As a noun, blarney means amusing and harmless nonsense and talk which aims to charm, flatter or persuade; as a verb, it means to influence or persuade (someone) using charm and pleasant flattery.
This word is from Blarney, the name of a village near Cork in Ireland; in the castle there, is an inscribed stone, in a position difficult of access, said to give the gift of persuasive speech to anyone who kisses it. In A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), the editor and publisher of topographical dictionaries Samuel Lewis (circa 1782-1865) wrote:
The interest which both natives and strangers take in the castle arises more from a tradition connected with a stone in its north-eastern angle, about 20 feet from the top, than from any other circumstance: this stone, which bears an inscription in Latin recording the erection of the fortress, is called the “Blarney stone,” and has given rise to the well known phrase of “Blarney,” in reference to a notion that, if any one kisses it, he will ever after have a cajoling tongue and the art of ﬂattery or of telling lies with unblushing effrontery. Few, however, venture upon this ceremony, from the danger in being lowered down to the stone by a rope from an insecure battlement 132 feet high.
References to blarney in print only appeared in the second half of the 18th century. In The Vicar of Wakefield: A Tale. Supposed to be written by Himself (1766), the Irish author Oliver Goldsmith (1728?-1774) gives the name Lady Blarney to a woman of the town who uses sweet talk to work her way into the company of the vicar’s innocent family.
When one reads what the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) wrote in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), one realises that, originally, blarney
– had the sense of the craft of telling convincing fictions
– and might not have referred to the stone’s supposed properties (Grose mentioned none) but to the fact that many people who had not got to this stone invented stories telling how they had succeeded in reaching it:
Blarney; he has licked the Blarney stone; he deals in the wonderful, or tips us the traveller¹. The Blarney stone is a triangular stone on the very top of an ancient castle of that name, in the county of Cork in Ireland, extremely difficult of access, so that to have ascended to it was considered as a proof of perseverance, courage and agility, whereof many are supposed to claim the honour, who never atchieved [sic] the adventure; and to tip the Blarney, is figuratively used for telling a marvellous story, or falsity². (Irish)
¹ In the same dictionary, Grose explained that “to top [typo, corrected in the 1788 edition: to tip] the traveller” means “to tell wonderful stories, to romance”.
² In the 1788 edition, the entry ends with “figuratively used for telling a marvellous story, or falsity; and also sometimes to express flattery”.
In the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition – 1989), the earliest instance of blarney used individually and figuratively is from a letter that the Scottish poet and novelist Walter Scott (1771-1832) wrote to his friend William Erskine (1768-1822) on 26th September 1796:
In point of Time the publishers are certainly entitled to dictate and I do not know whether I may not admit their authority even to the title page but that I take to be the ne plus ultra of a Bookseller’s dominion. As to expressing in a preface feelings which I do not feel apprehensions which I do not apprehend and motives by which I am no whit moved, I hold it (so to speak) to be all Blarney and therefore shall certainly not indulge Mr. Mundell by the insertion of any of these common place apologies for publication which are in fact no apologies at all — Either the things are worthy the attention of the public or they are not, in the one case an apology would be superfluous in the other impertinent.
But I have found an earlier instance: a poem titled Blunder O’Whack’s journey to Carmarthen, published in The Chester Courant (Cheshire) of 30th September 1794, contains:
’Tis all about Blunder O’Whack of Killarney,
Who took once from Dublin to London a trip;
For staying at home, why I thought it all blarney,
So I set off, and work’d (?) all the way in a ship.
I have also found an early instance of blarney used as a verb in the Kentish Gazette of 11th November 1791; at the end of the review of a “new Comedy, called Notoriety”, set in France, are the lyrics of a song interpreted by one Mr. Johnstone, who played O’Whack, an Irish servant; the last lines are:
Oh! I kissed a Grisette who hallooed out ma si donc,
And yet I consoled her all night and all day;
To be sure and I was not her sweet Irish Cupidon,
Her petit Mignon, and mi Lor Anglois:
But, when she found out sans six sous was poor Pat, Sir,
It was allea [= allez, i.e. go!], miserable John Bull;
So I een [= even] gave this blarneying frenchified Cat, Sir,
Of good wholesome shillilagh [= shillelagh] a compleat stomach full.
With their petit Chanson, &c.
In Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1st edition – 1870), Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) wrote:
Cormuck Macarthy held the castle of Blarney in 1602, and concluded an armistice with Carew, the lord president, on condition of surrendering the fort to the English garrison. Day after day his lordship looked for the fulfilment of the terms, but received nothing except protocols and soft speeches, till he became the laughing-stock of Elizabeth’s ministers, and the dupe of the lord of Blarney.
This is most probably an a posteriori rationalisation of blarney as a common noun since, eighty-five years earlier, Francis Grose needed no such story to explain “he has licked the Blarney stone”.
But the popularity of Brewer’s dictionary grew edition after edition and this legend, among others, has been taken into account as a possible origin of blarney. (Likewise, Brewer’s erroneous explanation of the phrase to kick the bucket, meaning to die, has become an accepted truth.)