On two occasions in Thursday's vice presidential debate, Joe Biden used the word “malarkey” in describing Paul Ryan’s responses to debate questions. According to Biden, “malarkey” is “an Irish thing.” We’ve all heard the term used on occasion, mostly by uncles and grandparents who can still remember when “malarkey” was the “#YOLO” of the 1930s. But what is “malarkey” really?
The word is of uncertain origin, but it appears to have first come into use in 1922 by a cartoonist named T.A. Dorgan. Other than the fact it had various spellings early in its history, not much is known about the etymology of this word. But it seems as if the definition of the word has remained constant. According to Merriam-Webster, "malarkey" is "insincere or foolish talk." For a related definition, the dictionary suggests "bunkum," which just so happens to have a very political origin.
That word is derived from the word "buncombe," as in "Buncombe" County, North Carolina. In 1820, its congressman, Felix Walker was a representative who, delivered a long-winded floor speech on the Missouri Compromise to an exhausted and debate-weary House. He began his speech by admitting, "I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe." So unimpressive and vapid was Walker's speech that colleagues equated "Buncombe" with frivolous matters as a kind of inside joke. Eventually it was shortened to "bunk" and then also spelled "bunkum."
Here's Biden, calling malarkey on Paul Ryan: