Malarkey and Its Etymology

By Sayers, William | Western Folklore, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Malarkey and Its Etymology


Sayers, William, Western Folklore


In the late 1960s and early 70s, Peter Tamony's musings on "Western Words" were a regular feature of these pages. In 1974, he turned his attention to "Malarkey: TAD, and Its San Francisco Roots," after quoting the definition of malarkey in the "Third New International Dictionary" (New International Dictionary of the English Language) : "insincere or pretentious talk or writing designed to impress the hearer or reader and usually to distract attention from ulterior motives or actual conditions: bunkum, nonsense."1 The word is generally recognized as exclusive to North American English. Whimsical, discursive, reveling in words as both subject and medium, Tamony's expose in this instance bears no little resemblance to his topic, aptly prefaced by the verbose dictionary entry.

After a brief survey of other lexicographical works, Tamony agrees that the precise origin of malarkey is unknown, but cites the conjecture of one dictionary that it might derive from an Irish surname.2 He goes on to note that the great etymologist and specialist in popular speech Eric Partridge (1961:161) speculated that malarkey might well be traceable to the Greek malakia, or "softness." Just how the semantic development might be thought to have worked-soft in the sense of weak in truth? In the sense of beguiling?-is not explained. To the best of my knowledge, no etymologist or word buff has addressed malarkey since that time.

Tamony cites the use of the work in a cartoon from 1922 by Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (signed TAD) in the San Francisco Call & Post (9 March 1922:23). Here "Milarkey" seems to equate with phoney and the scene is of two men in a telephone booth trying to get a number from the operator. Tamony then entertains us with San Francisco stories of a corpse-clutched morgue keeper named Mullarkey and a socially visible oyster shucker from the 1870s who took this name in preference to Mallorca (his Portuguese father's name) under the mistaken impression that he was Irish. Malarkeys were then in the Bay air. The chronicler of western words then states, "From this background of familiar usage it is likely that TAD drew his personification of that which is talk, bunkum, and baloney" (162). Tamony notes the Irish origins of the semantically comparable word blarney. Were his derivation exact, malarkey would join words such as lynch and boycott as surnames of Ireland (if not Irish) that specific historical events propelled into popular language.

The investigation of lexical innovation in popular speech, particularly with a historical perspective, is always a difficult matter, since written attestations must wait for realism to become a literary objective or for ethnographers to take to the field. Tamony's valuable contribution is to push the first attestation of malarkey and its variant spellings back a few years from that noted in The Oxford English Dictionary, which quotes from J.P. McEvoy's Hollywood Girl (1929), "'It's a wonder you notice me,' I told him. 'That's a lot of malaky,' says he" (vii). Examples from other writers follow in fairly rapid succession: Variety, 1930; Frank Scully in Esquire, 1934; Down Beat, 1938.3 Then, in 1945, John Steinbeck writes in Cannery Row, "He knew God damn well the story was so much malarky" (13). From this we may isolate connections with the West Coast (San Francisco, Hollywood, Monterey) and the entertainment industry, plus the Irish surnames Dorgan, McEvoy, Scully, and of course, Malarkey.

I propose a different origin for the word malarkey but suggest that the phonology of the parent term aligned itself with the Irish surname Malarkey in an example of the process rather loosely called folk etymology-hearing in an unfamiliar or new word an echo of a word one already knows, e.g., Jerusalem artichoke with the first element metamorphosing French girasol "sunflower" and the last referencing a known and comparable taste. …

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