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: . 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.
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), 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 (at least at Yale)--no doubt helped along by the pneumatic ancestors gas and wind. 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.