Foolish talk leads to a bunch of ‘malarkey’

No one, or at least no member of Congress, says malarkey more than Joe Biden does. Its connotation is avuncular and proudly old-fashioned.

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Early in December, former Vice President Joe Biden embarked on a “No Malarkey!” campaign tour across Iowa. The word’s definition – “insincere or foolish talk” – was emblazoned across the side of his tour bus, in case people were unfamiliar with this piece of 1920s slang.

No one, or at least no member of Congress, says malarkey more than Mr. Biden does. Its connotation is avuncular and proudly old-fashioned, implying that the “youngsters” who spout it are inexperienced or foolish, not malicious. Saying “That’s a bunch of malarkey!” is a kinder, funnier way to accuse someone of stretching the truth or lying.

The word malarkey was first used in the United States but may derive from the Irish surname Mullarkey. This origin clearly appeals to Mr. Biden, who often brings up his Irish heritage. If he goes barnstorming again, though, there are lots of equally wonderful words for “nonsense” that would look great on a bus.

Many of these words, just like malarkey, contain a “k” sound, which, by some measures, is the funniest sound in the English language. In his 1972 play, “The Sunshine Boys,” Neil Simon has a comedian explain this old vaudeville principle that words with “k” in them are funny. “Cup cake is funny ... Tomato is not funny,” he declares. Pickle, chicken, Cleveland, and cockroach all make the list, too. 

Words such as bunkum, its shortened form bunk, hokum, and poppycock take advantage of the humor inherent in the “k” sound. What better way to suggest that something is silly or nonsensical than by referring to it with a word that itself makes people chuckle. Bunkum is the oldest and has an etymology that sounds like an urban legend, but happens to be true. When the U.S. House of Representatives was debating the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which divided the country into slaveholding and “free” states, a representative from North Carolina began a long speech, in which he said very little. When he was asked to stop wasting everyone’s time, he replied that he could not, as he had to “make a speech for Buncombe,” to show his constituents back home that he was doing his job. Buncombe quickly became bunkum and then bunk, all of which mean, again, “insincere or foolish talk.”

In the early 20th century, bunkum combined with hocus-pocus to produce hokum. At first this was theater slang for “melodramatic, exaggerated acting,” but today it too denotes “nonsense.” Poppycock can refer either to a brand of popcorn or to “empty talk or writing.”

Next week, we’ll talk about more words that make a folksy and amusing, yet potentially still strong, anti-nonsense statement. I would probably make a trip to Iowa to see the “No Jiggery-pokery!” tour roll through.

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