arrowroot I, Arrowfrog, Arglebargle II, Arrowshirt I, Arrolflynn, Ardi-ar-ar, Arminávi, Arlidávison, Arrowhed, Arrowshirt II, Arrowroot II, True King of Twodor and Heir of Barbisol, restored.

    This is mentioned in this blog post (responding to John McIntyre's column on argle bargle of last year, which cites Carlyle's use), notable for the fact that a bunch of British commenters vociferously assert that no such phrase exists.

  25. AJD said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    Keith Ivey:

    I think "yargle bargle" is frequently used for that by cartoonist Tom Tomorrow. See these strips:

  26. dw said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 9:11 am

    Having grown up in Britain, I'm very familiar with "Argie bargie" — so much so that I initially assumed that Scalia's "argle bargle" was some kind of error resulting from confusion between upper-case i and lower-case L.

    (Like the other commentators, I have /dʒ/ in both words of "argie bargie").

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    Thanks to Rod Johnson for the other "Arglebargle" in BotR, and thanks to various people for the answers on pronunciation. So how did "argue" with a /g/ turn into "argy-bargy" with a /dʒ/? Spelling pronunciation?

  28. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    Near as I can tell, there are only three other uses of "argle-bargle" (or any variant) in reported U.S. judicial opinions. In all of those cases, it's used to mean "dispute" or "contentiousness", as in: "The basis for this argle-bargle was laid with the filing of a decree of divorce . . . ." As DC suggests, Scalia's intended meaning seems different.

  29. Marja Erwin said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

    What of "argle bargle Ford and fun" from one of the sex rituals in Brave New World?

  30. Marja Erwin said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    My bad, that was "orgy-orgy Ford and fun," which makes more sense…

  31. Marja Erwin said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    "orgy-porgy" – keyboard doesn't always respond.

  32. DaveK said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    I think you're right about "mumbo-jumbo" being the word Scalia was looking for. Actually, I expect he considered and rejected it, out of concern it would be considered a racist term.
    I'm surprised that a classicist like Scalia didn't reach for the Shakespearean "skimble-skamble" which his always fun to say.

  33. peter said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    "Reduplication"? What's wrong with duplication?

  34. Nathan Myers said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 1:59 am

    I read it with a hard g, myself, but I can't recall that I ever had occasion to say it. Still watching for the opportunity, though.

  35. Rod Johnson said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    peter: nothing's "wrong" with duplication, but reduplication is a technical term in linguistics, as well as a word of the English language since the sixteenth century or so.

  36. peter said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    Rod – My question is why "re-duplication" is used for this practice rather than plain old "duplication"? As far as I can tell (and, no, I'm not a professional linguist, just someone who can count), the original sound or phrase is repeated once, not twice, nor four times. So why is the prefix "re-" necessary?

  37. Rod Johnson said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

    Re- doesn't seem to always mean "do again" or "do in reverse." For instance, there's redouble, which doesn't mean "to double the already doubled." And remark which means, more or less, "mark." These words look like they're composed of a prefix and a stem, but their semantics are somewhat opaque.

  38. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    The well-known philosophical paper 'Holes', by David and Stephanie Lewis, takes the form of a dialogue between two speakers called 'Argle' and 'Bargle'.

  39. Eorrfu said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 5:16 am

    From the earlier part of the linked article I don't find vig (or the less common juice) to particularly crime-speaky. I guess because I grew up in a time of legal (or legalish internet) sports betting the word vig seems really common and has no underground connotations. I have also been no to use it metaphorically for certain price premiums or transaction fees.

  40. blahedo said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

    Prior to the recent foofaraw[0] over "argle-bargle", the only association I had for the phrase was as part of the longer "argle-bargle glop-glyf", which was a response in one of the old Infocom games (can't remember which one) when the parser couldn't understand what you were trying to say; from context I inferred the apparently correct meaning, "meaningless nonsense", and given the source I assumed it to be more old-school MIT jargon along the lines of "foo, bar, quux", "frobozz", and so on. Interesting to see that it derives from a much older source….

    [0] Speaking of words that are fun to say!

  41. Bellhalla said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    As an American, I'm familiar with "argie-bargie" from a professional cycling context through British cycling commentator Phil Liggett. He's usually used it when there's some sort of minor physical altercation during a race, such as a shove or a head butt.

  42. Liza X said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    It occurs to me that in Greek there's an expression "άρτζι μπούρτζι (και λουλάς)" pronounced "artzi bourtzi (keh loulas)" (sorry, can't type IPA) which means "utter confusion" and sounds remarkably similar to "argy-bargy", especially given that 'j' becomes 'dz' in Greek. Only the parenthesis has a literal meaning ("and a hookah") the first part just being funny sounding. The most excellent site attempts some creative explanations about hackbuts or Ali Pasha near Bourtzi island smoking a hookah, but I prefer to think there's a Scottish connection.

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