Nonsense, foolishness and insincerity are all words that fall under the umbrella of ‘malarkey’, and I first fell in love with the word for that feeling of sweet, self-aware cringiness that comes from whipping it out mid-sentence.
To me, malarkey can make any situation lighter (in a similar vein to palaver, another favourite) and, as someone often having a faff (another banger), a bit of humour is always much appreciated – the cringier the better. But despite the joy it may bring me, it actually has a much darker past…
Okay, maybe not dark, not dark at all, but still pretty damn odd. While malarkey’s corniness makes it sound like something coined by a perky chimney sweep in Victorian London, its exact history remains relatively mysterious. Some argue it started from the Greek malakía, figuratively meaning idiocy or stupidity, while others say it was first used by Irish Americans in the early 20th Century.
I know what you’re thinking – wow, who knew malarkey was so elusive? But bear with me, it only gets weirder from here.
Some say that the word was popularised by American cartoonist Tad Dorgan in the 1920s, through his cartoon panel Indoor Sports. But more recently, the word has seen a resurgence thanks to someone born almost thirty years later: President Joe Biden.
While many may not see ‘Sleepy Joe’ as much younger than a Victorian chimney sweep, the prevalence of malarkey in his lexicon is somewhat unprecedented (un-Presidented? Sorry…)
It started in 2012, in a Vice-Presidential debate between Biden and Paul Ryan, where Biden refuted Ryan’s criticisms as “a bunch of malarkey” – three times in total. The serious politician armed with his silly little word created a perfectly meme-able storm, and Twitter jumped on the opportunity. Before the debate was over, #malarkey was used close to 30,000 times per minute, and searches of the word skyrocketed, with the Obama administration even buying the hashtag so Biden’s official Twitter would appear whenever it was searched. These 90 minutes cemented malarkey as one of Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2012.
The Biden-malarkey pipeline doesn’t end there. In fact, the duo were still growing strong all the way up to 2019 – where Biden launched his delectably boomer #NoMalarkey tour of Iowa (featuring a ‘No Malarkey’ bus, because, duh!). Although heavily memed, and perhaps not the best strategic move for a man already heavily critiqued for not being down-with-the-kids, this campaign centred malarkey as part of Biden’s brand and ultimately preceded his 2021 Presidential win.
In an investigation for the Washington Post, Biden was announced to have said the word malarkey on the floor of Congress more than anyone since the 19th Century. But, as he now sits as the 46th President of the United States, one thing’s for sure: don’t underestimate the power of some good ol’ cringe.