Etymology is a discipline where it is sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees. A case in point is the word ‘baloney’. Its current meaning is straightforward enough: silly talk, rubbish, twaddle. But when it comes to identifying its origins, we are faced with a multitude of possibilities. The most common explanation is that ‘baloney’ (or ‘boloney’) derives from a corruption of the Italian word bologna, meaning a sausage from the city of the same name. It was repeatedly popularised in the sense of ‘rubbish’ by Al Smith, the governor of New York, in the 1920s and 1930s. When, for example, he was asked by a cameraman to pose with a trowel at a ceremony to lay a cornerstone in 1926, Smith declined, saying: ‘That’s just baloney. Everybody knows I can’t lay bricks.’ He was at it again in 1936, when his speeches in the presidential election campaign in support of Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s opponent, included the refrain, ‘No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.’

But why should a sausage from Bologna give its name to a derogatory slang word in the US? It’s true that a bologna sausage usually consists of a range of not immediately identifiable scraps of precooked meat. These include bacon, turkey, chicken, veal and pork, which are ground together until smooth and have a texture reminiscent of Spam® – the disgusting ‘luncheon meat’ which was served at my school in the form of oil-drenched Spam fritters. Spam is thought to have spawned the modern term for unwanted emails.

But bologna sausage is not necessarily junk food. One version of mortadella (the more common Italian term for a bologna sausage) includes in its ingredients pork shoulder, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, caraway and pistachios.

Understandably, there have been other explanations of how the word baloney originated. It may have been influenced by ‘blarney’ (flattering and deceptive talk), which comes from the legend of the Blarney Stone in a castle near Cork, Ireland. The stone allegedly confers the skill of telling convincing lies on whoever manages to reach out and kiss it, a feat requiring considerable physical dexterity. But the meanings of ‘baloney’ and ‘blarney’ are not identical, as was explained in a radio address by Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen in 1954: ‘Baloney is flattery laid on so thick it cannot be true, and blarney is flattery so thin we love it.”

Ben Zimmer, in his Word Routes blog, notes: ‘In the 19th century, baloney was already emerging as an American spelling pronunciation referring to the sausage. The earliest I've seen is in some dialect humour from 1857: ‘baloney sassage [sic]’ is included in a burlesque sermon written by William H. Levison using the pen name Julius Caesar Hannibal. There was also an old vaudeville song called ‘I Ate the Baloney’ (or ‘Boloney’), evidently dating back to the 1870s.’

But there is yet another possible source of the metaphoric word ‘baloney’ – the Chicago stockyards, where a tough old bull used to be known as a bologna because the sausage was the only end product that could be made from it. Alternatively, the term may have derived from peloné, the similarly pronounced Romany word for ‘testicles’, in other words a pejorative term for scraps of meat disguised by being finely minced. It was once rumoured that the same process enabled unscrupulous manufacturers to include donkey and dog in their sausage.

On a more harmless and humorous note, it may interest you to know that the word baloney has inspired variations on the same theme, and with the same meaning, as ‘phoney-baloney’, the mock-Latin ‘phonus-balonus’ and ‘globaloney’, which was coined in 1943 by Clare Boothe Luce to dismiss Vice President Henry A. Wallace's suggestion that all the airlines of the world be given free access to US airports.

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