Cockamamie Malarkey – Idioms for Idiotism

Cockamamie – Origin: 
 ‡ 1940–45,  Americanism; in orig. sense, paper strip with an image which could be transferred to the skin when moistened, apparently alteration of decalcomania; sense “ridiculous” probably by association with cock-and-bull story, poppycock, etc.

The world needs more ways to express the idea of nonsense – when Joe Biden very rightly called out that other Presidential candidate for preaching a whole lot of malarkey, the internet exploded with searches for the word ‘malarkey.’  Obviously there are a lot of people who didn’t grow up with an Irish grandmother. 

Words for ‘nonsense’ should not be confused with ‘nonsense words’ (see my entry on A Runcible Spoon).  Words for nonsense are essential to a world in which the nonsensical dominates almost every form of public discourse.  I like ‘cockamamie’ because even its origin is completely nonsensical – perhaps derived from ‘decalcomania’, evidently a kind of ephemeral transferable tattoo invented in America in the 1940s, elided with cock-and-bull and poppycock, both of British origin.  

For ‘cock-and-bull’ see

“The early 17th century French term ‘coq-a-l’âne’ was glossed in Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611 as meaning:

An incoherent story, passing from one subject to another.

The literal translation of ‘du coq à l’âne’ is ‘from rooster to jackass’, which nicely fits the meaning of the term. This was later taken up in Scots as “cockalayne”, again with the same meaning. The first citation of ‘cock and bull’ stories in English is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621: “Some mens whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot.”

What’s so delightful here is the arcane journey from French to English, the misunderstandings, malapropisms and accidents by means of which most words for ‘nonsense’ are derived.  

Another Americanism for ‘nonsense’ is ‘hooey’, which seems to have originated in the 1920s.  

It’s nice to know that the Americans are sufficiently aware of their shortcomings as to have invented so many ways to say ‘nonsense’.




About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist, Italophile
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