Malarkey: What's the Story Behind Joe Biden's Favorite Word?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

Joe Biden with malarkey sign
Then-candidate Joe Biden arrives at a campaign stop on Dec. 2, 2019 in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The stop was part of his 650-mile "No Malarkey" campaign bus trip through rural Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you've tuned in to see Joe Biden in a debate anytime since at least 2012, you've heard him call his opponent's plans "malarkey." Every time he passes this judgment, lookups of this odd and fun-to-say word spike on Merriam-Webster's website. After he used it in a 2020 presidential debate, "malarkey" was in the top 30 percent of all lookups on the site, and this same dictionary named it a 2020 Word of the Year, along with "coronavirus," "asymptomatic" and "schadenfreude."

But why "malarkey"? Where does this weird word even come from?

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A lot of people, apparently including Biden, believe "malarkey" to come from Ireland. But its first-known usage is in the United States in the early 1920s. It's not a widely used word in Ireland or Great Britain, even today. The Oxford English Dictionary pegs its first use in 1923 in an article published in the Defiance Crescent-News, a local newspaper in Ohio:

The challenger has been so unimpressive in public that ... a coterie ... has made a practice of laughing immoderately at every move the Latin makes. They seem to think he is a lot of "malarkey," as it were.

But many trace the term back to a political cartoonist, Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, whose work was credited in the papers by his initials: Tad. He used the term as early as 1922 in the San Francisco Call & Post, according to a paper published in 2002. Other sources point to a cartoon by Tad published in the Madison (Wisconsin) Capital Times in 1924, where a character says, "Malachy, you said it."

Over the years, people have hypothesized that the word comes from an Irish surname, Mullarkey, or the modern Greek word for soft, "malakia." But most scholars give these ideas little credit. It's also been spelled several different ways, including Tad's "malachy;" without an e, as in "malarky;" and the most commonly accepted way, as in the Merriam-Webster entry, "malarkey."

According to the 2002 paper, which was published in the journal Western Folklore, there could still be an Irish connection. Irish Gaelic has the root "meall-," which has connotations of deception or lies. The word mealleairacht means deception, allurement, or amusement, which has a very malarkey-like flavor. The paper's author, William Sayers, makes the case that the word came to San Francisco with Irish immigrants in the early 20th century, but American ears misheard the precise pronunciation. As the word moved eastward, it became "malarkey."

And now the word has achieved what all words dream of: being used by a presidential candidate in a debate of national importance.

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