The Malarkey About Malarkey

 Posted by on October 12, 2012
Oct 122012

There is today a lot of malarkey circulating about the origin of malarkey. The Economist, NPR, The NY Daily News, and The Visual Thesaurus have all chimed in, and they have all concluded the same thing: the origin is uncertain. There are, however, two brief comments on malarkey’s origin in the journal Western Folklore.

The first, by Peter Tamony was written in 1974. Mr. Tamony notes, but clearly discounts, the possibility that the word traces its origin to the Greek words malakos and malakia, meaning soft and softness respectively. What he can say with certainty, however, is that in 1922 Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (aka TAD) used the word malarkey, spelling it milarkey, as a fictitious telephone extension. Mr. Tamony does not note it in the article, but Ben Zimmer notes that two years later Mr. Dorgan used the word again in the semantic sense of baloney in another cartoon, that time spelling it malachy. And as Mr. Zimmer further points out, by 1924 the word appears to be in somewhat frequent circulation.

But where did Mr. Dorgan acquire this word? Mr. Tamony first recounts the almost certainly apocryphal San Francisco tale of an unfortunate immigrant Irish mortician who was terrorized by a corpse’s cadaveric spasms. The mortician’s surname was Mullarkey and the story, Mr. Tamony insinuates, was at least for a time a San Francisco commonplace. But the genuine tale that really piques Mr. Tamony’s interest is the one about the son of a Portuguese immigrant to San Francisco. It seems that Joe Mallorca had a son name Jerry, and Jerry, “under the delusion he was of Irish descent,” changed the surname Mallorca to Mullarkey. Jerry Mullarkey became an oyster shucker of considerable skill, and in oyster mad San Francisco, he was a very well known figure. “From this background of familiar usage,” Mr. Tamony concludes, “it is likely TAD drew his personification of that which is talk, bunkum and baloney.”

The second comment, by William Sayers is from 2002. Like Mr. Tamony, Mr. Sayers is quite certain that malarkey first entered the American lexicon in California, citing San Francisco, Monterrey and Hollywood in particular. But he does not believe the word is a personification. Rather, he suggests malarkey is actually of Irish Gaelic origin. From the Gaelic root meall- derives “meallaim: ‘I deceive, delude, circumvent, entice, beguile, cheat, allure, coax; entertain, amuse;’ meallaire: ‘deceiver, flatterer’ … mealltach: ‘deceived defrauded, mistaken, led astray’,” and finally “meallaireacht: ‘deception, allurement, amusement’.”

When heard by “American ears,” meallaireacht, Mr. Sayers notes, sounds like “malarcht,” with a hard ch “as in Scots loch or German Buch.” The word meallaireacht “may have come ashore on the American West Coast or may have made an underground passage across America from immigrant Irish communities in the eastern United States.” Once it arrived in California, the word’s “semantic focus” may have sharpened so that it came to mean “exaggerated or foolish talk, usually intended  to deceive,” and its pronunciation, informed by the already known Irish surname, as well as the “readily available” English diminutive -y suffix, may have evolved from malarkt to malarkey. In other words, Jerry Mullarkey and the unfortunate mortician may not have been the origin of the word, but they may have eased the Gaelic word’s assimilation into English and they may have shaped its English pronunciation.

These conjectures are informed and defensible. Taken as a whole, they provide an appealing and satisfying explanation for malarkey’s origin. But in any conjecture, there is always uncertainty. And where there is uncertainty, there is frequently a bit of malarkey.