Similar to the word gobbledygook, rigmarole has been in use since 1736 and sounds like what it expresses. Both describe nonsense talk or writing, where rigmarole can be used to illustrate procedures--frequently bureaucratic as in red tape--that don't make sense. While a Texas congressman coined gobbledygook, rigmarole has a historical lineage and anyone who is well acquainted with the military would find both of these words used on a daily basis. I have heard it pronounced in most places I have lived as, " RIG-uh-ma-role," however most dictionaries say the most common pronunciation drops the second syllable so it becomes “RIG-ma-role.” One word expert explains where all this gobbledygook started:
The Middle English Dictionary says that rag(e)man comes from Old Norse and means 'an accuser'. A 1276 statute of Edward I appointed justices to hear accusations of various injuries done within the previous 25 years, and the document recording these offenses was called a rag(e)man rolle. Later in the century, the term was also used for the instruments of homage made to Edward I by the Scottish king John Balliol. The "roll" refers to a roll of parchment.

The noun has essentially two meanings today. “Confused, rambling, or incoherent discourse and nonsense. And “A complicated, petty set of procedures.” A few experts put forward that that the name Rageman is related to ragamuffin which was initially the name of a demon in the medieval morality play Piers Plowman. But a good number of etymologists doubt that as the source saying that the term originated from a popular game of chance that was played during Medieval times called Ragman’s Roll. The name of the competition possibly came from an 1523 Anglo-Norman phraseRagemon le bon meaning ‘Ragemon the Good’ which was the heading on one set of the poems or verses, as well as, the title of a character of the game.

Here is a description of the 1450 game as it appears in one dictionary: “A game of chance, played with a written roll having strings attached to the various items contained in it, one of which the player selected or ‘drew’ at random. In one form the game was mere amusement, the items in the roll being descriptions of a persons character. But there was also another form involving gambling, and that was forbidden under threat of a fine.”

The long roll, also called a scroll, of verses were descriptive of personal characters in the game. Sometimes to gamble, sometimes for fun for passing an evening the game involved a pile of rolled-up pieces of paper tied with string, each inscribed with a personality profile written in verse. Each participant would choose a roll and read aloud what was written, which were presumed to be a sign of the reader's "true nature,” much to the great amusement of the others. The entertainment may have evolved from Ragman Roll or Ragman's roll which was an official scroll associated to medieval pledges of loyalty by the Scottish nobles to the English king. Even then no one was theoretically supposed to be able to understand the legalese, so the words on this scroll just moved off into obscurity until it became rigmarole and hence the word came to describe nonsense.
(Source: A Browser’s Dictionary by John Ciardi)

A related term, red tape as in ‘excessive bureaucratic rigmarole' began to appear in the British vocabulary in 1736. An reference to the red tape that was used in Great Britain for binding up those legal pledges as well as other official documents. With the ribbons and seals festooning these scrolls it’s not hard to imagine where people would associate the game with these documents. So what was once one of the most well-known document in 1291 in which the Scottish nobility and gentry subscribed allegiance to Edward I before John Balliol took the Scots throne, became the “ragman roll " game as a long list came to describe a person’s traits. By the 18th century is was a long list or interminably rambling speech. Some say the extra syllable was probably added when the word arrived in America in the 1930’s where the sense of the meaning of the word transferred into a description of a "foolish activity or commotion" sometime around 1955.


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Rig"ma*role (?), n. [For ragman roll. See Ragman's roll.]

A succession of confused or nonsensical statements; foolish talk; nonsense.


Often one's dear friend talks something which one scruples to call rigmarole. De Quincey.


© Webster 1913.

Rig"ma*role, a.

Consisting of rigmarole; frivolous; nonsensical; foolish.


© Webster 1913.

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