In Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden used several terms that made it clear he belonged to an older generation than Paul Ryan: “a bunch of stuff” and “I’ve got a bridge to sell you” are both dismissive locutions you can imagine coming out of your grandparents’ mouths. But the word that attracted the most attention was “malarkey.” It’s a more genteel way of saying “b.s.” It’s also a slang word that’s only used by Americans of Biden’s vintage, who grew up in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Malarkey didn’t even appear in print until 1922, when it was used by illustrator T.A. Dorgan of the San Francisco Call and Post, in a cartoon depicting two men in a phone booth trying to get a number from an operator. Dorgan may have invented the word, because philologists have been unable to trace its origin.
According to the website “World Wide Words”:
it only began to appear widely at the end of the decade. By 1930, Variety could pun on it: “The song is ended but the Malarkey lingers on.”
Various theories have been advanced. Eric Partridge pointed to the modern Greek word malakia but he formed a group of one. His later editor, Paul Beale, noted the London expression Madame Misharty, the personification of sales talk, exaggerated claims, and wild predictions, a name that was supposedly that of a fortune teller. But this is stretching a possible linguistic link to breaking point and, in any case, we know it started life in North America. Others point to the family name Malarkey, though who the eponymous member of the tribe might have been whose Irish-derived gift of the gab could have given rise to the name remains unknown. Jonathon Green likewise suggests a Irish origin in mullachan, a strongly-built boy or ruffian, though this, too, seems a stretch of meaning.
We’ll just have to settle for the unsatisfactory “origin unknown”.
Given all the attention “malarkey” has attracted since Biden uttered it, it’s safe to say the word had died out, like “nuts” or “bunkum” or “23-skidoo.” Biden, though, has singlehandedly rescued the word from the lexicographical scrap heap. You can already buy t-shirts with Mitt Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s faces, and the word MALARKEY underneath.