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All that stuff and nonsense? It's just malarkey

Apr 19, 2015

There are plenty of English words that mean "nonsense."

One of them is "malarkey."  It's certainly fun to say, and it got a lot of attention when Vice President Joe Biden, in his debate with Sen. Paul Ryan: "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey."

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, who specializes in linguistics, says while "malarkey" sounds like it's Irish in origin, there's no clear answer about where it comes from.

"When it first shows up in U.S. English, it shows up in Irish-American usage. It shows up in the 1920s, and it shows up in cartoons by Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who is of Irish decent. It also showed up in sports writing," Curzan says. 

"There some question about whether it comes from an Irish family name, but we just don't know. We do have a word for "nonsense" which we know is English, which is "blarney," which comes from the Blarney Stone.

Curzan says another great word is "humbug," which shows up in the mid 18th century. 

"It first comes in meaning a hoax or a trick. It seems to have been some kind of humor, and it was disparaged at the time. We have a citation in 1751, where someone says 'humbug' is very much in vogue, but this word is not English, it doesn't seem to be derived from any other language, and it's really dishonorable," Curzan says. 

"By 1825, it had come to mean the interjection 'humbug,' but is still described as a coarse word, which was surprising to me because it seems quite fun and harmless."

Another great word for "nonsense" is "balderdash." 

"It shows up at the end of the 16th century in English, and what it first means is a frothy liquid, or a mixture of liquids. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests one possibility is milk and beer – which sounded disgusting to me," Curzan says. "By 1674, it shows up meaning "nonsense," and I think that's the meaning we know today.

Other words for "nonsense" include "flapdoodle" and "bosh." 

And then there's "poppycock," which actually has taboo origins, Curzan says. It comes from the Dutch "poppekak," which as the OED delicately puts it, is "doll's excrement."

So now you know.