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?Email this Post