Blethering about blatherskitePosted by Stan Carey on June 06, 2016
Among the recent additions to Macmillan’s Open Dictionary – crowdsourced through reader submissions – is the colourful word blatherskite. This can refer either to ‘a person who talks nonsense’ or to the nonsense itself: blatherskites talk blatherskite.
Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).
Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.
It happened because of an old Scottish song, ‘Maggie Lauder’, which contained the line ‘Jog on your gate (roughly, ‘Be on your way’), ye blether skyte’. The song became popular in America during the War of Independence, and the phrase spread to pockets of colloquial use in the States. Browsing COHA (the Corpus of Historical American English), we find examples like the following:
Instead of inviting a pro-slavery man or a ‘doughface’ to dinner, and listening to his blatherskite apologies for his own position, he held him up to the scorn of gods and men. (Editorial, The Nation, 1900)
Bryan’s a big bellowing blatherskite but even he represents something. (John Dos Passos, 42nd Parallel, 1930)
‘Memphis can run its own affairs,’ he said, ‘and no blatherskite or demagogue of the North or South should be permitted to interfere with the friendly relations between the races that now exist in Memphis.’ (New Republic, 1943)
The scorn with which the word is used is palpable in these quotations, and it’s no coincidence that the context is often political. The word has a derisive tone and the feel of a nonsense word that points to the absurdity of the speaker or speech being insulted. The same quality is apparent in synonyms like poppycock, tommyrot, gibberish, and balderdash, all of which share blatherskite’s dactylic metre. It’s worth comparing this pattern with the phonetic clustering around numbnuts and related words.
It’s not always spelt blatherskite: variants include bletherskate, bletherskite, and bladderskate. The OED’s main entry is under bletherskate, which it dates to the mid-17th century. This orthographic variety is to be expected given the word’s infrequent and informal use, and can be followed to the root: blether and blither mean the same as blather, and the adjective blithering has similar connotations. But that’s enough blather out of me for today.Email this Post
“Blether”, as a noun equivalent to “chatterbox”, was commonplace when I lived in Scotland in the early eighties, ranking in ubiquity only slightly below “och”, and “wee”, with which it was often heard in conjunction. It was used, affectionately, of my preschooler sister.
Thanks for letting me know, Adrian. I wouldn’t have guessed it was so common. Blether is occasionally used in Ireland, but blather is a lot more common; it usually refers to the rambling speech itself, or is used as a verb for that activity.