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12 Old-Timey Ways of Saying “Nonsense”

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Balderdash. Codswallop. Bunkum. Poppycock. The English language has dozens of weird ways of calling out someone for talking utter rubbish—and these aren’t even the strangest. But as ridiculous-sounding as some of these words are, they all still have their own histories and etymologies behind them. Balderdash is thought to have originally been a random mixture of frothy liquors, or the foamy water used by a barber to shave a customer. Codswallop was probably originally a nickname for poor-quality beer, perhaps named after bottle manufacturer Hiram Codd. Bunkum comes from a pointless speech given by the Congressman for Buncombe County, North Carolina, in 1820. And poppycock either comes from a Dutch dialect word for “soft poop,” or from the old Dutch expression zo fijn als gemalen poppekak—literally “as fine as powdered doll’s excrement.” (No, really.) 

The origins and stories behind 12 even more obscure and even more bizarre words and phrases meaning “nonsense” are explored here. 

1. ALL MY EYE AND BETTY MARTIN!

All my eye! first emerged in British English as a means of dismissing someone talking complete nonsense in the early 1700s. From there, it went on to be used in a variety of increasingly strange extended expressions, such as "All my eye and my grandmother!" and "All my eye and Betty Martin!," which dates back to the 1780s. Precisely who (or what) Betty Martin was is a mystery: different theories suggest it might once have been a nickname for an unknown piece of naval equipment, the name of an eccentric Irish theatre-owner and actress working in 18th century London, or a corruption of a little-known Latin prayer, Ora pro nobis beate Martine (“Pray for us, blessed St Martin”). 

2. TO BLATHER LIKE A BUBBLY-JOCK

The 18th century expression "To blather like a bubbly-jock," meaning “to talk rubbish,” brings together two brilliant old dialect words: blather (as in blatherskite, another word for a habitual gossip) is an old Scots word ultimately derived from an earlier Scandinavian word for chatter or prattle, and bubbly-jock is an old nickname for a male turkey. 

3. COLLYWESTON

Collyweston is the name of a rural village in Northamptonshire, England, that made a name for itself in the early 19th century for the production of local high-quality slate. As the village became more widely known, the “west” part of its name inspired a pun in Victorian slang: “to be all colley-west,” or “to have your colley west” meant to be lopsided, out of place, or facing the wrong way. And so by extension the name Collyweston itself eventually came to refer to contradictory, inconsistent nonsense. 

4. COW-SLAVER

An old 18th century northern English word for nonsense, in the sense of something completely worthless: cow-slaver is literally the froth or drool that forms around a cow’s mouth as it eats. Another equally unpleasant synonym for nonsense was bull-scutter, an old Yorkshire word for watery manure. 

5. FLEMINGTON CONFETTI

Flemington is a suburb of Melbourne, and has been home to one of Australia’s oldest and finest racecourses since 1840. The expression Flemington confetti first emerged in Australian slang in the 1920s as a synonym for worthless nonsense or gossip—it refers to the mess of torn up betting slips and other papery debris left at the racecourse after a day’s racing. 

6. GAMMON AND SPINACH!

In 19th century criminal slang, to gammon meant to cheat or swindle someone. It probably derived either from a pun on backgammon, in the sense of the victim being “played,” or in reference to them being metaphorically “tied up” by a scam, such as a joint of a gammon before it’s cooked, but whatever its origin, the word eventually inspired a whole host of gammony expressions among the criminal gangs of Victorian London. "To gammon the twelve" meant to cheat a jury; "To stand gammon" meant to distract a victim while your accomplice robbed them; and "gammoning the draper" referred to an impoverished man tucking a handkerchief into the collar of his jacket to give the impression that he was wearing a shirt underneath. Gammon and spinach, as a synonym for something nonsensical or make-believe, probably dates from sometime around the mid-1840s—Charles Dickens used it in David Copperfield in 1849.

7. HORNSWOGGLE

As well as being a verb meaning “to swindle” or “to get the better of a gullible person,” hornswoggle can also be used to mean “nonsense” or “humbug.” Other than that it first appeared in American English in the early 19th century, its origins are a complete mystery—although one theory claims it might originally have referred to a bull escaping from a cowboy’s lasso by its horns.

8. MOONSHINE ON THE WATER

Because the Moon itself doesn’t shine (but rather just reflects the light of the Sun), moonshine has been used proverbially in English to describe something fake or lacking real substance since the early fifteenth century. Although today it tends only to be used on its own (and often as a nickname for illegal, home-brewed alcohol, which dates back to the early 1700s), originally, moonshine was often found in a variety of bizarre phrases and expressions, all meaning “nonsense” or “rubbish.” "Moonshine on the water" is one of the earliest on record—the OED has traced it back as far as 1468. 

9. TO POKE BOGEY

In 18th/19th century slang, to poke bogey meant to talk rubbish, or, by extension, to play a game unreasonably, in contravention of its rules. Although the origin of the phrase is hazy, at least one theory points out that both words might come from old words for ghosts or ghouls—bogey, as in bogeyman, and poke from puck or puckle, an old Scots English word for the devil. 

10. TO TALK PACK-THREAD

Pack-thread is the rough string or twine used to tie up packages for the mail. In 19th century English, talking pack-thread ultimately meant speaking “roughly” or heedlessly, well as “talking nonsense.” It was also used to describe profuse swearing, or else “wrapping” smutty language up in innuendo and implication. 

11. TOMMY-ROT

In 18th century military English, tommy was a nickname for the poor-quality bread doled out to soldiers as part of their rations. Tommy-rot was ultimately rotten bread, and, in the sense of something utterly worthless or spoiled beyond use, eventually came to mean “nonsense” in Victorian slang.

12. VERY LIKE A WHALE

Another English expression lifted from the works of Shakespeare, "very like a whale" can be used as a sarcastic reply to someone who has said something silly or implausible. It comes from a scene in the third act of Hamlet, in which Hamlet is absent-mindedly discussing the appearance of a passing cloud with Polonius. After first deciding that it looks “almost in [the] shape of a camel,” Hamlet changes his mind to “a weasel” and then to “a whale,” to which Polonius wearily replies, “very like a whale.”

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