“Rigmarole” means complicated, bothersome nonsense, a long rambling discourse, or a lengthy procedure.
The word appears about 1736, apparently from “ragman roll” meaning a long list or catalogue. The meaning did not become “foolish activity or commotion” until 1939.
The story behind “rigmarole” goes back to a 1200s list of names known as the Ragman Roll. Edward I of England forced members of the Scottish nobility to swear fealty to him by signing oaths of allegiance that were collected on a number of parchments. Together, these parchments, with their strings and ribbons hanging out, made up what came to be called the Ragman Roll.
Why Ragman? There’s some disagreement about that. The oldest form was rageman, said as three syllables, which suggests it may have been French in origin — a character called Rageman the Good appeared in some French verses around 1290. Others think it might have come from rag in the sense of tatters, used as a name for a devil (as in ragamuffin, originally a demon). Another suggestion is that it may contain a Scandinavian root related to cowardice (in Icelandic ragmenni means coward).
Ragman was also the name of a game where a scroll of parchment had strings hanging from it that pointed to various (probably bawdy) verses in the scroll. Players would choose a string to find their verse, and it would be read out to the entertainment of all. This same system may have been used for a gambling game.
I rarely hear the word now, though it was familiar to me as a child. Though it has a nice rhythm to it and rolls easily off the tongue, it describes something likely to be long, irritating, and complicated. I know! Like an income tax return!