Origins #12: Words that mean ‘nonsense’

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Among of the blessings of the English language is the diverse collection of words that mean largely the same thing. It allows for a tremendous amount of nuance, empowering the writer with the greatest opportunity to convey the precise meaning he has in mind.

One such example is expressing that something is ‘nonsense’. Some examples are balderdash, bunk, claptrap, drivel, fiddlesticks, folly, foolishness, fudge, hogwash, and humbug,  among a surprisingly large list.

Let us try to go through some of these and help us understand from where they come. The origin of bunk is fairly popular, so let’s start with it.

1) Bunk – 1900, short for bunkum, phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a county in North Carolina. The usual story of its origin is this: At the close of the protracted Missouri statehood debates, on Feb. 25, 1820, N.C. Representative Felix Walker began what promised to be a “long, dull, irrelevant speech,” and he resisted calls to cut it short by saying he was bound to say something that could appear in the newspapers in the home district and prove he was on the job. “I shall not be speaking to the House,” he confessed, “but to Buncombe.” Bunkum has been American English slang for “nonsense” since 1847.

2) Poppycock – As the
OED reminds us, the word is actually American in origin, first turning up there about 1852. The OED is firm in dismissing one often-heard view of its origin, from the Dutch word pappekak for soft faeces. It says firmly “no such word appears to be attested in Dutch” but points to the very similar word poppekak, which appears only in the old set phrase zo fijn als gemalen poppekak, meaning to show excessive religious zeal, but which literally means “as fine as powdered doll poop”. The word was presumably taken to the USA by Dutch settlers; the scatological associations were lost when the word moved into the English-language community.The first half of the word is the Dutch pop for a doll, which may be related to our term of endearment, poppet; the second half is essentially the same as the old English cack for excrement; the verb form of this word is older than the noun, and has been recorded as far back as the fifteenth century.

3) Balderdash – 1590s, of unknown origin; originally a jumbled mix of liquors (milk and beer, beer and wine, etc.), transferred 1670s to “senseless jumble of words.” From this site, “It’s a pity that such a fine word should come of unknown stock, but we really don’t have a clear idea where it comes from. Some argue its origin lies in the Welsh baldorddus, idle noisy talk or chatter (though that is pronounced very differently), while others point to related words in Dutch, Icelandic and Norwegian, such as the Dutch balderen, to roar or thunder. It appears around the time of Shakespeare with the meaning of froth or frothy liquid, or a jumbled mixture of liquids, such as milk and beer, or beer and wine. Only in the latter part of the seventeenth century did it move towards its modern meaning, through the idea of speech or writing that is a senseless jumble, hence nonsense or trash.”
4) Fiddlesticks – A fiddlestick was at first just a violin bow. (Both fiddle and violin come from the Roman goddess of joy, Vitula, who gave her name to a stringed instrument; fiddle came down to us via the Germanic languages, violin through the Romance ones.) Fiddlestick is recorded from the fifteenth century, and Shakespeare used a proverb based on it in Henry IV: “the devil rides on a fiddle-stick”, meaning that a commotion has broken out; the imagery is obviously related to the broomstick of a witch, and perhaps there’s some thought of the noise a fiddle might make if the devil got to play it. At some point in Shakespeare’s lifetime, it seems fiddlestick began to be used for something insignificant or trivial, perhaps because fiddle-playing itself was regarded as something worthless or inconsequential. It took on a humorous slant as a word one could use to replace another in a contemptuous response to a remark. George Farquhar used it in this way in his play Sir Henry Wildair of 1701: “Golden pleasures! golden fiddlesticks!”. From here it was a short step to using the word as a disparaging comment to mean that something just said was nonsense.

5) Hogwash – Two origins: First, male pigs are called swines. When they are castrated they are called hogs. The castration process required that the hogs be washed afterward. The water was tossed out as worthless. Or, it’s just the name of the swill fed to swines which really has no nutritional value at all. Today, if something is said to be hogwash, it just means talk that is stupid, invalid or illogical. In other words, it has about as much value as the nutrition in hogwash.

6) Humbug – Humbug is an old term meaning hoax or jest. While the term was first described in 1751 as student slang, its etymology is unknown. Its present meaning as an exclamation is closer to ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’, while as a noun, a humbug refers to a fraud or impostor, implying an element of unjustified publicity and spectacle. The term is also used for certain types of candy.


For more information, click on the links for each word. Each of those sites are a good resource for more word origins.

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