Did you know that English language offers so many different ways of saying 'nonsense'?

An even more dismissive term for nonsense was “codswallop” — which remains one of the most colourful words for describing nonsense

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Thu 15 Jun 2023, 9:36 PM

Considering that “nonsense” literally means something that makes no sense, it seems paradoxical that English offers so many ways of saying “nonsense”. Some of them have amusing origins as well, including in other languages. One of the words commonly used in England for foolish ideas, talk or activities was “bosh”, as in “that entire theory is utter bosh”. Bosh, it turns out, comes from boş, a Turkish word meaning “empty; useless”. In similar vein, I would have expected British colonials in India to create “buckwash” out of the Hindustani “bakwaaas”, but they never got beyond “eyewash”. Or you could tell someone to “stop talking rot”, and it amounted to the same thing; something that was rotten could not be consumed, just as an idea that was “bosh” could not be ingested.

An even more dismissive term for nonsense was “codswallop” — which remains one of the most colourful words for describing nonsense. When words or language were dismissed as meaningless or conveying no comprehensible or intelligible ideas, they were called “codswallop”. So “his explanations for not turning in his work on time were codswallop” could mean they were unbelievable, foolish or nonsensical. The etymology of the term is shrouded in controversy. The most interesting explanation is that “wallop” once meant a kind of beer and a 19th-century manufacturer of soft drinks, Hiram Codd, made such undrinkable beer that “codswallop” became a derogatory term for a drink you couldn’t swallow — hence, by extension, for an explanation or argument you couldn’t swallow either. A more prosaic theory suggests that hearing codswallop was the equivalent of being whacked (or “walloped”) with a dead fish (a “cod”), and codswallop was nonsense so insulting that it was like being assaulted with a fish. Take your pick — either theory might turn out to be codswallop too!

If Hiram Codd’s beer was undrinkable, so too was “balderdash”, which also referred to an odd and usually disagreeable mixture of unsuitable drinks (such as a cocktail of beer and milk or beer and wine). No one is able to pinpoint the incompetent bartender who came up with such “balderdash”, though. A more straightforward etymology can be found for “folderol”, since the French term fol-de-rol referred to a nonsense refrain in songs, usually in the theatre. And the even more evocative “poppycock” comes from a Dutch dialect word “pappekak” or “soft dung.”

American equivalents of codswallop — words to describe foolish, empty, specious or nonsensical talk, ideas, or opinions — range from “bunkum” to “claptrap” by way of “flapdoodle” and “hogwash”, taking in “garbage”, “bull”, and its unprintable longer form, as well as “bellywash” and “mumbo jumbo”. The British could counter with “twaddle”, “gibberish”, “tommyrot”, “phooey”, “piffle”, “tripe”, “tosh”, and “double Dutch”. If a Brit considers something to be “cobblers”, an American is more likely to call it “baloney”. A Brit might say something is “blah” while a Yank might suggest it’s “waffle”. (And thanks to infusions of Yiddish from Jewish immigrants, a New Yorker might prefer “meshuggas”).

All in all, there are many ways to describe something that old-fashioned people used to dismiss as “stuff and nonsense”. Some of these terms were born in very specific circumstances. “Bunkum” came from American politics in 1820, when Representative Felix Walker delivered a particularly lengthy and tiresome peroration of limited substance, claiming he was speaking for the people of Buncombe County, North Carolina. “Buncombe” was pronounced “bunkum”, and the hapless county soon found itself, thanks to its political representative, a synonym for pointless speech – mercifully spelled differently. “Blatherskite”, on the other hand, is of Scottish origin, and meant a blustering and often contemptible person given to voluble and inconsequential talk. But it was popularised in America by the immortal Walt Disney, whose character Scrooge McDuck liked to exclaim, “blathering blatherskite!”

Of course, if all these terms are too exotic for you, there is a simple synonym for “nonsense” that is perfectly respectable English: “drivel”. If you want to be rude, you could dismiss something as “rubbish”, or metaphorically urge someone not to release “hot air”. But if you wished to react to nonsense in more memorable language, the terms in this article should be more than enough to settle multiple scores!


More news from Lifestyle