What's the difference between "balderdash" and "drivel"? Where did "mumbo-jumbo" come from? How should you use "meadow mayonnaise"? What's "felgercarb" and which popular TV show coined it?
There are hundreds of common and rare terms for bullshit in English, including borrowings from German, turn-of-the-century sailors, The Simpsons, and beyond. Bullshit is everywhere, but not all of it is created equal. Mark Peters's Bullshit: A Lexicon is the handy guide to identifying and calling BS in all of its many forms, from "bunk" and "claptrap" to "applesauce" and "gobbledygook." Packed with historical facts, pop culture tidbits, and definitions for each term, Bullshit is perfect for humor readers, language lovers, and anyone looking to describe life's everyday annoyances.
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About the Author
DREW DERNAVICH is a cartoonist and illustrator who regularly contributes to The New Yorker. His work has been featured in the Boston Globe, Time, and Harvard Business Review.
Read an Excerpt
Abracadabra is the kind of magical word you expect to hear when a dude in a top hat is pulling a rabbit out of another hat, sawing a woman in half, or making the Statue of Liberty disappear.
But abracadabra also means bullshit.
The word originally had a woo-woo meaning not far from its eventual magical sense: It referred to spells and charms for healing. In fact, the word was used not only in speech; it was written on a piece of paper, with a letter removed in each line, like this:
The paper was then folded up and inserted into an amulet. Somehow, this was thought to help cure lupus or something, perhaps with the help of an herbal incantation.
From such medical hoodwinks, abracadabra also came to be used by professional magicians, which is mainly how we know the word today. But it also moved to the lexicon of general nonsense.
For example, this 1867 use from Biblical Repertory: “Swedenborg’s writings, as a whole, are unintelligible—abracadabra—to any other.” Another strong takedown of written bullshit appeared in a 1934 letter by poet Dylan Thomas: “Piece One is remarkable for the number of entirely meaningless & affected words you have managed to drag in. ‘Dulcimer,’ ‘Drumdeep,’ ‘Cohorts,’ & ‘Silken Shadowy Girls.’ All the damned abracadabra of the Poet’s Corner, and as gutless as a filleted herring.”
Ouch. Filleted herring = mucho malarkey.
Watch out for the old ackamarackus. The formula the old ____ is common in expressions for swindles and scams. If someone gave you the old okey-doke or the old flimflam, you got hustled. But the old ackamarackus is not just deceptive—it’s a big, showy production. With syllables to spare, ackamarackus is the Broadway musical of BS words.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines this rhyming word as “Something regarded as pretentious nonsense; something intended to deceive; humbug.” A 1954 use in a review from London’s Sunday Times demonstrates the kind of showy, flamboyant stuff associated with the word: “The story is about an American circus in Germany, a spiv [petty criminal] who picks up a German floozie, a high diver who marries her, and a dumb giant who brings her wayside flowers.” This colorful, chaotic combo of characters was summed up by writer Dawn Powell: “In fact, it is the old circus ackamarackus.”
If you have something simple and/or honest to present, you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, and you certainly don’t need the major-league ballyhoo that is an ackamarackus.
This term originally had to do with real fairies—well, with the real idea of a fairy. The first known uses, from the mid-1800s, all have to do with magical, ethereal, or light stuff, such as dresses and music. In the 1800s airy-fairy also gravitated toward bullshit, probably because the fanciful world of fairies was far removed from the practical business of getting a damn job, you lazy bums.
By 1920 you could see examples like D. H. Lawrence’s description in Lost Girl of a character with “an airy-fairy kind of knowledge of the whole affair.” That kind of expertise is anything but airtight.
all gas and gaiters
It’s fitting that a phrase for nonsense seems to have originated as nonsense: terms linked by alliteration and little else.
As Michael Quinion of World Wide Words notes, all gas and gaiters first appears in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and is used by a character who is, to use a technical term, bonkers. Even so, the expression had a positive vibe, which informed its early use for any satisfactory or swell state of affairs: “I see her now; I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last—at last—and all is gas and gaiters!” The logic was unclear, but the meaning was not: When all is gas and gaiters, everything’s cool, fine, dandy, awesome, groovy, etc.
As so often happens with seemingly incomprehensible terms, people tried to make sense of all gas and gaiters—mainly through interpreting the gaiters, which are protective cloth coverings for the legs. As slang expert Jonathon Green notes, the term conjures the “image of a pompous, sermonizing (and be-gaitered) bishop.” Since such men of the cloth also tend to be gasbags, an illogical, random term gained a new meaning and a path to the lexicon of bullshit. If you’re all gas and gaiters, you’re minimum substance with maximum hot air.
By 1923 the term’s shift to hot air and hokum was complete. In 1932 George Bernard Shaw used the idiom with characteristic wit, referring to a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley as “literary gas and gaiters.”
All Gas and Gaiters was also the name of a 1960s British sitcom. That title pretty much meant All Bullshit.
all mouth and no trousers
If you’re all gas and gaiters, you’re all BS. If you’re all mouth and no trousers, you’re good at blabbing but not so good at action. You don’t back up your words, you noxious ninnyhammer.
This idiom is a good example of language evolution. The original version was all mouth and trousers. That use suggested a horny fellow, trying every pickup line in the book and thinking with his trouser region. A use in L. P. Hartley’s 1961 short story collection Two for the River slyly plays on this meaning: “It’s not a bad life. Most men are all mouth and trousers—well, I like the trousers best, if you know what I mean.”
I think I do.
Eventually the idiom started taking on the negative form all mouth and no trousers, possibly influenced by all talk and no action. The meaning also shifted—away from lasciviousness to any kind of empty words.
It’s best not to take this expression to heart. If you meet someone who’s literally all mouth and no trousers, call the police.
all my eye and Betty Martin
This satisfying exclamation—which Agatha Christie enjoyed and used often—has many close relatives. Saying “My eye!” is a way of saying “That’s bullshit!” or “Oh, come on!” You can also say “My foot!” or “My ass!” if your exclamatory anatomical preferences are less ocular.
The phrase all my eye also means nonsense. Though this is a mostly dated expression going back to the late 1700s, it still turns up once in a while, as in this 2012 use in the Irish Times: “So attractive as it is, that explanation may itself be all my eye.” When it comes to words, overattractive, neat explanations do tend to be pure poppycock.
Which brings us to the more dramatic version of this expression: All my eye and Betty Martin! Translation: “That is such a huge load of crap I need a two-part exclamation to dismiss it!”
Who was Betty Martin? No one knows for sure. Some think the name was part of a lost Latin prayer, but since the prayer is lost, who knows? Others think it was a piece of nautical equipment. Maybe she was just a London woman who liked to say “All my eye!” a lot. We may never know the true origin, but if you ever meet a Betty Martin, congratulate her on being part of bullshit history.
It’s obvious why some words become synonyms for bullshit. Horseshit and rubbish aren’t highly valued, to say the least.
But applesauce? That origin isn’t so clear. Maybe this term was influenced by horse apples, a euphemism for horseshit. Or maybe applesauce tasted like pure crap to someone, because this has been a synonym for nonsense since at least the 1920s. Often it means lies or flattery, as in this example from Ring Lardner Jr.’s The Love Nest and Other Stories: “I wasn’t born yesterday and I know apple sauce when I hear it and I bet you’ve told that to fifty girls.”
The word can also be used a simple dismissal of something. If a friend said, “I heard you hate nachos,” you could reply, “Applesauce!” as a firm denial. Then you could tell your friend to make up for the insult by buying you nachos.
These days there are two main types of babble: the prelanguage vocalizations of a baby and the postlanguage bullshit of an adult. But the word babble has had a gaggle of meanings over the years, and many are related to too much blah-blah.
The very first meanings, found in the 1200s, refer to excess chatter, so this word was always close to meaning bullshit. By the 1500s that meaning had evolved to include a type of blabbing: giving away secret info unintentionally or incautiously.
Meanwhile, the word took a detour to the animal kingdom as a word for birdsong, as shown in this 1823 use by Isaac D’Israeli in Knickerbocker magazine: “When a nest of swallows began to babble he hushed them.” Apparently, babbling birds can be as unwelcome as yammering dudes. A use from over a hundred years later, in Jacob Neusner’s The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism, shows the connection between bird and human babble: “Just as birds chirp, or babble, so did the common gossip.” Elsewhere on the food chain, a hound was said to babble if he barked wildly, presumably in a way that didn’t help with hunting.
Babble was such a successful word for various types of BS, it also became a suffix.
The children of babble include ecobabble, econobabble, Euro- babble, Franco-babble, and technobabble. But the most successful such word might be psychobabble, which has been around since the mid-1970s, meaning any lingo or ideas, especially technical or pretentious, from the then-booming world of popular psychology. If anyone is talking about releasing their inner child, wrestling with their inner demons, feeling their feelings, having their needs met, or getting in touch with—well, anything—psychobabble is on the march.
Inane self-help sayings also fit under the umbrella of psychobabble. You know the ones: those “inspiring” nuggets of nothingness your worst Facebook friends tend to post. “Dance like no one is watching.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “No one can hurt you without your permission.”
On Twitter, TV personality Damien Fahey summed up such psychobabble well: “It’s never your super successful friends posting the inspirational quotes.”
Poor baboons. Though they are close relatives of humans, their name has long been used in insulting terms that sometimes fall on the bullshit spectrum.
In the 1600s the term baboonery had a straightforward meaning: a colony of baboons. The word then spread to rubbishy art, wild stupidity, and general foolishness.
A 2014 comment on an article from Science magazine shows the term isn’t extinct: “Claiming a fixed field would be relative solely to the Earth’s orbit is not only wrong in more ways than one. . . . It is complete baboonery.”
Baboons are noble beasts, but they have never done well at astronomy.
This surprisingly nonflatulent term refers to the kind of breath that has a high temperature and a higher BS quotient: hot air.
In his 1910 collection Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum, Wallace Irwin offers a damning description of a type of person who is “smooth as eels and slick as soap. A baked-wind expert.” In other words, a smooth operator and bullshit artist.
Conservative humorist P. J. O’Rourke used this term in his 1996 book The Enemies List, referring to “members and cohorts of the Clinton administration, those simps and ninnies, lava-lamp liberals and condo pinks, spoiled twerps, wiffenpoofs, ratchet-jawed purveyors of monkey doodle and baked wind.”
It’s no wonder a skilled writer like O’Rourke digs this term (along with the equally charming monkey doodle and wiffenpoof). Hot air is boring white bread compared to the vibrant, multigrain wonders of baked wind.
Balderdash was originally an ill-advised mixture of beverages, such as beer with wine or beer with milk. If you’re gagging at the thought, you understand the original meaning of balderdash, which was used throughout the 1600s by frustrated bar patrons.
Then, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the word took a turn: It began to apply to words that went together as badly as milk and beer. Nonsense, tripe, and jibber-jabber became balderdash.
A quotation from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1849 book The History of England from the Accession of James II captures the meaning of the word: “I am almost ashamed to quote such nauseous balderdash.”
So should we all be, Thomas Babington. So should we all.
Because it has a Latin ring to it, this word sounds quite serious. It would be scary coming out of a doctor’s mouth. However, it thankfully does not name a rare medical condition.
Balductum sounds like a mixture of balderdash and bunkum, though it has no direct relationship to either word— but it is close in meaning to balderdash. This fifteenth-century term is another word for a posset, which is a hot drink involving curdled milk and booze, such as ale or wine. Yum?
In the 1500s this word for such swill came to mean bullshit, especially a type of bullshit that involves mismatched stuff thrown together. In 1593 Gabriel Harvey used the word in Pierces Supererogation; or, A New Prayse of the Old Asse, mocking “the stalest dudgen, or absurdest balductum, that they, or their mates can inuent [sic].” Harvey lambasted the dullest clichés or most preposterous fiddle-faddle that anyone could pull out of their ass.
Just like the original drink, figurative balductum sounded about as appealing as a combo of orange juice, chicken-wing sauce, and toothpaste.
These two words can be found in the exclamatory section of the bullshit menu. Both words can mean roughly “Damn!” or “Shit!” but they’re also both frequently used to call bullshit.
The word balls came before and inspired bollocks, but they share the same unfortunate meanings: testicles and nonsense.
Back in 1915, poet Ezra Pound used the older term in a letter to Irish writer James Joyce: “I am so damn sick of energetic stupidity. The ‘strong’ work . . . balls!” A 2000 sentence recorded by word guy Jonathon Green should amuse anyone skeptical of graduate school: “You think you need a huge fucking brain to get a PhD? Balls.”
If you want to be slightly more verbose—and much more British—use bollocks, as George Orwell did in 1936 when he discussed a publishing delay caused by “all that bollux about libel.” Another notable writer, Philip Larkin, used the word self-deprecatingly in 1940: “I suppose my writing is terrible. Sod & ballocks, anyway.”
So why are these words for nonsense? Are testicles that bad? Jonathon Green suggests a connection stemming from an early use of bollocks to refer to a parson. Green wonders if the term shifted to nonsense “on the premise that sermonizing is, de facto, nonsense.” Heaven forbid the thought.
Green’s theory is plausible but not definitive. It’s probably at least half balls.
baloney, phony baloney, phonus balonus
Baloney is one of the most common words for bullshit, and as with so many other words, its origin isn’t known. But there are theories.
We do know the Italian town of Bologna produced Bologna sausage. Given the inherently suspect nature of sausage, it’s assumed Bologna became baloney, with bullshitty meat becoming, simply, bullshit.