UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gave a speech about Brexit this week. And entirely unrelated to that, we posted the word ackamarackus over on Twitter:
Ackamarackus—or ackamaracka, alongside countless other spelling variants—is a choice example of early twentieth century American slang. It apparently dates from sometime around the early 1930s, and its invention has been credited (by some at least) to the US journalist and author Damon Runyon.
Born in Kansas in 1880, Runyon is probably best known for his contribution to the musical Guys and Dolls, which was based on two of his early short stories, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. He also coined the term Hooray Henry in 1936—defined by the OED as “a fashionable, extroverted, but conventional upper-class young man”. Jeez, we just can’t get away from Boris this week.
But whether or not Runyon gave us the word ackamarackus too is debatable. Its earliest written record comes from “The Lemon Drop Kid”, a short story by Runyon published in 1931, but was the word in broader use before then, and Runyon merely picked up on its use? Alas, without further evidence, that question will have to remain unanswered.
Etymologically, is the word merely an arbitrary formation, or does it have some intricate tale behind it? Well, Some explanations claim the word might be intended to mimic Latin, and sound like some suitably arcane and nonsensically impenetrable bit of Latin jargon. Others suggest it’s just a random, albeit somewhat rhythmical and evocative, string of syllables. Of the two, the former theory is probably the sounder, but again without more evidence it’s difficult to say with any certainty.
What we can say, however, is that when ackamarackus first appeared in broader use in the language in the later 1930s, it often appeared in the expression “a bit of the old ackamarackus”—meaning, “flimflam”, “deceptive nonsense”, or as The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms puts it, “bullshit”.
We really can’t get away from Boris, can we?