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Word Improvisation -- June 1996

A Lot of Nonsense

by J. E. Lighter

WHEN the Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz needed a title for his recent book on daytime-television talk shows (which epitomize, in his view, America's increasingly "run-at-the-mouth culture"), a term suggesting a conflation of airwaves and vaporous blather was ready to hand: Hot Air . One rule of thumb about slang is that the more prevalent the object, activity, or behavior being described, and the more intense its psychological salience, the more numerous and diverse the slang terms available to describe it. The demand for slang denoting nonsense--or, if you will, applesauce, hogwash, hokum, hooey, jive, piffle, tommyrot, or twaddle --stems from the fact that people talk so much of it.

wordimpr picture The first reference to hot air, in the sense of boasting or nonsense, that is cited in historical dictionaries comes from The Gilded Age (1873), by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The book refers to "the hot air of the capital"--but although the association of hot air and Washington seems fitting, it is not clear that Twain and Warner meant to do anything other than refer to the temperature of the atmosphere. (The text is ambiguous.) The first unequivocal citation comes from the humorist George Ade's Fables in Slang (1900): "He talked what is technically known as Hot Air." By century's end, then, the slang meaning was well established, as was the derivative term ball oon juice (at least at Yale)--no doubt helped along by the pneumatic ancestors gas and wind. Gas was coined in its literal sense by the seventeenth-century Dutch chemist J. B. van Helmont, who derived it from the Greek word khaos , meaning, well, "chaos." The slang meaning had developed in English by the late 1700s, and in the nineteenth century gas was without question a popular word for "empty talk." Wind led to windies , which in the American Southwest referred to tall tales. Windbags and gasbags , of course, are found all over.

If one major class of nonsense-related slang derives, naturally enough, from the gaseous language of breath and speech, another derives from the world of organic liquids and solids of dubious value. In the early seventeenth century balderdash was a mixture of liquors (or even of beer and buttermilk)--beneath the notice of serious tipplers. Restoration writers eventually applied the word to worthless rhetoric. Baloney made a similar transition by 1922, after six decades as simply the name of an inexpensive sausage made from some of the least choice cuts of meat. For emphasis nowadays one may say bull-oney , creating a phonetic and psychological link to the long-popular bull , and to a meadowful of metaphors we may as well skip here.

But not entirely. Old yearbooks show that cadets at West Point called voluble talk B.S. as early as 1900--evidently a transparent abbreviation even then. A more recent euphemism is bull hockey, which has nothing to do with sports; newer still are bull puckey and the mysterious bull dinky. The dismissive Americanism poppycock has scatological overtones in the original Dutch. Though Americans today associate a curt outburst of "Poppycock!" with English gentry, in truth the word was once unfathomable in England; Rudyard Kipling, when recounting for English readers in 1891 a conversation he had had in California, felt the need to substitute the word bosh. The origins of the recent British favorite codswallop remain in dispute.

Henry Ford told a reporter in 1916, "History is more or less bunk "--short for buncombe , often applied to insincere political speech. (This word is associated with Buncombe County, in North Carolina, and an incident in which Felix Walker, an early-nineteenth-century politician from that district, droned on and on in Congress despite entreaties from his colleagues, insisting that he was speaking "for Buncombe.") Ford, with his offhand remark, presaged the ahistoricism of much contemporary cultural theory--which itself may contain no small degree of malarkey (origin unknown).

Illustration by David Pohl
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Word Improvisation; Volume 277, No. 6; page 116.

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