Poppycock, bunkum and rawmaish

Posted by on March 20, 2012

I mentioned the term mumbo-jumbo in my recent survey of reduplication. Claptrap and bunkum (a near-reduplicative) did not feature, but all three are among a great many words the English language has for conveying the idea of nonsense, rubbish, rot, drivel, tripe – you get the picture.

Each of these terms has its own nuances, connotations, and sometimes additional meanings, but they all share with nonsense more or less the sense of “ideas, behaviour, or statements that are not true or sensible”. Sometimes we preface them with “a load of”, or similar, in order to underline the nonsensicality of what they refer to.

Many words for nonsense have an entertaining, almost clownish feel. Think of baloney, balderdash, piffle, gobbledegook, gibberish, poppycock, flapdoodle, twaddle, tommyrot, hogwash, hooey, and a load of old cobblers. These are words to delight in, flamboyant terms that parade themselves in a sentence and often stand alone.

Maybe their playfulness, though it stresses the silliness of what’s being criticised, also softens the blow of criticism. This would fall under the subfield of pragmatics known as politeness theory. Consider the old Irish expression: “There’s a great deal of sense outside your head.” Most of the line sounds like a sober compliment, until the word outside delivers an abrupt insult and a humorous absurdity.

Other synonyms are more blunt, few more so than bullshit and its neighbours crap, bollocks and the like. Though highly popular in informal contexts, these coarse expressions are generally avoided in polite company, or some other strategy is used; for example, bullshit may be euphemised transparently as B.S.

Some have histories as curious as their sound and appearance. In her MED Magazine article ‘Talking Nonsense: old-fashioned terms for nonsense in English’, Diane Nicholls reports that poppycock originates in a Dutch dialectal word, pappekak, which translates literally as “soft dung”, while bunkum and its abbreviated form bunk hail from Buncombe, a county in North Carolina, owing to a minor political incident there in the early 19th century.

An Irish word meaning nonsense or foolish talk – one I use now and then – is ráiméis. It’s quite common in Irish English, where its spelling is sometimes anglicised to reflect pronunciation, as rawmaish, raumaish or rawmaysh, or in the gerund form rawmaishing. Flann O’Brien found use for it in his rambunctious satire The Hard Life:

Ye are forever trimming and adjudicating yourselves to the new winds that do blow. In case of doubt, send for a Jesuit. For your one doubt he will give you twenty new ones and his talk is always full of “ifs” and “buts”, rawmaish and pseudo-theology. The word I have heard used for that sort of thing is casuistry.

Clearly, when we want to dismiss something as claptrap, poppycock, flapdoodle and ráiméis, we are spoilt for choice. So what words do you use?

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Comments (12)
  • Nice set of words! Interesting how, apart from the ruder ones, these all have an old-fashioned flavour. The same applies to my personal favourite, “tosh”, which is labelled “old-fashioned” in the dictionary. Like the ones you mention, it’s often preceded by “a load of”, and also the usual intensifiers (complete, total, utter, absolute), and sometimes simply appears as “What tosh!” Like “crap”, “rot” etc, tosh has the merit of being short (and therefore satisfyingly dismissive).

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 20th March, 2012
  • Great to revisit these and discover a whole load more, Stan. It’s long been a very rich area of the lexicon, that seems to be becoming comparatively impoverished these days. One of my favourites, which again shows the link with food (esp. for animals, cf. ‘swill’ and ‘hogwash’), is ‘pabulum’, which OED defines as ‘Bland intellectual fare; an insipid or undemanding diet of words, entertainment, etc. Rather like ‘pap’, but more pompous sounding.

    Posted by Diane Nicholls on 20th March, 2012
  • Americans have largely abandoned polite euphemisms in this category as insufficiently contemtuous and direct.

    Posted by Michael T. Smith on 20th March, 2012
  • Michael: “satisfyingly dismissive” is just right. It is curious that so many are old-fashioned – and gratifying that they remain available to us.

    Diane: Pabulum‘s a fine word, but it definitely has more of a literary flavour. Tripe also shows the link with food that you mention.

    Michael: The terms we use here (in Ireland) to refer to nonsense are also very likely to be direct and unsparing.

    Posted by Stan on 20th March, 2012
  • Nice blog, Stan.
    Since O’Brien didn’t translate An Béal Bocht himself, it would be interesting to see if “ráiméis” is used in the original. Most likely it is.

    Posted by Niall on 20th March, 2012
  • As well as hogwash there’s also eyewash, both quite old-fashioned

    The rhyming pair ‘tosh’ and ‘bosh’ are good too! Or should I say – they are bad.

    Posted by Linguagenius on 21st March, 2012
  • Niall: I presume that’s how it’s spelt in the original. I must check when I get a chance.

    Linguagenius: Eyewash is a new one on me! Your rhyming pair reminded me of Hugh Laurie’s tish and pish in Blackadder.

    Posted by Stan on 21st March, 2012
  • Stan:

    Can’t sniffle
    At piffle,
    It’s bunkum
    That sunk’m
    And hokum
    That broke’m

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 24th March, 2012
  • Marc: I like it!

    And piffle, its whiff’ll
    be phony baloney.

    Posted by Stan on 25th March, 2012
  • Yo’ nonsense has sunkin
    and miffles intense, teriffle sense

    Posted by Patricia Hüsler on 29th March, 2012
  • Patricia:

    Thank you, I
    think you
    made more sense
    than my sense.

    Posted by Stan on 31st March, 2012
  • Re ‘eyewash’. Following the outbreak of World War 1 the then Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, appointed Major Ernest Swinton as the only official war correspondent . This was done so that the Government could control the information about the war being published by the UK press. His by line was ‘Eyewitness’, but among the soldiers he was known as ‘Eyewash’. Such was the spin put on these reports so as not to unduly alarm the UK public they in all probablity were referred to by the soldiers as ‘a load of old eyewash!’

    Posted by John Eyers on 16th October, 2015
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