That's Malarkey, My Friend: The Words and Style of the VP Debate

Last night sitting Vice President Joe Biden faced off against Republican nominee Paul Ryan for the first—and only—VP debate we're going to get this year. Was there excitement? There was some excitement! Here we're going to talk mostly about the semantics and style of the debate.

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Last night sitting Vice President Joe Biden faced off against Republican nominee Paul Ryan for the first—and only—VP debate we're going to get this year. Was there excitement? There was some excitement! Critics of these things have pronounced it a better debate than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's first go against each other, the one in which Obama was widely lambasted for an apparent lack of enthusiasm. For words and GIFs from last night, check out Elspeth Reeve's post on the matter. Here we're going to focus on the semantics and style of the debate, with the help of grammar and syntax expert Geoffrey Pullum, visiting professor at Brown University and a professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh.

Malarkey. What was with this word? Joe Biden used it not once but many times, also saying, at one point, that it was synonymous with "a bunch of stuff." Adding a "With all due respect," to the phrase, he is clearly insinuating, or outright stating, that Ryan's words are not to be taken as truth, that it's just a bunch of hooey, right? A look at the word malarkey in Merriam-Webster reveals it as "insincere or foolish talk," and we get this apropos example: "He thinks everything politicians say is just a bunch of malarkey." (Malarkey, first known use 1929, was also one of the most looked-up words following last night's debate, via the dictionary's editor at large, Peter Sokolowski.)

We turned the question to Pullum, who said, "The word malarkey is of unknown origin, but is generally taken to mean nonsense or bunkum, especially obscure nonsense designed to mislead or baffle. What Biden meant was that Ryan was telling lies, but there is a real taboo against calling a fellow politician an outright liar in public. At one point Biden said (deliberately, I think) something like 'Why don't you just tell the...' and then stopped himself.  He got as close to accusing Ryan of lying as he felt he reasonably could within the rules of public political behavior."

A side note: There are many, many wonderful words that are synonymous with malarkey. My personal favorites, via Merriam-Webster, are applesauce, balderdash, baloney, beans, claptrap, codswallop, fiddle, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, fudge, hokeypokey, hoodoo, hooey, horsefeathers, moonshine, nerts, piffle, poppycock, taradiddle, tommyrot, tosh, and twaddle.

My friend. Biden kept calling Ryan "my friend" in that way that seems to belie the true meaning of the word. He's not his friend, clearly, and Biden didn't mean that at all, but it was better perhaps than calling him buddy, jerkface, my opponent, or Jack Kennedy. (Maybe "my friend" is a little bit ironically belittling?) But as a person might repeat "honestly," or "I'm telling you the truth," this repeat use of "my friend" only said what it wasn't. These guys are not going to get a beer together. The Internet was fully aware of this and commented with a variety of meanings Biden might actually, literally have intended for the phrase.

Per the Boston Globe's Matt Viser, "my friend" was uttered by Biden 15 times in the debate. Comparatively, Viser tweets,

Pullum says, "The 'my friend' trope is connected to [the use of malarkey]. Fellow members of legislative bodies call each other things like 'my friend the member for such-and-such' to keep things civil. They don't mean there's a friendship. It's like 'my learned friend' among lawyers in court." As in I'm trying to remind myself not to punch you in the face.

Communication. Did these guys really talk to each other? Any notable facial expressions? One photo making the rounds, of course, is Biden throwing up his arms in apparent disbelief; there were also plenty of comments about him grinning or giggling. Pullum says, "I do think the two men were speaking each other's language; Ryan even emphasized that he came from exactly the same sort of town as Biden, and of course they both have a Catholic upbringing." But while they're speaking the same language, they might not be talking. "It was just two men tussling for chances to hurl sound bites at each other," says Pullum. "For the pleasure of hearing a point argued out so that a position could be evaluated, a political pseudo-debate like this is always going to be a disappointment."

He adds, "Essentially all of the clash was in the claims, I think, not in style or syntax or word choice. Though one thing differed: Biden really seemed to be laughing at Ryan. His broad grin was unmistakably genuine. He actually thought Ryan's malarkey was so off base that it was funny.  And since a man who is genuinely grinning and laughing always seems somewhat appealing, Biden seemed to gain on likability."

Speaking Style. It was noted that there was a big tone shift among both men—their voices getting gentler and lower—when they started to talk about "social issues," i.e. abortion. Anything else? Who did better? "Both men are accomplished speakers; there is no question about Ryan's fluency and ability to sound convincing, especially in the closing statement, which was classical political boilerplate, but excellently delivered," says Pullum. "Biden had one major searching-for-the-right-word moment—in fact it went on for five or six seconds of umms and errs, and it hardly seems right to call it a moment. He also cut himself off now and then, not bothering to finish a sentence but just leaping to the next one.  So of the two, Ryan was probably the more fluent (though that's an impression: there are ways of measuring things like degree of disfluency)."

Overall Take. While I found the debate more energetic and therefore compelling than the last one (I found the speaking set-up somehow better, perhaps in part due to Martha Raddatz, and there were far fewer ums and uhs as well as, in general, more smooth conversation), I'll agree with Pullum that I'm not sure they were really talking to each other.

Pullum found it more depressing than I did: "This wasn't really a debate, because no set thesis was under discussion and neither man followed out the thoughts or arguments of the other," he says. "Given half a chance, or even a quarter of a chance, they would ignore the question that had been put to them and would start spouting pre-scripted party platform stuff. Ryan especially did this. Asked about how his personal qualities would equip him for his role, he would just plunge into some prattle about how the Obama regime just wasn't the right way to get the economy to recover. When you listen to two high-quality philosophers debating, you hear them clarifying each other's positions to make sure they are not misrepresenting them, and then probing for weaknesses in the argument in a way that depends on the exact way in which it was framed. Not so in the kind of pseudo-debating we had here."

Then again, it's politics, right? And coming out of this debate, those voters who've already decided their side are just as adamant that that their side won as they were going in. Perhaps, the point is, we never should have expected—never can expect—real philosophical debate in one of these things. Sometimes politics does all seem like just a bunch of stuff. I'm holding out hope, though.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.