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shameless pleading

Malarkey

Tiny little lies.  Lie-kittens, in fact.

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve long heard the word “malarkey” to mean any sort of exaggerated nonsense, but was surprised to find while watching HBO’s “Band of Brothers” that it is also a person’s name.  There are several words that are based on names (fink, quisling, bowdlerize) when some person exemplified a certain quality or activity.  The paratrooper Sgt. Don Malarkey didn’t seem to be known for spouting nonsense, so I guess the origins must go farther back.  An anti-Irish slur, perhaps?  Certainly some of my older Irish-American relatives could spin a good yarn, which may or may not bear resemblance to anything true.– Marty Giles.

Good question.  My mother was fond of “malarkey” (the word) as well as its synonym “guff” (as in “Don’t give me that guff”), which had the convenient (for a mother) secondary meaning of “backtalk.”  The origin of “guff,” interestingly, is “echoic.”  The word was formed in imitation of the sound of a gust of wind, and it originally meant simply “a puff of wind” before it was pressed into service to mean “empty talk” in the late 19th century.

English has lots of eponyms (words formed from proper nouns, especially personal names), and two of the words you mention are indeed eponymous in origin.  “Quisling,” today used to mean a traitor, especially a collaborator with an enemy occupation force, comes from the name of Major Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian army officer and diplomat who collaborated with the Nazi forces occupying Norway during World War II.  “Bowdlerize,” today meaning to expurgate or censor a book or other creative work, immortalizes Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 produced what he called “The Family Shakespeare,” from which he had carefully excised whatever of the Bard’s words he deemed unfit for consumption by women and children.

“Fink,” however, is not an eponym and, despite what you may have read, has no connection either to the legendary river boat captain Mike Fink or the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Literally meaning “finch” in German, “fink” comes from German university students’ slang for an outsider or loner, what today we would call a “nerd” or “weirdo.”  In the US, it originally meant “an unreliable person” in the late 19th century, but later came to mean “a strikebreaker or informer.”

As for for the origin of “malarkey,” unfortunately, your guess is as good as mine, or as good as the guess of any of the etymologists who have been arguing about the word since it first appeared in print in the 1920s (thereby ruling out “Band of Brothers” as a source).  “Malarkey” (or “Malarky”) does exist as an Irish surname, so the term may well derive from one such “Malarkey” who became famous for tricking or defrauding people.  If so, however, his crimes must have been rather mild, for “malarkey” is a fairly gentle word, usually applied to fibs rather than felonies.

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