By Anatoly Liberman
Unlike hogwash or, for example, flapdoodle, the noun balderdash is a word of “uncertain” (some authorities even say of “unknown”) origin. However, what is “known” about it is probably sufficient for questioning the disparaging epithets. We can dismiss with a condescending smile all kinds of imaginative rubbish (balderdash?) proposed by those who believed that knowing one or two old languages is enough for discovering an etymology, but one such guess is curious. According to it, the English noun goes back to Hebrew Bal, allegedly contracted from Babel, and dabar. The “curiosity” consists in the fact that there is a German verb (aus)baldowern “to nose out a secret or some information” (aus– is a prefix), from the language of the underworld. It goes back to Yiddish, ultimately Hebrew, ba’al-dabar “the lord of the word or of the thing” (ba’al has nothing to do with Babel). Thus, a fanciful etymology suggested for one word in English fits a German word of similar structure.
An equally ingenious attempt to supply balderdash with divine ancestry takes us all the way to the north. Engl. jovial, from French, from Italian, from Latin, was coined with the sense “under the influence of the planet Jupiter” (which astrologists regarded as the source of happiness”; compare by Jove!). The name of the most beautiful Scandinavian god was Baldr, Anglicized as Balder. Inspired by those facts, a resourceful author wrote in 1826: “The vilest of prose and poetry is called balder-dash; now Balder was among the Scandinavians the presiding god of poetry and eloquence.” Poor Baldr (who, incidentally, had nothing to do with poetry and eloquence)! As though it was not enough to be murdered at the Assembly with the mistletoe… He also had to bear the responsibility for enriching the English language with the word balderdash, which surfaced only at the end of the sixteenth century, millennia after the heinous deed.
As often in such cases, it remains unclear whether the word under discussion is native or borrowed. Not surprisingly, Spanish baldon(e)ar “to insult” and Welsh baldorddus “tattling” have been cited as possible etymons of balderdash. The trouble with Celtic words is that, even when the connection looks good, we cannot always ascertain the direction of borrowing (for example, from English to Welsh or from Welsh to English?). The history of English etymology is full of the Celtomaniacs who traced hundreds of words to Irish Gaelic, and of passionate deniers, who refused to believe that any Celtic language had the power to influence English. Besides, as one should never tire of repeating, it is not enough to point to a similar-sounding word in a foreign language without reconstructing the path of penetration. When and in what circumstances could a Spanish verb become so popular in England that English speakers adopted it as their slang (and a noun into the bargain)?
The Hebrew etymology of balderdash is, of course, a bad joke, but it brings out the fact that in several languages words designating various undignified concepts begin with bal(d)-. In Dutch we see baldadig “wanton” (an adjective formed from the noun meaning “evil, baleful deed”). Slavic has a long list of such words, the most interesting of which is Russian balda “fool” (stress on the second syllable), because Pushkin wrote The Tale of the Priest and His Workman Balda (he wrote it in exile, in a place called Boldino — stress on the first syllable; music lovers may have heard Shostakovich’s early suite on this tale, an analog of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks). A folklore character called a fool always turns out to be exceptionally smart. In Pushkin’s tale, Balda (which is used as the workman’s proper name) outwits his greedy employer (the priest) and a whole family of devils. One gets the impression that the syllable bald serves more or less the same purpose all over the map. Many such words, including Balda, pose problems and have been with some hesitation referred to Turkic, but at least some of them may be native.
The difficulty with balderdash is that its earliest recorded senses are “froth” and “mixture of drinks.” “Nonsense” and “vile, insulting language” are seemingly later developments, because it is more natural for a word denoting “froth” to acquire figurative meanings (“cheap drink,” “trash,” “nonsense”) than for a word meaning “nonsense” to be applied to a drink. Not that such a change is impossible (puzzling sematic leaps occur all the time); it is only less probable. Compound nouns fit the names of drinks, especially mixed drinks: think of scumgullion and shandygaff. (When the form of a word “corresponds” to its meaning, linguists speak of iconicity. A compound word for a compound drink is the very triumph of iconicity.) Scumgullion is not only tea or coffee made thin but also a kind of stew. Perhaps balderdash too had a wider application one day.
Quite naturally, words for “nonsense” tend to be expressive; funny, partly meaningless compounds, native and borrowed, like claptrap, poppycock, and codswallop are cast ideally for this role. But how was balderdash coined? The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says: “Various continental forms f[or] balder– expressing loud noise or clatter are not relevant in sense.” This verdict may be too harsh. The element –dash, which everybody identifies with the verb dash, suggests that producing the mixture was associated with a vigorous, abrupt, or hasty movement: one threw, rather than poured, the ingredients into a bowl, and conceivably did it with some noise, amplified in the word’s form by humor. Balderdash seems to be a compound of the same type as slapdash or slapjack, or puffball, except that Engl. balder “knock, bang, crash, pop” has not been attested Continental words resembling balder– and meaning “bawl; talk nonsense” are numerous: Norwegian dialectal bjaldra, Dutch balderen ~ German poltern, and so forth. All of them are evidently onomatopoeic. Danish daske means “slap, flap” and is, most likely, another verb of imitative origin. German Kladderdatsch means “excitement, confusion,” but it was originally an exclamation accompanying the sight of a big fall (this is what Humpty-Dumpty would have cried out while falling from the wall if he were German). Balderdash hardly migrated to the slang of the Elizabethan epoch from Scandinavia, and it does not seem to have existed in English since the Vikings’ times; yet a drop of foreign (German?) blood can possibly be detected in the mixture.
How can balderdash become a word of a “known” origin? This will happen if a document turns up in which a certain bartender tells a story about how he coined the name for the swill he served to his guests. Ideally the bartender’s own name should also be Balderdash. A story recounting the birth of Kladderdatsch exists, but a book titled The Balding Bartender’s Memoirs with the information we need has not been found. Another good thing would be to discover a local English verb balder. In the absence of the desired memoirs and the sought-for verb let us be content with what we have.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”