On baloney

My title is the North American variant on just one of the many fine sausages of Bologna, made traditionally not with yak meat, but from pork ground finely together with wee blobs of delicious lard. American inspectors force the manufacturers to conceal these blobs, perhaps on the theory that what you can’t see won’t hurt you. But if the lard’s not there, the stuff is inedible. It is bland, like a Mortadella, but when made properly (almost never in the big meat factories) it is sublimely bland, both in taste and texture. A worthy substitute for my mock chicken, adored in childhood. I love overstated spicy food. But I also love the understated, such as real Wien wieners and mild “ballpark” (Montreal kosher) mustard, sweet green relish, and French processed cheese, in a bun. (I believe this is called a “hot dog.”) I love foods that whisper, as well as foods that shout. But they should whisper affectionately.

The term baloney is also rightly applied to “foolish and deceptive talk,” perhaps originally as a variant of ballyhoo (“blarny, humbug”), bally having been a euphemism for “bloody,” later applied to cheaply cured woods in the manufacture of inferior fishing schooners, that tended to break up in North Atlantic storms. By some otherwise mute inglorious Milton, these concepts were all brilliantly “Yanked” together.

But as a connoisseur of suspicious etymologies, in the grand philosophical tradition, I am myself inclined to substitute another explanation. I argue that the association of Bologna — the city of the ancient university — with foolish and deceptive talk, might be the origin of the idea. And that this notion first spread in the Italian city states of the later Middle Ages, which were crawling with Bologna graduates.

You see there were, as I count, three major intellectual centres, back in the day: Paris, Bologna, and Toledo. There were a hundred other less celebrated, but these were the great magnets for the sharpest pins among the young. You went to Paris to study theology and philosophy, to Bologna to study law and administration. Toledo was the interesting place where Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and other venerable languages behind the three monotheist faiths were being translated into Latin — which every educated European could read — by impressive Christian scholars. Arts and sciences retrieved, especially from the Hellenic past (good Aristotle texts for starters) were being disseminated through Europe, along with the languages themselves. Also Salerno, Palermo, Montpellier, in those days; and far up north — e.g. Cologne, Oxford and its little offshoot at Cambridge — universities were vying to attract faculty who, for instance, could read and write in Arabic. (Oxford libraries hold much evidence of this.)

Somehow I have failed to mention Padua, Toulouse, &c — for which I can only hope to be forgiven. But from the centre of Christendom, at Rome, Pope Alexander IV could declare (in 1255) that, “It is at Paris that the human race, deformed by original sin and blinded by ignorance, recovers its power of vision and beauty, by the knowledge of the true light shed forth by divine science.”

Not, be it noted, at Bologna, famed as it was for the study of law, and then dominant among Italian universities. The graduates from Bologna were very smart people, who moved quickly into almost all the high political posts; including inside the beltway at Rome, where they presided over the blossoming of our Canon Law. I could not wish to belittle their accomplishments in all secular fields, though my mediaeval heart is Parisian.

But of course, they were also detested for their arrogance and sophistry, their “old boy” clubbishness and networking. They, as it were, spoke “Bologna,” and my speculative etymology is founded on this fact.

Today, the populist Trump is doing something remarkable. He is making appointments not from the “Ivy League.” Candidates from Harvard, Yale, and Columbia — who overwhelmingly populate the senior bureaucacy of Obama, as other administrations going back to FDR, if not to Woodrow Wilson, or Adams — suddenly evacuate the gene pool. This, to my mind, is a significant development; one I was not entirely expecting. Trump has the nerve to look across the rest of America for talent and good sense. Somehow he noticed in his flyovers from Manhattan that there were people down there.

We will see if the result is a disaster. At first, the horror of the outgoing establishment is laid on pretty thick. Poor dears: they must yell while they can, until their microphones are snaffled away. These new bosses replacing them lack their instincts, their manners, their sycophancy towards the old holy cows. They will be like yaks in the china shop.

But when the mass of “Bologna” disappears, we must accustom ourselves to a more varied diet. We are presented with salsiccia fresca; some ’nduja at Energy, perhaps; some oily zambone at State; the Modeno cotechino in the Treasury; ciavàr at Interior; thin-sliced soppressata at the EPA; the rustic lucanica at Education; a hunk of biroldo at the DoD. Truth to tell, I had tired of all that baloney, every bally day.