Cockamamie: Mixed-up, ridiculous, or implausible.
In last Wednesday's third and final presidential debate, Sen. John McCain said of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden:
In Iraq, he had this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries.
Leaving aside the fact that Biden never made such a proposal (he advocated a unified but decentralized Iraq), cockamamie struck some listeners as quaint, peculiar, or both. And in fact the word has a colorful and disputed history.
I remember hearing my elders use cockamamie when I was a kid. I always assumed it was one of the Yiddish words they sprinkled through their conversation—it reminded me of alte kocker (literally "old shitter," but equivalent to "fuddy-duddy old man"). So when I started looking into cockamamie for today's post, I went directly to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish (I have the 1970 paperback edition; I couldn't get my hands on the revised New Joys of Yiddish). Sure enough, there it is on page 94, spelled cockamamy. But Rosten, generally a careful researcher, was suspiciously vague about the word's derivation:
Ameridish, or children's argot. ... This is not Hebrew and not Yiddish, but indigenous argot. H.L. Mencken's Dictionary of American English, surprisingly, does not list cockamamy. Neither does Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang. Nor, to my chagrin, does the comprehensive Berrey and Van den Bark American Thesaurus of Slang.
I never heard cockamamy used in Chicago, but have often encountered it in New York. It is a pungent adjective of dis-esteem.
On what grounds does Rosten assert that cockamamie is "Ameridish" (American Yiddish)? Perplexingly, he doesn't say.
I found only a couple of tenuous supports for Rosten's etymology. One is a pamphlet called "Old New York Yiddish Dictionary" produced by Noah's Bagels, a company based not in New York but in the Bay Area. It defines cockamamy, sans etymology, as "absurd, silly." And then there's a 1993 Yale Law Journal article titled "Lawsuit, Schmawsuit," by Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski and (now-)prominent legal blogger Eugene Volokh. The authors provide a good deal of evidence that "Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot." (They cite a 1972 opinion of the George Court of Appeals as "the first reported use of 'chutzpah.'") The article is hilarious—it ends with a classic joke about "chutzpah"—and impressively well documented considering it was written many years B.G. (Before Google). But take a look at the relevant paragraph, which considers questionable terms:
"Brouhaha" has been used in more than 100 cases, but it’s unclear whether it is in fact Yiddish. "Glitch" appears in over 400 cases, but it might have been borrowed either from Yiddish or German (a difficult question, since the languages are so similar). Moreover, perhaps because it’s been in general use in engineering lingo for decades, it may now be no more a Yiddishism than "robot" is a Czechism. Finally, "cockamamie" is unknown in European Yiddish, and has developed entirely in America—is it a Yiddishism, or an Americanism that happened to originate with American Jews?
And that's it for the Yiddish connection.
Every other source I consulted supports Rosten's second etymology: cockamamie derives from decalcomania, "a picture or design left on the skin as a 'transfer,' from specially prepared paper which is wetted and rubbed."
Here's what the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (Facts on File, 1997) says:
"'Cockamamie' means something worthless or trifling, even absurd or strange; a 'cockamamie' excuse or story is an implausible, ridiculous one. The word may be a corruption of 'decalcomania' ('a cheap picture or design on specially prepared paper that is transferred to china, wood, etc.'), a word youngsters on New York's Lower East Side early in the century found tiring to pronounce and impossible to spell."
World Wide Words goes to much greater lengths:
The original of both cockamamie and decal is the French décalcomanie, which was created in the early 1860s to refer to the craze for decorating objects with transfers (it combines décalquer, to transport a tracing, with manie, a mania or craze). The craze, and the word, soon transferred to Britain — it’s recorded in the magazine The Queen on 27 February 1864: “There are few employments for leisure hours which for the past eighteen months have proved either so fashionable or fascinating as decalcomanie”. It reached the United States around 1869 and — to judge from the number of newspaper references in that year — became as wildly popular as it had earlier in France and Britain. The word was quickly Anglicised as decalcomania and in the 1950s it became abbreviated to decal.
The link between decalcomania and cockamamie isn’t proved, but the evidence suggests strongly that children in New York City in the 1930s (or perhaps a decade earlier) converted the one into the other. There was a fashion for self-decoration at that period, using coloured transfers given away with candy and chewing gum. Shelly Winters wrote of cockamamie in The New York Times in 1956 that “This word, translated from the Brooklynese, is the authorized pronunciation of decalcomania. Anyone there who calls a cockamamie a decalcomania is stared at.”
In other words: "You think you can make a living selling temporary tattoos? Sounds cockamamie to me!"
Cockamamie has no apparent connection, other than the sound of its first syllable, to cock-a-doodle-doo, cockaleeky (a traditional Scottish soup made with chicken and leeks), cocktail, or Cockney.