The unexpected nostalgia of Biden’s ‘malarkey’

In 2016, when Biden was flirting with a presidential run, we walked through the word’s etymology, coming to the unsatisfying determination that it sort of just came into use from undetermined origins. It’s possibly related to an Irish last name or perhaps it was ginned up by a cartoonist in San Francisco. Regardless, almost no one in American history has been as deliberate in embracing the term as Biden, whose tour of Iowa this week is taking place on a bus emblazoned with a large “No Malarkey!” slogan.

The heyday of “malarkey” on the pages of The Post came in the 1980s. There were a few little bursts prior, including in the late 1800s, when Washington Senators pitcher John Malarkey was racking up a grim 2-10 record over three seasons. In the 1940s, Western High School slugger Jack Malarkey got fairly regular write-ups in the paper. By the ’80s, though, the word’s appearances were mostly of the sort which Biden would appreciate. By the 2000s, the popularity of the word had died out again.

Google’s extensive index of books allows us to see how the popularity of words evolves over time. Its Ngram tool shows the frequency of words as a percentage of all words from books published in a particular year.

Those data show that use of “malarkey” spiked in books in the 1980s, just as it did in The Post. Interestingly, “malarkey” seems to have edged out “malarky,” with the latter spelling dying out from the 1960s on as use of the former continued to gain steam. There’s a slight drop-off beginning in about 2004; the Google Books data only go through 2008.

Biden uses the more popular -ey spelling, perhaps a reflection of his embrace of it during its 1980s renaissance. There’s this sense from Biden critics that he’s embracing a wildly archaic phrase like “the bee’s knees.” Instead, it seems he’s harking back to a term that it was resurgent when he was in his late 30s and early 40s — and when his political power and professional stature was expanding. It’s perhaps less like Joe Biden talking about wearing an onion on his belt than his being able to sing along with “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Cultural phenomenon recur in a cyclical fashion, though the duration of those cycles isn’t constant. It seems feasible that the 1980s brought nostalgia for a term that had emerged 30-plus years earlier — and that Biden is single-handedly powering a renaissance another 30-plus years on. “Malarkey” may be doing for Biden what “Make America Great Again” did for Trump on a smaller scale in evoking the era of Ronald Reagan.

Most of his embrace of the term is about branding, reinforcing his political identity and the traits we identified at the beginning of the article. He’s the guy who called Republican ideas malarkey and he’s the guy who uses terms like “malarkey” because he’s old and centered and willing to use normal-guy terms like “malarkey” even if that is abnormal.

There’s a corniness to it which is on-brand for Biden. It’s the sort of thing that seems like it could appeal to older voters (and older white voters) more than anyone else. That’s a group which makes up a large chunk of the population, if only a smaller part of the Democratic primary electorate. (Biden’s distinctive strength in the primary is among black Democratic voters.)

Some of the earliest uses of “malarkey” in the New York Times were references to Irish Americans who bore that last name. One article from Nov. 28, 1878, notes that an Officer Malarkey arrested a guy named Martin Smith for, of all things, voting illegally. Smith was a felon who thought his release from prison enabled him to vote again. It did not.

It is unclear whether this Officer Malarkey is the same one who the Times reported several years later had been bitten on the ear by a suspect.

Leave a Reply