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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.

1. ABRACADABRA

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.

2. CONFETTI

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.

3. HOCKEY

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. 

4. RHUBARB

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.

5. PANTS

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.’”

6. APPLESAUCE

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. 

8. MOUTHWASH

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.”

9. PRUNE JUICE

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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How Your Brain Turns Words Into Language
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Language is one of the things that makes us human—so much so that our brains can’t function the same way without it. But when it comes to actually speaking, reading, and listening to words, some parts of our brain do more heavy lifting than others. Life Noggin broke down this process in a recent video.

Before speaking a word you just heard out loud, that information must first travel to your primary auditory cortex, then to a part of the brain called the Broca’s area, and finally to your motor cortex, which makes verbalization possible. The Wernicke’s area of the brain also plays an important role in listening to and processing language: If it’s damaged, the speaker’s ability to form coherent sentences suffers.

Knowing more than one language shapes the brain in totally different ways. According to one recent study, bilingual speakers can perceive and think about time differently, depending on which language they're using. Learning a second language as an adult can also improve mental function and slow brain decline later in life.

For the full scoop on how our brains use language, check out the video below.

[h/t Life Noggin]

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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