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.

15 Pairs of Words That Surprisingly Come From the Same Source

Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Lena_Zajchikova/iStock via Getty Images

We take for granted that many English words have counterparts that sound related, but aren’t. Even though know and no sound the same, their meanings are so different we assume they have different etymological sources (which the spelling differences also suggest). However, sometimes words we might not expect to have anything in common historically do in fact go back to the same source. They’re called etymological doublets; here are 15 of them.

1. Flour/Flower

Flour, just like flower, came from French fleur. It was named that way because the part of the plant used to make it was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part of it, taking away all the chaff and other impurities.

2. Lobster/Locust

Both go back to Latin locusta, for locust, which also turned into the French langouste and Old English lopustre. The lobster is the locust of the sea.

3. Inch/Ounce

Though one measures length and the other weight, they both go back to Latin uncia, meaning a twelfth part. The original ounce was 1/12th of a pound.

4. Of/Off

Of and off were once the exact same word but in a stressed vs. unstressed pronunciation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they developed different uses to the point where they were considered different words.

5. Etiquette/Ticket

Etiquette was a French word for a note attached to something that listed its contents. It was borrowed into English as ticket and into Spanish as etiqueta, where it came to be associated with the listed rules of protocol for the Spanish royal court. It then came back into French and English with the social protocol meaning.

6. Costume/Custom

Both come from Latin consuetudinem, meaning "accustomed to," or "habituated." Both referred to the general habits of a group, including how they dress, among other things. Costume wasn’t explicitly connected to just the dress sense until the 1800s.

7. Species/Spices

Both come from Latin specie, for "appearance" or "form." Spice came into English first, from Old French espice. Species was later borrowed directly from Latin.

8. Reward/Regard

In Anglo-Norman, reward and regard were alternate pronunciations of the same thing. While the g version took on the senses of "to look at," "give attention to," and also "to merit, esteem, or respect," the w version settled into the current sense of giving something on merit.

9. Dainty/Dignity

The Latin word dignus meant "worthy." While dignity refers to a sense of "worthy" that includes serious notions of honor, respect, and rank, in dainty, dignus lives on in the sense of being worthy for being delightful, precious, and pleasing.

10. Naïve/Native

Both come from Latin nativus, meaning innate, natural. Naïve is "natural" in the sense of being unspoiled and native is an innate belonging to an origin.

11. Shirt/Skirt

The ancestor of the Old English scyrte developed into a word for the upper part of an undergarment in many Germanic languages, but it’s not entirely clear how it also developed into the skirt word for a lower garment in English.

12. Tradition/Treason

Tradition is from the Latin tradere, for the act of handing over or handing down. Treason also comes from tradere, with the sense of handing over or delivering. The tray in betray also goes back to this sense of tradere.

13. Tulip/Turban

Both are approximations of the Persian word for turban, dulband, which a tulip was said to resemble.

14. Maneuver/Manure

Maneuver comes from the Latin manu + operari, to work by hand. But so does manure, which was originally a verb meaning to "till the land."

15. Grammar/Glamour

Grammar goes all the way back to Latin and Greek, where it referred to all aspects of the study of literature. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with just the linguistic parts, and particularly with the study of Latin. The fancy, educated class studied Latin, and also things like magic and astrology, so the word grammar sometimes referred to that aspect too. A mispronounced version, glamour, went on to stand for the magical, enchanting quality we use it for today.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

16 Buggy Ways to Say Mosquito

LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images
LoveSilhouette/iStock via Getty Images

It’s summertime, and you know what that means: attack of the mosquitoes. You might be one of a lucky type who rarely attract bites, or you might be someone skeeters love to feast on. If you’re the latter, you’ll want plenty of ammunition for name-calling (and plenty of chickens, apparently). Luckily, we’ve teamed up with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to bring you some ways people across the U.S. refer to the bloodsuckers, and a couple of bonus terms from outside the States too.

1. Maringouin

Referring especially to a large mosquito, this Louisiana term is French in origin and ultimately comes from marigoui, which is Tupi-Guarani, a South American Indian language family. According to American Speech, maringouin is Creole dialect “used as early as 1632” and recurring “regularly from that time on in the letters and narratives of explorers and missionaries.” Good to have on hand would be the mangeur maringouin, a bird also known as the chuck-will’s-widow, and Louisiana French for “mosquito eater.”

2. Swamp Angel

A swamp angel is anything but, at least where skeeters are concerned. Used especially in the South and South Midland regions, the term swamp angel is often used by "old-timers," according to a 2002 quote captured in DARE from the St. Petersburg Times.

3., 4., AND 5. Gallinipper, Katynipper, and Nipper

Also known as a gabber napper, a galliwopper, and a granny-nipper, gallinipper is used in the South, South Midland, and especially the South Atlantic.

While a quote from the 1906 book The Parson’s Boys asserts that gallinippers are so-called “because at each ‘nip’ they took a gallon,” according to DARE, the origin of the term is unknown, having been “much altered” by folk-etymology and “other processes.” A connection might be gally, which means to frighten or confuse.

The earliest citation of gallinipper in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1801. However, DARE antedates that by over 200 years with this choice quote from New England’s Prospect by William Wood: “The third is Gurnipper ... her biting causeth an itching upon the hands or face, which provoketh scratching.”

In Tennessee, katynipper is used, while according to the OED, nipper refers to a large mosquito in Newfoundland.

6. Snow Mosquito

A snow mosquito is a “large, early-season mosquito,” according DARE, that comes "out under the snow” and “only for two or three weeks in the spring.” The term, and the insect itself, might be found in California, Alaska, and Wyoming. A 1962 book called Quoth the Raven describes the bugs as “clumsy, heavy fliers” with a “droning hum, like that of an airplane,” which “gives ample warning of their presence and makes an offensive against them easy.”

7. Nighthawk

Nighthawk might be your next hair metal band name, but it's also an epithet for the mosquito, as quoted in North Carolina. Other definitions in DARE include a kind of bird, a kind of worm, a nickname in the West for “a ranch hand in charge of horses or cattle at night,” and a euphemism for a chamber pot in Georgia.

Another name of the nighthawk bird is mosquito hawk. According to the Linguistic Atlas of the United States by Lee Pederson, the “skeeter hawk is a cuckoo [sic] bird that catches mosquitoes.” It’s also a dragonfly, at least in the South and scattered throughout the Mississippi Valley, so called “from their continually hunting after Muskeetoes, and killing and eating them,” according to The Natural History of North Carolina, published in 1737.

8. Brasshead

Brasshead is a mosquito moniker you might hear in northwest Florida. Where it comes from isn’t clear—perhaps the insect’s yellow coloring, the hardness of its stinging proboscis, or its audacity for biting.

9. Drill Bug

You can also call the piercing pests drill bugs, as one might do in Illinois.

10. Mitsy

This deceptively cute shortening of mosquito might be heard in Ohio.

11. Mossie

Another abbreviation, mossie is primarily Australian slang, according to the OED. Its earliest citation is from 1916: “You won't be eaten by mosquitoes outside if you get on the breezy side. The ‘mossies’ haven't gone out of the house yet.”

12. Cousin

If you’re in Virginia and hear someone complaining about cousins, they might have annoying relatives—or they might be annoyed by mosquitoes. Why cousins? “Because they are so many and they stick so close,” according to a quote in DARE.

13. Paul Bunyon Mosquito

You guessed it: an extra-big one. Named for the mythical giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan mosquito is a term that might be used in Michigan.

14. Texas Mosquito

A way of describing a biter as big as Texas. A 1900 issue of the Ft. Wayne Sentinel of Indiana claims that while “much has been written about the Jersey mosquito,” the “proper kind of a press agent” might make the Texas mosquito “head and heels over his brethren in New Jersey.”

15. Snipe

This term might come from the mosquito’s resemblance to the snipe bird and its long bill. According to a 1872 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the story that some “Philadelphia sportsmen” shot at “New Jersey mosquitos,” thinking that they were snipe, is “an invention.” The City of Brotherly Love residents apparently “knew what the insects were, but despaired of killing them in any other way.”

16. Jersey Mosquito

So what’s the deal with Jersey mosquitoes, and why is this appellation for a hefty skeeter named for the state?

It doesn’t have to do with the size of the state but where it comes from: the salt marshes of New Jersey. They are “notorious,” say Lester A. Swann and Charles S. Papp in their 1972 book, Common Insects of North America, as well as “fierce biters and strong fliers” who “attack in full sunlight.” Variations on this chiefly Northeast saying include Jersey bird, Jersey bomber, Jersey eagle, and Jersey robin. The phrase may sometimes be pronounced Joisey mosquito.

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