Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia invoked a curious term in his fierce dissent of Wednesday's ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, calling it a "legalistic argle-bargle," which sounds like a made up word if we've ever heard one, but was actually a carefully chosen phrase of disgust. It originates from the Scottish "argy-bargy" — an even sillier expression — which, according to Meriam Webster means a "lively discussion." Other places describe it as "a relatively amicable, if somewhat heated, argument" and "an argument or confrontation of moderate intensity, somewhere between a spirited debate and a fistfight." In other words it's a very Supreme Court justice way to describe a disagreement. But why such a silly term for the court record books?
"'Argle-bargle' is formed by what's known as rhyming reduplication," linguist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire. "Reduplication," is when "a word formation process by which some part of a base (a segment, syllable, morpheme) is repeated, either to the left, or to the right, or, occasionally, in the middle," as the Lexicon of Linguistics explains it. So, it's like okey-dokey or mumbo-jumbo.
It's not exactly Supreme Court level language, which is exactly why Scalia chose it. People use these types of terms to sound either juvenile or pejorative, which was the justice's point: These other opinions aren't just wrong, they're argle-bargle level wrong, or plain dumb. "I think Scalia's pejorative intentions were clear, but he was looking for something a bit more exotic than 'mumbo-jumbo,'" added Zimmer.
Indeed, rather than reaching for the very American "mumbo-jumbo," Scalia went for an overseas variant. Argle comes from the Scottish dialect for "argument," according to the Word-Detective. The word dates all the way back to the 16th century. The fun phrase "argle bargle," however, first appeared as early as 1808 in Jamieson's "Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Tongue." Though, a close variant, "aurgle-bargain" dates all the way back to 1720. "The Scots have a penchant for reduplication," notes Zimmer. "Along with 'argle-bargle' and its cousins 'argie-bargie' and 'argol-bargolous', there's 'catter-batter' (to wrangle), 'crinkie-winkie' (a contention), 'hackum-plackum' (to barter), etc."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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