MED Magazine - Issue 17 - March 2004

Talking Nonsense: old-fashioned terms for nonsense in English
by Diane Nicholls

There are just over 1,000 words in the Macmillan English Dictionary that are labelled old-fashioned. Often, their life stories can be every bit as fascinating and entertaining as the new words that come along potentially to take their place. Here we take a look at some old-fashioned words for nonsense which have their own tale to tell.


This word started life in its current sense of 'nonsense' in around 1820 and its original spelling was 'buncombe'. It comes from the name of a county in North Carolina, USA: Buncombe. During a debate in Congress, the county's representative, Felix Walker, delivered a seemingly endless speech which many present felt to be meaningless and irrelevant, but the congressman refused to stop talking, declaring himself to be determined to deliver a speech 'for Buncombe'. Thus, bunkum became a term for long-winded nonsense of the kind often seen in politics, and from there progressed to the more general meaning of just plain 'nonsense'. The short form, bunk, was coined in the 20th century and its most famous use is Henry Ford's remark in 1916 that 'History is more or less bunk'.


Poppycock came into use a little later than bunkum, in the mid 19th century. It is a borrowing of a Dutch dialect word pappekak, which is formed by combining pap, meaning 'soft' (from which we get the English word pap), and kak, meaning 'dung'. Poppycock is, quite simply, soft dung.


That balderdash has stood the test of time is beyond question — the earliest citations go back to the 16th century. But its precise etymology remains uncertain. 16th-century citations suggest balderdash was originally a 'frothy liquid' of some kind, and later, in the 17th century it seems to be an unlikely (and perhaps unappetising) mixture of liquids, such as milk and beer or beer and wine. A quotation from New Inn, by Ben Johnson (1629) bears this out:

'Beer or butter-milk, mingled together ... It is against my free-hold ... To drink such balder-dash.'

There is also evidence of a verb form, to balderdash, meaning 'to create a jumbled mixture'. It has also been suggested that the word may derive from a Welsh word baldorddu, for a sweet food mixture made from flour, milk, gelatine and eggs, now known as flummery, and this seems to support the watery mixture theory. This jumbled and bizarre mixture may be the source of the current 'nonsense' meaning. It seems likely that the odd mixture sense came first and progressed to the figurative sense of meaningless nonsense later, in the 17th century. Andrew Marvell, in 1674 wrote:

'Did ever Divine rattle out such prophane Balderdash!'
(The Rehearsal Transprosed)

Nobody is entirely certain which came first — the jumbled food/liquid mixture or the meaningless nonsense — but the connection between the two is also seen in other words for nonsense, such as hogwash and swill, which have, first, a literal meaning of food/liquid slops and, second, a figurative extended sense of 'nonsense'. Perhaps balderdash is another example of an embedded metaphor in English which equates unappetising, sloppy broths and meaningless talk or writing. Baloney (from Bologna sausage, a mixture of different meats mashed together) and tripe may also be representative of this food-nonsense link. And bilge, of course, is an undeniably unappetising liquid mixture with a figurative sense that reinforces the liquid-nonsense link.

Etymology sources

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 5th Edition (Oxford University Press, 2002)
John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (Bloomsbury, 2001)

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