Malarkey Tells Tall Tales with a Cohort of Blarney, Hooey, and Hocus Pocus

“That’s a bunch of malarkey,” Vice President Joe Biden pronounced in an October, 2012 debate with Representative Paul Ryan. Biden’s remarks earned him language column kudos for diction, and sent thousands of people to their dictionaries. At the November, 2016 Democratic Convention, Biden used the identical line in reference to Trump’s supposed concern about the middle class.

Malarkey, also spelled “malarky,” means “inaccurate or exaggerated language intended to mislead or deceive.” The word first appeared in print American English in 1922, and slowly gained popularity over the course of the 1920s; nobody is certain about the etymology of “malarkey.”

Malarkey has many synonyms. “Nonsense,” in the sense of “malarkey,” is usually preceded by an adjective, such as “arrant” or “utter.” “Hokum,” “hocus pocus”, “bunkum,” “blarney,” “baloney,” “hogwash,” “hooey,” “taradiddle” (also spelled “tarradiddle”), “hot air,” “crap,” and “b*ll sh!t” share the same core meaning of “willful lying or exaggeration.”

“Hocus pocus” is first attested in 1624 as a name for jugglers and conjurers; a 17th century writer theorized that it might be bogus Latin. “Hogwash” literally means “liquid leftover from food preparation and fed to pigs;” by extension, it meant “an alcoholic beverage of poor quality,” and the “malarkey” meaning derives from comparison to the lousy booze, which drinkers regarded as a kind of material falsehood.

“Blarney,” of course, derives from the famous Blarney stone in a Castle in Cork county, Ireland. Pursuers find the stone notoriously dangerous to reach. In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, dated 1837, Samuel Lewish writes, “if any one kisses it, he will ever after have a cajoling tongue and the art of flattery or of telling lies with unblushing effrontery.”

“Bunkum” comes from Buncombe, North Carolina. Buncombe Representative Felix Walker made a dull speech in Congress towards the end of an interminable debate on Missouri statehood. When his colleagues clamored for him to sit down, he persisted and declared that he needed to make a “speech for Buncombe.”

“Hooey” showed up in American slang in 1912, according to Merriam Webster. It may derive from the Russian slang “хуй,” “khooee,” which means “dick,” but by extension may express incredulity; the pronunciation is almost identical to the English “hooey,” but with a stronger, more fricative initial “h.”

“Taradiddle” derives from “diddle,” which has had the meaning of “swindle, cheat; do in” since the early 1800s. “Diddle” can also mean “waste time” or “screw around” in either sense, and the noun shares the meaning of the Russian “khooee” discussed above.

Citations abound for each of these words applied to politicians, who often present the public with prevarications, malarkey, and bunkum.


An earlier version of this article appeared in the, a now-defunct website.