12 Old-Timey Ways of Saying “Nonsense”

Women at Australia's Flemington Racecourse—which gives us the phrase "Flemington Confetti"
Women at Australia's Flemington Racecourse—which gives us the phrase "Flemington Confetti"
Stuart Milligan/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

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 once been a 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 stories behind 12 even more obscure and 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 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, Australia, 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 (bacon) 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 a version of it in David Copperfield in 1849.

7. Eye-wash

If something is eye-wash, it means it's done just for show, without any real reason for it (or sometimes, a thing done to conceal reality). It's military slang, and the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1857 account of a cavalry "that had even more gingerbread and eyewash about them than our own useless Regular Cavalry."

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 15th 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 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 English word for a spirit or demon.

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.”

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

New Harry Potter Scrabble Accepts Wizarding Words Like Hogwarts and Dobby

USAopoly
USAopoly

Patronus, Hogwarts, and Dobby may not be words found in the official Scrabble dictionary, but they are very real to Harry Potter fans. Now there's finally a board game that lets players win points using the magical vocabulary made famous by the Harry Potter books and movies. SCRABBLE: World of Harry Potter from USAopoly is a new edition of Scrabble that recognizes characters, place names, spells, and potions from J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World.

Like traditional Scrabble, players use the letter tiles they pick up to spell out words on the board, with different words earning different point values. Any word you can find in an up-to-date Merriam-Webster Dictionary is still fair game, but in this version, terms coined in Harry Potter qualify as well. First and last names, whether they belong to characters (Albus or Dumbledore, for example) or actors from the franchise (Emma or Watson), are playable. You can also spell magical place names (like Hogsmeade), spells (accio), and objects (snitch).

Harry Potter version of Scrabble.
USAopoly

Showing off the depth of your Harry Potter knowledge isn't the only reason to put wizarding words on the board. Magical words are worth bonus points, with players earning more points the longer the word is. SCRABBLE: World of Harry Potter also includes cards with special challenges for players—a feature that can't be found in any other version of the game.

This Harry Potter edition of Scrabble will be available for $30 at Barnes & Noble and other retailers this spring. Until then, there are plenty of Harry Potter-themed games, including wizarding chess, out there for you to play.

Harry Potter version of Scrabble.
USAopoly

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

iStock
iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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