The Grammarphobia Blog

A lot of malarkey

Q: Do you know the origin of the word “malarkey” (as in “a bunch of malarkey”). My mother, may she rest in peace, liked to use it. I hope it’s not vulgar!

A: “Malarkey” (also spelled “mullarkey,” “malarky,” “malaky,” etc.) is slang for humbug, foolishness, or nonsense. It’s certainly not vulgar, but not much else is certain about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary, whose first published reference for “malarkey” is from 1929, says the origin of the word is unknown.

Some researchers have suggested possible links to the Irish word “mullachan,” meaning a strong boy or a ruffian, or to the modern Greek word “malakia,” which means, among other things, worthlessness.

Others think it might come from the Irish family name “Mullarkey” and its various spellings. Both Michael Quinion (World Wide Words) and Evan Morris (The Word Detective) suggest the source may be a notorious, long-forgotten Mullarkey.

The word seems to have been popularized by the American newspaper cartoonist T.A. Dorgan, known as Tad, who also helped popularize the terms “hard-boiled” and “kibitzer” in his drawings.

Since we’ll probably never know for sure where the word comes from, all this speculation may turn out to be a lot of malarkey.

PS: You might be interested in knowing that there’s a board game called Malarky in which players try to separate real answers from, well, malarkey. The game is based on the Imponderables books by David Feldman.