If Joe Biden had a catchphrase, “a bunch of malarkey” might well be it.
The phrase made a cameo in the vice president’s speech on Wednesday, when Biden attacked Donald Trump for populist posturing. “He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break,” Biden said. “That’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Biden, as it happens, is a big fan of calling out malarkey bunches where he sees them.
In a vice-presidential debate against Paul Ryan in October 2012, Ryan offered “a bunch of malarkey” about Libya, according to Biden’s view. And amid a salvo of vice-presidential finger-guns and air kisses, “a bunch of malarkey” appeared yet again in January 2015, in a Philadelphia speech. (Unlike the blown kisses, Biden’s accusation of malarkey was aimed at the Republican Party.)
As The Washington Post reported previously, the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation believes that Biden has publicly used the word malarkey with a frequency unrivaled by any other member of Congress, going back some 200 years’ worth of data.
It is clear Biden won’t stop trying to comment on malarkey. What is much less obvious is where malarkey happened first.
Biden once explained that malarkey is synonymous with stuff — though, more accurately, that stuff is nonsense.
Popularly, malarkey has Irish roots. As Biden himself put it during the 2012 debate: “We Irish call it malarkey.”
The truth is a little murkier. Malarkey first appeared in the 1920s, according to the Oxford Dictionary, which dismissed its origin as unknown. Malarkey may be related to Mullarkey or other Irish surnames, but it is generally accepted that malarkey-as-nonsense is a North American invention. The folk etymologist Peter Tamony traced malarkey to San Francisco and a then-popular political cartoonist with a penchant for slang. Tamony also made a connection — dubiously so, according to critics — between malarkey and the Greek malakia, meaning softness.
As the Economist pointed out in 2012, the Irish theory might well be malarkey, too. The early instances include Wisconsin and Indiana as well as California, not the East Coast Irish immigrant bastions one might expect. If it had Gaelic roots, it is curiously absent from Irish English.
We can say one thing for certain: Where other languages are adept at expressing the nuances of snow, the English language overflows with variations on nonsense. There’s poppycock — American origin — codswallop (British, as it were). And, as Lehigh University English professor Amardeep Singh dissects, an unholy host that includes balderdash, bunk, claptrap, gobbledygook, hokum, hogwash and mumbo jumbo. The list goes on. Perhaps one of the newest arrivals is “woo” or “woo-woo,” most frequently wielded by skeptics at pseudoscience.
Of course, most of these words, in today’s usage, are polite substitutes for “bulls–––” or “BS” or “bull.” Most people probably assume that the origin of BS is the seemingly obvious one. But as Jim Holt wrote in the New Yorker in a 2005 article:
The word “bull,” used to characterize discourse, is of uncertain origin. One venerable conjecture was that it began as a contemptuous reference to papal edicts known as bulls (from the bulla, or seal, appended to the document). Another linked it to the famously nonsensical Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer in London during the reign of Henry VII. It was only in the twentieth century that the use of “bull” to mean pretentious, deceitful, jejune language became semantically attached to the male of the bovine species — or, more particularly, to the excrement therefrom. Today, it is generally, albeit erroneously, thought to have arisen as a euphemistic shortening of … [bull––––] a term that came into currency, dictionaries tell us, around 1915.
And the nonsense of shenanigans? American as they come. As literary critic Leo Spitzer once noted, “shenanigan” had a prominent political fan in its day — Franklin D. Roosevelt. “I could not but admire the master orator who, by one well-chosen slang term,” Spitzer wrote, “… was able to establish contact with the people.”
We will have to wait and see if history treats Biden’s use of malarkey so kindly.