Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 5 July 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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I was just looking up malarkey when my husband called out in the tones of a man who has found a glass eye in his porridge. 'Looks like yours,' he said, fishing a bit of paper out of the first volume of Phineas Finn as if with tongs. He was not wrong, it had my writing on it, and I wish I had found the note before, when Sir Ned Sherrin wrote about morning meaning 'afternoon'. For here in chapter four Trollope writes, 'He called at Portman Square at about half-past two on the Sunday morning. Yes, – Lady Laura was in the drawing-room. The hall-porter admitted as much, but evidently seemed to think that he had been disturbed from his dinner before his time.'

That neatly makes the point about morning extending into the afternoon, and indicates that the porter takes his dinner at that time, Lady Laura Standish undoubtedly waiting another few hours for hers in the 1860s, when the novel is set. (It was published in monthly parts in 1869.)

And from a hotel in Brussels which, judging by its writing paper, has smallish, clean rooms floored in polished wood writes Mr Owen Jenkins, who has got up to page 465 of volume XII of Dickens's letters. The year is 1870. 'I read this afternoon at 3 – a beastly proceeding,' Dickens writes. 'These morning readings particularly disturb me.' A lovely citation, Mr Jenkins, which, if it were not so focused on computer jargon and bollywood and muggles, the OED would snap up for its next edition. And just up Sir Ned's theatrical street.

I wish I could find anything so useful for the reader from Suffolk who asked about malarkey. He was wondering if it had a bastard etymology – mal, as in bad, and arky as in anarchy. Very ingeniose. It reminds me of Miching Malicho in Hamlet (that is, in the first folio, 1623; myching Mallico in the first quarto, 1603; munching Mallico in 1604). Clever clogs Edmund Malone (1790) thought the second word came from Spanish malhecho, and so later editors started spelling it mallecho. No one really knows where it comes from. And no one knows the origin of malarkey, except it came from America some time before 1930.