Malarkey, or the New Loose Talk

Ah, the wearin’ of the green. I lay claim to one-quarter Irish blood, which yields the in-group privilege of getting my Irish up when I want to and also provokes delight in Joe Biden’s recent use of the term “malarkey.” Biden has greater rights to Irishisms, being half-Irish; Ryan, who grew up “lace-curtain Irish” according to Irish Central, may have an even greater claim.

But moments after Biden used “malarkey” to describe Paul Ryan’s criticisms of the administration’s handling of the embassy attack in Benghazi, etymologists were weighing in about the origin of the word. Both The Economist and Ben Zimmer at Visual Thesaurus pointed out that malarkey is not so much of Irish as of Irish-American origin, its first cite from 1922. The OED gives the word’s origin as “unknown,” and conjectures have ranged from the Greek word malakia (denoting a particular sort of effeminate cowardice) to the surname Mullarkey, apparently common among Hibernian immigrants to the States.

So all right, maybe it’s not Irish after all, any more than all those young lads pounding Guinness on St. Paddy’s Day can trace their ancestry to County Cork. Doesn’t change the satisfaction felt by those of us who have been groping for just such a riposte—those, I mean, who have dwelt in the desert described by my colleague Ben Yagoda when he pointed out the candidates’ and press’s aversion to the word “lie.” We have waded through misstatements, false claims, and fiery pants. And finally we have arrived at malarkey, which has the extra advantage of being fun to say.

Moreover, the problem with the accusation of lying, as Ben pointed out, is that we must have intent to deceive—which means, in turn, that the liar needs to have some regard for the truth that he or she is not telling. A lie may be evil, but it is not necessarily irresponsible. The OED defines malarkey, on the other hand, as “meaningless talk; nonsense.” Talk that is without meaning can’t be a lie, nor can talk that doesn’t make sense. Rather than replacing truth with untruth,  malarkey involves a disregard for the truth, or even for the value of words. The question of whether any particular statement—like the ones Ryan was making about the attack in Benghazi—is true or false doesn’t cross the mind of the malarkey speaker.

In this sense, “malarkey” pairs nicely with Biden’s other phrase describing Ryan’s claims: “loose talk.” Biden used this phrase even more than “malarkey” during the debate, and its context was a bit more specific. Generally, Biden accused Ryan of loose talk when he was arguing about Iran, sanctions, and the possibility of its acquiring a nuclear weapon. He first used the term when Ryan had prefaced a series of accusations with the offhand comment, “I don’t want to go into classified stuff, but. … ” “Loose talk” conjures the World War II slogan advising citizens to avoid careless talk that could help the enemy. The connotation is of a sort of devastating thoughtlessness.

Both “loose talk” and “malarkey” echo the tables-turning theme that Biden sounded throughout the debate: that it was his Republican opponents, as opposed to the infamous 47 percent of Americans derided by Romney, who needed to start acting “more responsibly.” It’s easy—and silly-sounding—to refute the accusation of lying. You simply rebut, “No, I’m not! You’re lying! I’m telling the truth!” Responsibility carries more resonance. For that reason alone, I suspect we haven’t seen the last of “malarkey” in this campaign season. Betcha?


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