Baloney and Other Disparaging Dishes

by Hugh Rawson

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made headlines recently when rejecting criticisms of a Muslim-American whom he had nominated as a state judge. “It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background,” said the Governor. “I’m happy that he’s willing to serve after all this baloney.”

Christie’s use of baloney in the sense of “nonsense,” “rubbish,” or “foolishness,” as opposed to the kind of baloney, or  bologna sausage, that one buys in a supermarket or delicatessen, has many precedents in American politics. New York Governor Al Smith helped popularize baloney in this sense  in the 1920s and ’30s. When declining to pose with trowel in hand for a cameraman at a cornerstone-laying ceremony in 1926, Smith said “That’s just baloney. Everybody knows I can’t lay bricks.” More famously, he objected to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s devaluation of the dollar in 1933, saying he was “for gold dollars as against baloney dollars.” And Smith’s speeches in support of Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 presidential election, included the memorable refrain, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.”

Smith was by no means the first person to use baloney (also spelled boloney) in this way.  Rube Goldberg, whose cartoons featured wonderfully complicated mechanical contraptions, often concluded his comic strips in the 1920s with a “snapper” or “zinger,” such as “That’s the baloney,” “It’s a lot of baloney,” or a simple “Baloney!”  Another early user of the term was Jack Conway, a writer for Variety, the daily newspaper for people in the entertainment business. (Conway, who had a keen ear for language, also has been credited with either coining or popularizing such terms as palooka, meaning a boxer of inferior accomplishment; to click, to succeed; S.A. as an abbreviation for Sex Appeal, and scram, to depart, usually with haste.) The basic baloney also inspired such variations as phoney-baloney, the fake Latin phonus-balonus, and globaloney (global + baloney).

The origin of the nonsensical or foolish senses of baloney is not known for sure.  Governor Smith’s comment about slicing shows he assumed that the metaphorical baloney came from the bologna sausage, in turn, from Bologna, Italy. The linguistic connection has not been proven, however.  Other suggestions are that the extended sense comes from the Chicago stockyards, where a tough old bull, was known as a bologna because nothing else could be made from it, or from peloné, a Romany word for testicles.

But in etymology, as in other departments of life, the simplest explanation usually is the best one. Bologna most likely gave rise to the disparaging use of baloney as a result of popular suspicions about the sausage’s composition. Bologna is made of different meats, including bacon, veal, and pork, but rumor once had it that sausage makers sometimes included donkey and dog. (See my post on Hot Dog for more on this topic.) This explanation of the origin of disparaging senses of baloney also fits well with the derisive use of other food words, many of them also mixtures of different items. For example:

applesauce. The word can be used in essentially the same way as baloney. As the humorist Will Rogers put it in 1924, “All politics is applesauce.”

balderdash. A somewhat dated exclamation signifying nonsense but originally, from the sixteenth century, referring to frothy liquid or a mixture of liquids, such as milk and beer or adulterated wine.

beans. An interjection of disbelief, comparable to applesauce and balderdash.

farrago. An incoherent mixture, as of ideas or untruths, a farrago of lies, from the Latin word for mixed fodder for cattle.

flummery. Insincere flattery, except on a restaurant menu, where it is a custard or other light, bland food.

hash. A mixture of chopped meat, potatoes, and vegetables, but with such extended uses as a hash, a mess or jumble; to make a hash of, to make a mess of;  to settle one’s hash, to silence, subdue, or bring to account.

hodgepodge. Another confused mixture of different elements, as of ideas, from hotchpotch, a stew, in which the source, the cooking pot, is evident.

mishmash. A badly organized mixture or jumble of often unrelated items; a doubling, or reduplication of mash in the sense of a soft, pulpy mixture of grain or another substance.

mush. Meaningless talk, nonsense, and more broadly, anything that is soft and yielding; originally, from the seventeenth century, a porridge. As the famously sharp-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth is said to have said of her cousins, the President and his wife: “Franklin is two-thirds mush and one-third Eleanor.” Variations on the theme include mushhead, for someone who seems stupid, and mushmouth, for someone who talks a lot of it.

pap. Soft food for babies and essentially synonymous with mush when referring to meaningless talk, television shows, lightweight books, and so on.

potpourri. A miscellaneous collection of things, from the French for olla podrida, a highly seasoned stew; literally, a putrid pot (olla, pot + podrida, rotten).

tripe. Something that is stupid, nonsensical, of no value; from the dish made of the lining of an animal’s stomach.

And this is just a sampling of food words with the general meaning of nonsense. Many more could be added.

No baloney!

8 thoughts on “Baloney and Other Disparaging Dishes

  1. Harry

    I always assumed that the negative sense of “beans” reflects not only the fact that they are cheap and common but also that they often produce flatulence. To say someone is “talking beans” implies that he is producing sounds more commonly associated with a lower- body orifice.

    I should also point out that “potpourri” has a related but quite different meaning. It is widely used to describe various mixtures of dried fragrant flowers, fruits, and herbs, poured into shallow bowls or cloth sachets and used to impart a pleasing aroma to rooms, garments, etc.

    1. “Beans” may well have something to do with flatulence. The expression “full of beans,” meaning to be full of nonsense (or energy). parallels “full of hops” and “full of prunes,” both of which imply foolishness as well as high spirits — and both of which have cathartic effects….You are right about “potpourri,” of course. I might have mentioned this except that my fouc was on the disparaging senses of these words.

  2. J P Cook

    Re: Baloney. Here is an explanation I have heard: The Dottore, or Pedant character in the Commedia dell’ Arte comes from the University of Bologna. The speciality of the role is to profess to be all-knowing while talking utter nonsense.

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