The loaded message behind Biden’s ‘malarkey’

·Senior Editor, Special Projects

What's with the malarkey?

Say what you will about the American electorate, when they hear a folksy word they don't understand, they'll look it up. Searches on Yahoo! for "marlarkey," "malarkey definition" and "what is malarkey" scored off the charts during and after the vice presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan.

A load of malarkey
"Marlarkey," as Merriam-Webster defines it, is "insincere or foolish talk." It's a dismissive word to use, with avuncular overtones, and you'd use it to deem something as silliness, bunkum, hogwash—verging on nonsense, you (and a thesaurus) might even say. The New York Daily News dug up a Grammarphobia 2007 entry, which traces the etymology of "malarkey" perhaps to the word for strong boy or ruffian ("mullachan"), a *Malarkey family name, or the Greek word for worthlessness ("malakia").

But it's been generally perceived as an Irish word, points out Sharyn O'Halloran, a political science professor at Columbia University. "I'm Irish," O'Halloran tells Yahoo News. "When you ask the Irish for directions, they say it's 'down the road apiece.'" That "apiece" could involve 12 right turns and a roundabout. With that loaded "malarkey" comes a warning, and served as Biden's coded message to an older generation about trusting Ryan.

"It's not an outright lie, but [Ryan's] telling you a tale. He's painting a picture for you, and it may not be accurate," O'Halloran explains. "That's why [Biden] did the overexaggerated laugh and the overexaggerated hands. ... What he's saying is: 'It's not true, it's not right, and the people who know, know that what [Ryan's] saying, it's not right. You cannot let him keep going on.'"

The message may have been aimed for seniors, but some younger folk (ages 13-54) were intrigued by the code. (Indeed, 7 percent of "malarkey" lookups hails from kids under 18.) Among the areas most curious about "malarkey"—Los Angeles led the top five regions in lookups on Yahoo! Search, followed by D.C., Houston, Boston and Philadelphia. Among the states, Californians were scratching their heads and tapping the keyboards the most, followed by residents of Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts.

Online impressions of Biden, Ryan
O'Halloran says some viewers thought the tactic was disrespectful—and indeed, searches for "joe biden disrespectful," "joe biden rude" and "joe biden smirking" did percolate, as did "laughing joe biden." Then again, his dramatic exasperation was his one shot in signaling to viewers that the opposition was spinning a tale—in this case criticism over the Obama administration's strength in foreign policy and "devastating defense cuts"—that was too good to be true.

As for overall impressions, "Ryan definitely wins likability, that little-boy charm is definitely there," O'Halloran says. "Biden always comes across as a wise old grandfather, and that's a demographic. And we'll have to see how it works out."

What other online impressions did Biden and Ryan leave? Time for a chart.

Sampling of Joe Biden and Paul Ryan searches on Yahoo!

Joe Biden

Paul Ryan

Joe Biden Biography, Joe Biden Wikipedia

Paul Ryan Bio, Who Is Paul Ryan

How Old is Joe Biden

How old is Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan Age

Joe Biden Biography

Paul Ryan Shirtless, Paul Ryan Bicep, Paul Ryan Meme, Paul Ryan Abs (yes, his bicep is now a meme)

Joe Biden Gaffes

Paul Ryan Workout

Biden Rude

Ryan Wins Debate

Laughing Joe Biden, Joe Biden Laughing

Paul Ryan Eddie Munster

Biden Won Debate, Biden Wins, Biden Won, Joe Biden Wins Debate

Ryan Wins Debate, Ryan Won Debate

Joe Biden Plagiarism

Paul Ryan's Black Ex

Joe Biden Smirk

Paul Ryan Marathon Claim

Other hooey from debate night
Terms that also trended along with all the "malarkey" and "bunch of stuff":

  • "duress" (Ryan's soothing word to Biden in his ironic empathy over Medicare: "I know you're under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground")

  • "martha raddatz" (the ABC News war correspondent and moderator, who received critical praise for cutting down the balderdash)

  • "who won the debate," "biden ryan debate," "vp debate polls"

  • "obama health care," "romney tax plan"

  • "vp debate drinking game"

  • "irish flag" (Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not)

*More origin myths, as our commenters point out, are floating around, including one about a Mullarky clan who paid their tenants with estate scripts, which became worthless after the potato famine. U.K. Answers and a Straight Dope forum note that origin story, but available sources think the origin's more modern, just as far back as the 1920s. The Economist agrees the origins are more Irish-American, and the Visual Thesaurus credits cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan and International News Service sports editor David Walsh. Now back to your hooey.