Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In Praise of "Balderdash" (And other words for "nonsense")

The eskimos have a million words -- something like that -- for "snow." We, down in the melted world of "hot air," "hot water," and HOTlanta, have a million words for nonsense. And we need every single one, to truly and precisely describe all the different genres of the useless stuff people say.

The words for nonsense have been in my head lately partly because I've been teaching All About H. Hatterr, and Desani seems to use them all -- often with reference to the speeches of various fake Holy Men who show up in the novel.

So today I thought I would briefly celebrate colorful words for "nonsense," with a mini-tour.

Let's start with the thesaurus.reference.com entry for "nonsense":

absurdity, babble, balderdash, baloney, bananas, blather, bombast, BS, bull, bunk, claptrap, craziness, drivel, fatuity, flightiness, folly, foolishness, fun, gab, gas, gibberish, giddiness, gobbledygook, hogwash, hooey, hot air, imprudence, inanity, irrationality, jazz, jest, jive, joke, ludicrousness, madness, mumbo jumbo, palaver, poppycock, prattle, pretense, ranting, rashness, rot, rubbish, scrawl, scribble, senselessness, silliness, soft soap, stupidity, thoughtlessness, trash, tripe, twaddle

Let's have a closer look at some of the words in bold, shall we? We might also add words like "hocus-pocus" and "blarney," neither of which mean "nonsense," strictly speaking. They are words that describe specific kinds of rhetorical sleights-of-hand -- flattering or deceiving -- and as such they are part of Desani's universe of nonsense. Also, if we were interested in blogging, we might also add "snark," which is a new species: snotty, arch, derision.

Mumbo-Jumbo: Interesting how a number of words meaning 'nonsense' have an ethnic or non-English etymology. Mumbo-jumbo comes from West African religion, where it is the name of a God. Presumably it came into English through the slave trade. The African-American novelist Ishmael Reed played with this word in his postmodern novel Mumbo-Jumbo.

In contemporary usage, it seems to be more or less synonymous with "hocus pocus," and is often used to describe the seeming fakery of religious or quasi-religious rituals:

Mumbo-Jumbo: 2. Obscure or meaningless language or ritual; jargon intended to impress or mystify; nonsense.

1870 L. M. ALCOTT Let. 29 June in E. D. Cheney L. M. Alcott (1889) ix. 238 We..went to vespers in the old church, where we saw a good deal of mumbo-jumbo by red, purple, and yellow priests. 1930 V. SACKVILLE-WEST Edwardians vii. 328 Sebastian..swore loudly that nothing would induce him to take part in the mumbo-jumbo of the imminent Coronation. 1952 A. GRIMBLE Pattern of Islands viii. 165 The moon was above all constraint of sorcery's mumbo-jumbo. 1964 E. BAKER Fine Madness x. 97 Never mind the technical mumbo-jumbo. All we want is a simple yes or no.

Out of cultural sensitivity, one wonders if all this appropriation of "mumbo jumbo" might actually be offensive to some west Africans. I tend to think not, since the God Mumbo-Jumbo is apparently "a god, hobgoblin or boogie man." One doesn't worship these types of Gods, one fears them. (Still, I wouldn't mind knowing where exactly in West Africa Mumbo-Jumbo comes from, and what he means or meant to people there.)

Palaver: Another word with a West African origin, this word meaning straight nonsense comes from a pidgin used by traders centuries ago. It probably comes from the Portugues word "palavra" (or the Spanish: "palabra"). As it was picked up by English sailors, it became derogatory: palaver. Here's the OED:

This word appears to have been used by Portuguese traders on the west coast of Africa for conversing with the local inhabitants (cf. quot. 1735 at sense 4), to have been picked up there by English sailors (cf. quot. 1771 at sense 4), and to have passed from nautical slang into colloquial use. Cf. FETISH n.]

Hocus-Pocus: Probably derived from the Latin "Hoc est corpus," which sounds like it might be part of the Latin mass. The OED suggests that this etymology is not hard and fast:

Used as a formula of conjuring or magical incantation. (Sometimes with allusion to an assumed derivation from hoc est corpus)

1632 RANDOLPH Jealous Lov. I. x, Hocus-pocus, here you shall have me, and there you shall have me! 1656 HOBBES Lib. Necess. & Chance (1841) 384 This term of insufficient cause..is not intelligible, but a word devised like hocus pocus, to juggle a difficulty out of sight. 1772 FLETCHER Logica Genev. 201 The hocus pocus of a popish priest cannot turn bread into flesh.

Whether or not the etymology is set in stone, people have used "hocus pocus" as a figure for the specifically ecclesiastical brand of "nonsense." (In that sense, it's remarkable how close "mumbo-jumbo" and "hocus-pocus" are to one another.)

Balderdash: Interestingly, "balderdash" started as a word for a frothy liquid before it gained its present-day meaning:

Balderdash. 3. A senseless jumble of words; nonsense, trash, spoken or written.

1674 MARVELL Reh. Transp. II. 243 Did ever Divine rattle out such prophane Balderdash! 1721 AMHERST Terræ Fil. 257 Trap's second-brew'd balderdash runs thus: Pyrrhus tells you, etc. 1812 Edin. Rev. XX. 419 The balderdash which men must talk at popular meetings. 1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 351, I am almost ashamed to quote such nauseous balderdash. 1854 THACKERAY Newcomes I. 10 To defile the ears of young boys with this wicked balderdash. 1865 CARLYLE Fredk. Gt. II. VII. v. 287 No end of florid inflated tautologic ornamental balderdash.

"Florid inflated tautologic ornamental baldersash": Wow, you can always count on Carlyle to throw down! (But why isn't he using commas correctly?)

Rigmarole: Early in All About H. Hatterr, Desani describes his own book as "rigmarole English," which has a nice, self-deprecating ring to it. The word usually refers to the nonsense associated with rambling, incoherent statements:

Rigmarole: A succession of incoherent statements; an unconnected or rambling discourse; a long-winded harangue of little meaning or importance.

1736 PEGGE Kenticisms, Rigmarole, a long story; a ‘tale of a tub’. 1757 FOOTE Author II, You are always running on with your riggmon~rowles. 1766 MRS. DELANY Life & Corr. Ser. II. I. 77 How I have run on! Burn this rig-me-role instantly, I entreat your ladyship. 1779 F. BURNEY Diary 20 Oct., That's better than a long rigmarole about nothing. 1814 SCOTT in Lockhart (1839) IV. 274 She repeated a sort of rigmarole which I suppose she had ready for such occasions. 1859 MEREDITH R. Feverel xi, You never heard such a rigmarole. 1883 Times 2 Nov. 2/3 A long rigmarole was told how the journalist's hat had fallen into the Seine.

The OED's etymology of rigmarole is quite interesting. Apparently, it is derived from "Ragman's Roll," the latter being a medieval/Renaissance game of chance. Unfortunately, I can't quite understand the game after reading their definition of "Ragman's Roll":

Ragman's Roll: 3. A game of chance, app. 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 a mere amusement, the items in the roll being verses descriptive of personal character: see Wright Anecd. Lit. (1844) 76-82 and Hazlitt E. Pop. Poetry (1864) I. 68. But that of quot. 1377 was probably a method of gambling, forbidden under penalty of a fine.

1377 Durham Halmote Rolls (Surtees) 140 De Thoma Breuster et Ricardo de Holm quia ludaverunt ad ragement contra p{oe}nam in diversis Halmotis positam 20s. condonatur usque 2s. 1390 GOWER Conf. III. 355 Venus, which stant..In noncertein, but as men drawe Of Rageman upon the chance.

So... it's a roll of paper with strings attached? And you pull on the strings at random? And something happens? I'm having trouble visualizing. (Anybody know what "Ragman's Roll" might look like? Or what the point of it might have been?)

Blarney: Literally means "smoothly flattering talk." But here is the rest of the OED definition:

Blarney: Name of a village near Cork. In the castle there is an inscribed stone in a position difficult of access. The popular saying is that any one who kisses this ‘Blarney stone’ will ever after have 'a cajoling tongue and the art of flattery or of telling lies with unblushing effrontery.'

Flattering nonsense is still nonsense. It is the kind of nonsense a 'guru' speaks to his 'chelas' to entice them to give him their money and attention. And it is what you see in book blurbs and letters of recommendation that praise our friends to the stars. Blarney, pure blarney. (I wonder if the prevalence of Blarney in the world bothers the folks who actually live there; it's not their fault, is it?)

Gobbledygook: More official verbiage. The OED speculates that it probably comes from the sound a Turkey makes: "gobble gobble."

Poppycock: It sounds obscene, but really it isn't. The ever-proper Virginia Woolf, as I recall, used this word all the time. Which is odd, because the OED says that the word is originally American slang (and they don't give an etymology):

1865 C. F. BROWNE A. Ward: his Travels I. iii. 35 You won't be able to find such another pack of poppycock gabblers as the present Congress of the United States. 1884 Pall Mall G. 17 July 4/1 All what you see about me bein' drunk was poppycock. 1892 Nation (N.Y.) 24 Nov. 386/1 Their wails were all what the boys call ‘poppycock’. 1924 M. KENNEDY Constant Nymph iii. 54 Sometimes, you know, you talk..poppycock. 1935 Punch 9 Jan. 30/1, I am not going to..ruin the perfect cadences of my English prose by pointing out to you in courteous and dignified language that your objections are all poppycock and my eye. 1955 Times 24 June 4/5 The peculiar capacity for pumping generals into jobs for which they were never suited continued the poppycock started by the Labour Government. 1973 Nation Rev. (Melbourne) 31 Aug. 1443/6 He was..a ‘dangerous, raving, psychotic, stupid, vicious, sickening writer of poppycock’.

I like the idea of describing the Congress of the United States as a "pack of poppycock gabblers." I also hope I one day have occasion to describe someone as a "dangerous, raving, psychotic, stupid, vicious, sickening writer of poppycock." My current worst insult is simply "troll," and that is basically a weak cliché.

Soft Soap: Means flattery (a synonym for "blarney"). Apparently "soft soap" has some vulgar connotation, though I can't quite figure out what that would be (maybe I'm too timid, or maybe I just don't want to go there). Here's the OED:

Soft soap: 2. slang. Flattery; blarney; ‘soft sawder’. Also attrib. orig.

U.S. 1830 Reg. Deb. Congress U.S. 12 Apr. 774, I will not use the vulgar phrase, and say he has been pouring soft soap down the backs of the New York delegation. 1842 People's Organ (St. Louis) 15 Apr. 2/2 The magnificent bombshell, rammed full of pride, aristocracy,..soft-soap, curiosity, folly, display, nonsense, man-worship and small-talk, was touched off. 1848 BARTLETT Dict. Amer. 320 Soft soap, flattery; blarney. A vulgar phrase, though much used. 1861 HUGHES Tom Brown at Oxford xxxiii, He and I are great chums, and a little soft soap will go a long way with him. 1901 DELANNOY £19,000, xxxix, ‘You're the most sensible woman I've ever met.’ ‘None of your soft-soap, now!’

"Soft soap" is a word Jon Stewart should use, when he's criticizing the media for its softball treatment of political figures. You can't keep on using baseball metaphors forever. Sometimes you have to go with soap.

Hogwash: You might think this word derives from water associated with the washing of hogs, but you would be wrong. According to the OED, it's the wash from a kitchen that is given to hogs. It's fitting, if you think about it. (Human-derived waste, consumed by hogs)

Hooey: Another American slang word for nonsense. (Americans have a special talent, both for dishing the stuff and describing it!) Here are some sample usages:

1924 P. MARKS Plastic Age 100 My prof's full of hooey. He doesn't know a C theme from an A one. 1931 1932 WODEHOUSE Hot Water xiii. 223 Well, of all the hooey! 1934 Discovery Jan. 4/2 The United States of America, whose capacity for new words passes all belief, is responsible for hooey. 1935 Punch 10 Apr. 400/1 You have been misled, Hubert. I see it all. Somebody has been telling you the old, old story... Hooey, Hubert. Boloney. 1935 L. MACNEICE Poems 21 Ireland is hooey, Ireland is A gallery of fake tapestries. 1948 V. PALMER Golconda xxv. 210 All this political hooey..doesn't affect me. 1966 AUDEN About House 21 Lip-smacking Imps of mawk and hooey Write with us what they will.

So there's my list -- hope it was amusing for you to read.

Can you think of other colorful words for nonsense? (Feel free to throw out words from South Asian languages, or any other languages that you know. I wanted to do my own entry on "bakwaas," but thought that might be confusing...)


shibudada said...

all that time amardeep??...for nonsense?

Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Brilliant post, Amardeep, but then again, I'm a sucker for etymology. One day I grow out of being an amateur linguist, but until that day arrives, I'll be intensely interested in all things etymological...not to mention works of Indian literature which I can't make heads or tails of but which, when my medievalist wife (who in a past academic career studied classical sanskrit philosophy and speaks a mean Hindi and Urdu) reads "encourages" me to get copies of...well, let me just say that the entire Kaufman household takes enormous interest in your blog.

Mendi O. said...

First, I love that you include HOTlanta in this list of hot references. Second, have you ever read Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary? The first words to her poem "Jinglejangle" are here:

"Ab flab abracadabra Achy Breaky Action Jackson airy-fairy airfare Asian contagion analysis paralysis Anna banana ants in your pants Annie's cranny Annie Fanny A-okay ape drape argle-bargle artsy-fartsy awesome blossom backpack backtrack Bahama Mama balls to the wall bam-a-lam bandstand Battle in Seattle beat the meat bedspread bee's knees behani ghani best dressed best in the West BestRest Best Western Betsy Wetsy Better Cheddar Big Dig bigwig bird turd black don't crack blackjack blame game boho boiling oil Bone Phone Bonton Bony Maroni boob tube boogie-woogie boohoo book nook boon coon Bot's dots Boozy Suzy bowl of soul bow-wow boy toy brace face brain drain bric-a-brac bug jug bump on the rump Busty Rusty . . ."

I think I messed up the line breaks.

Sujatha said...

In Kannada, we say "bandal" to signify nonsense, in Tamil, "Mannangatti", in Telugu, "bondha".

Vibhu said...

BTW Prof, "Codswallop" is other word for nonsense. Its etymology is interesting too - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codswallop. What I found most interesting is the link to Goli soda (Goli being the Tamil word for marble).

As for some Tamil words for nonsense - "Ularal", "Paethal".

sepoy said...

hmmm...buk buk instead of bukwas?

Anonymous said...

I have never heard Palaver used to mean nonsense, only "talk". Interesting.

-- Ennis

Amardeep said...

Sepoy, aren't both "buk buk" and "bakwas" words? (And aren't they related?)

In Punjabi, it seems to me that people say "don't talk buk buk" when someone is speaking incoherently. But "bukwas" (Hindi and Punjabi) is the more formal kind of nonsense.

sepoy said...

bakwas is indeed a word but not buk buk. it is akin to jibberjabber, hocuspocus and, my own contribution to the field, shibrum shibrum

naayagan said...

One more Tamil word for nonsense is 'Achchu Pichchu'

naayagan said...

And one more Tamil word..'Abaththam'.

nnyhav said...


all belong on the list, but best is
apparently from the same root as gallimaufry (and via Thom Nashe gallimaufriar well -frier but speling was freer back then)

Max said...

I've been told that the origin of "poppycock" was Dutch, not sure of the exact words but the meaning is "Papist shit". But if it's not in the OED then it must be apocryphal!

Also, I've never heard "palaver" used to mean nonsense either - here in the UK it normally means "a lot of fuss about nothing".

Anonymous said...

My Mac's built-in dictionary says poppycock is from the mid-19th century Dutch dialect "pappekak" - from "pap = soft" and "kak = dung"!!!

Anonymous said...

My father in law referred to nonsense as "eye-wash" which meant that it was a liquid that appeared to be liquor but was a pale shadow thereof.

Aishwarya said...

Coming to this three years too late, but "ragman's roll" - if a ragman was a sort of ragpicker, wouldn't his "roll" be a cloth bundle with random pieces of junk inside? Presumably for the purpose of the game said pieces of junk could be replaced by "verses descriptive of personal character".

hands clean said...

The medieval game theory

That there was a popular game current at the time, which consisted of writing a series of verses on a parchment roll each of which represented a specific character. To each verse a string was attached, with a piece of wax at the end. The players each pulled a string in turn to select a character whose persona they adopted for the evening.

The game was name after the lead character 'Rageman the Good' and the parchment roll was therefore called a 'Rageman Roll', and as the document compiled by Edward I resembled the playing equipment it took on the same name.

One thing is reasonably certain though, however it was that the 'Ragman Roll' got its name, in time the phrase 'ragman roll' developed a more general meaning and came to refer to any a complex and bureaucratic procedure and eventually mutated into the familiar word rigmarole.

I was really curious and looked it up. http://everything2.com/title/Ragman+Roll is the link where i got this and there are other theories also as to the etymology.

I have read about such a game in a gothic russian tale sometime back, which i do not recall. There the characters would play the role of the 'character' whose names or characteristics they drew for th remainder of the evening.

RJ said...