Saturday, October 13, 2012

One small, underreported (nonpolitical) and heartening consequence of the vice-presidential debates

I don't tend to check the stats on this blog too often. I find it kind of cramps my style to think about that stuff too much. But every once in awhile I'll end up on the design page and take a look, and yesterday was one of those days. I was a bit surprised to see a huge spike in hits, but it didn't take long to figure out why. No, people were not mad to learn what I would have to say about obstetric fistulas, which was my last post here. What they wanted to know about was malarkey.

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of information was to be had, so I'm sure they skipped on through. The heartening part, though, is that there were a fair number of knowledge seekers out there on debate night who were curious enough to try and find out a little bit more about what that word Joe Biden used meant.

Since I didn't hold up my end very well, I thought I'd repost this bit from Anatoly Liberman, which ended up in the comments field rather than the main post. He's always worth reading, and as he'd say, I think, some people's guesses are more intelligent than others...

Malarkey “nonsense.” Several conjectures about it are on record, some of which are not worthy of mention. Eric Partridge derived malarkey from Modern Greek malakia, defined as “masturbation” and “tricky.” In my opinion, his guess holds out no promise. Other people traced the word to an Irish family name. Irish names have fared badly in English etymology: hooligan, hoodlum, and larrikin (Australian slang for hoodlum) have been given Irish lineage, but no one will be convinced until it can be shown who the first infamous Hooligan, Hoodlum, and “little Larry” were. Peter Tamony, an unrivaled expert in the history of Californian slang and San Francisco street life, traced malarkey to a certain Mullarkey (of San Francisco), the son of Joe Mallorca, a Portuguese. “This son assumed the name Jerry Mullarkey under the delusion he was of Irish descent.” He left his mark as oyster shucker (opener) and great boaster. Malarkey became the pseudonym of Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (TAD), a celebrated cartoonist and sports writer, and indeed a man of Irish descent. According to Tamony, this is how the word malarkey “talk, bunkum, and baloney” came into being (Western Folklore 33, 1974, 158-162).


  1. Malarkey. Poppycock, Twaddle. It's not an exact synonym, but I like the Yiddish schtuss.

  2. I was actually kind of interested in when Biden used the word "stuff" to euphemize a more colorful word. In a rare moment of concordance, Ryan said, "it's an Irish thing".

    Maybe, but it's new to me.

  3. As in "stuff and nonsense," which sounds to me stuffily English, rather than Irish?

  4. It does appear to be English, Peter. At least according to this post.

  5. "He [Mr. Pitt] had at once to declare, that all notions of concerting and of dictating to the King in the exercise of his prerogative, was mere stuff and nonsense."

    The use of the singular 'was' in that sentence indicates that 'stuff and nonsense' was expressed as a phrase rather than as two separate words.
    The subject is "all notions." The correct verb, therefore, is "were," not "was."

    "Stuff and nonsense" is, in fact, singular, but the evidence the article cites is irrelevant. The subject of the sentence is plural: "all notions." "Was" is, therefore, wrong. The correct verb form is "were." The singularity or plurality of "stuff and nonsense" is irrelevant.

  6. Unless, that is, grammatical conventions were very different in 1827.

  7. Thanks, Peter. I see what you mean. And yes, it did slip right by me. And apparently whoever wrote that phrasefinder article as well.

  8. In retrospect, that brief period, maybe after the Second World War, or maybe for most of the twentieth century when "correct" grammar and punctuation were considered important in published English is beginning to look like a temporary aberration.