Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Know Your Nonsense–A Lexical Guide to Horse Apples

Mark Peters, the genius behind the blog Wordlustitude in addition to being a Contributing Editor for Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, and a language columnist for Babble, is our guest blogger this week. Below Peters looks at synonyms for bullshit, a study most apt for our political season.

As we slog through the longest campaign season since Christ was a cowboy, you may find the words nonsense and bullshit are being asked to work seven days a week plus overtime shifts: there’s too much nonsense for even a squadron of nonsense synonyms to cover.

Fortunately, English has considerably more than a squadron of BS-ish, nonsense-labeling words, including truthiness, fiddle-faddle, rot, flummery, mumbo-jumbo, bosh, piffle, bloviation, malarkey, and gobblydegook. All these words fit comfortably under the umbrella of nonsense. But what kind of nonsense? Drivel is not bunk: a claptrapper may not be a hornswoggler.

As for bullshit, philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt nailed the concept in his essay “On Bullshit,” identifying BS as “unconnected to a concern with the truth.” The bullshit artist, whose scope is “panoramic rather than particular,” doesn’t care whether something is true or false. Bullshitters sell their patriotism, or their vacuums, or another non-fact-related agenda. Therefore, Frankfurt says, “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

This is an admirable definition of bullshit, but only the farmer’s daughter may know why bullshit came to mean bullshit. Is the feces of a steer really less fact-filled than the tears of a cat? Or the protein spill of a penguin? What about elephant snot? Perhaps “You can’t elephant snot an elephant snotter” just didn’t sound right.

The non-bull half of bullshit requires no explanation, but not all its synonyms are as transparent as an ill-chosen dress. Fortunately, the OED is a potent etymology-clearer-upper. After knowing where a few of these doubletalk-y, twaddle-ish, humbug-esque words have been and what they’ve been doing, perhaps you’ll use them with greater accuracy, as you make fun of the campaign speeches, attack ads, horse-race metaphors, momentum neologisms, and diner soliloquies that will choke all discourse from now till the blessed finish line in November.

This porky word has the same unappetizing original meaning as swill; leftover, yucky liquid and chunks from the kitchen that were given to pigs. Understandably, this was considered less nummy than what you’d get at the local microbrew, so it’s no wonder that hogwash came to mean lame, lousy liquor, and (since at least the late nineteenth century) verbal stuff you wouldn’t serve to your mother. Unless you hate your mother.

Though Googling indicates that Hornswoggle is best known these days as the name of a diminutive wrestler who may or may not be a leprechaun, hornswoggling has an even-less proud history: it originated in the U.S. in the 1800s and means “to hoodwink, humbug, bamboozle.” So hornswoggling individuals are not just lying or double-talking: they are actively trying to put one over on us.

Literal tripe might make you yearn for a hogwash latte: the OED defines its original meaning, circa 1300, as “The first or second stomach of a ruminant, esp. of the ox, prepared as food; formerly including the entrails of swine and fish.” Mmm… Second stomach of a ruminant. The meaning broadened in the 1500s to mean anybody’s innards, guts, and internal thingumbobs, but before tripe was used to describe rubbish and nonsense, it was a handy insult in the expression bag of tripe. This 1892 use makes maximum use of the word’s culinary history: “This book..very vulgar..it is a dish of literary and artistic ‘tripe-and-onions’.”

Not many words have a birthday that can be celebrated with any confidence, but here’s an exception: on Feb. 25, 1820, our elected congressrodents were eager to discuss the Missouri question, but Felix Walker of Buncombe county had other ideas. Despite his peeved peers, Walker demanded that he make a speech for Buncombe. Apparently, his determined, dubious diatribe was memorable, because speaking for Buncombe quickly became an idiom meaning crapola of a particularly political and panderistic type. Later, Buncombe was reinterpreted as bunkum and clipped to become bunk. Much later, the topic was memorably mystified on Seinfeld:

Elaine: If anyone needs any medical advice, Elaine met a doctor. And he’s unattached.
Jerry: I thought the whole dream of dating a doctor was debunked.
Elaine: No, it’s not debunked, it’s totally bunk.
Jerry: Isn’t bunk bad? Like, that’s a lot of bunk.
George: No, something is bunk and then you debunk it.
Jerry: What?
Elaine: Huh?
George: I think.
Elaine: Look, I’m dating a doctor and I like it. Let’s just move on.

The origin of this early 18th century word is not well-disguised: it’s a trap for claps, a Pavlovian pork chop waved in the schnozz of listeners, designed to generate cheap applause.

Though the bull is the patron species of nonsense, horses have done their part. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang records plenty of barely altered euphemisms: horse apples, horsechips, horsecrap, horse dookie, horse manure, horse hooey, horse hockey, and horse pucky. I’m guessing that the commonness of horses and their brown apples was responsible for the number of terms. If a car could drop a deuce, I’m sure carcrap would be a successful term today.

I’m thirsty. Want to join me for a mug of beer and milk? How about beer and wine? I’ll take that gagging sound for a no, and what you’re saying no to is balderdash: before it became BS, balderdash meant a frothy, revolting combo of noncomplementary beverages. So verbal balderdash is a hodgepodge of buzzwords, platitudes, jargon, and other ill-chosen terms. Where have we heard balderdash on the campaign trail? Oh yeah, everywhere.

Since bullshit comes from the same pie-hole we use for other delicious and nauseous tasks, I suppose it’s natural that many of these words once described the intake of non-restaurant-quality nourishment. But here’s one that involves a mess going out rather than in: Before drivel began to mean “idiotic utterance” or “silly nonsense” around 1852, it meant literal verbal diarrhea: “spittle flowing from the mouth.” That meaning was used from the 14th through 18th centuries, and here’s a nifty variation: “Did he, at one time, wear drivel-bibs, and live on spoon-meat?” (1831).

As a concerned citizen, I think the drivel-bib deserves a better fate than being a footnote in lexicographical history. We make Presidential candidates jump through so many hoops and denounce so many preachers. Surely they wouldn’t object to campaign-wardrobe reform that mandated the donning of a drivel-bib?

Now that would clean up this campaign. I’d also save money on brain bleach; getting malarkey out of my membranes is never easy.

Recent Comments

  1. […] for sex and lower horn for penis), exclamations (spluh, guh, zookabarooka, gweesh, abracaduh), nonsense synonyms (blithery-poop, drivel-poop, baldercrap, crapspackle, bushwa, twaddle-cock), indefinite […]

  2. charles

    It is 2017 and this is timely. I would like to add one phrase we use in the tech world – “hand-waving” – which is similar to bloviation. A little more in the vein of adding distracting details, illustrations and such when short on solid information.

Comments are closed.