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9 Everyday Words You Didn’t Know Could Mean BS

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My new book Bullshit: A Lexicon includes history on words with a BS-y meaning. Some of them—malarkey, bunk, poppycock, twaddle, mumbo jumbo, and truthiness—you probably know. But some common words that usually don’t have a whiff of tommyrot are also in the BS lexicon. The following are nine terms that, much to my surprise, can set off a BS detector.


We mostly know this word as a magician’s exclamation, but it has also meant a bunch of stuff since at least the mid-1800s. This turn in meaning might have something to do with the bogusness of magic, but the reduplicative form of abracadabra couldn’t have hurt. The BS lexicon is full of words like fiddle-faddle, twittle-twattle, jibber-jabber, and flubdub.


Used mainly in Australia, confetti is part of nonsense-naming terms such as cow confetti, cowyard confetti, farmyard confetti, and Flemington confetti. The origin isn’t clear—aside from used confetti being a type of rubbish—but it may be a reference to discarded betting slips at the Flemington racecourse.


This folksy, regional word for excrement has been drafted into service in the BS lexicon. You can also spell it hockie, hocky, and hawky, and it appears to be related to cacky, a word for poo. Hockey can stand alone or you can discuss bull hockey or horse hockey, a pleasingly alliterative term for an unpleasant thing. 


This term has a theatrical origin: Since at least the 1920s, rhubarb has been used in the theater, and not as a healthy snack. Actors (and sometimes audience members) would say “rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb” together to make it sound like there were background conversations. This form of nonsense evolved to mean a word for nonsense.


Often appearing in the phrase pile of pants, this use has appeared since at least the 1990s, mostly in England, where (as word expert Michael Quinion notes) pants means underpants, which might explain the twaddlesome nature of this expression. Here’s a 2000 use from The Independent that is always applicable to politics: “A Liberal Democrat stunned his fellow peers when he dismissed a landmark report on the future of the historic environment as ‘a load of pants.’”


This BS term was in the headlines back in June when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia used the phrase “Pure applesauce” in a dissent. Scalia is quite the BS maestro, as the same dissent included the language “The Court’s next bit of interpretive jiggery-pokery…”

Jiggery-pokery aside, applesauce has meant BS for quite a while. It’s an effective dismissal, as seen in this use in John O’Hara’s 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra: “‘I just didn't want to spoil your evening, that's all.’ ‘Applesauce,’ said Irma.”

7. OIL

This BS term often appears in the expression throwing the oil or the old oil. P.G. Wodehouse used it in 1954’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit: “It was imperative that they be given the old oil, because she was in the middle of a very tricky business deal with the male half of the sketch and at such times every little helps.” The old oil is grade A malarkey. 


This is a BS word with a large family that includes hogwash, pig wash, eyewash, and propwash. A 1971 Oxford English Dictionary use from a law journal is self-explanatory: “Any suggestion that the principle was also applied can be dismissed as so much mouth-wash.”


This yucky drink has sometimes referred to untrustworthy language or ideas, perhaps ideas that are meant to act as a mental laxative. An appetizing use in a 1904 issue of Life magazine refers to “forty yards of political prune juice and platitude,” which could be a tweet about any 2015 debate. 

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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