By Dr Oliver Tearle
There are quite a few colourful synonyms for nonsense and a number of them have curious and noteworthy origins. Some of them can be rather direct and even coarse: a fact which reveals a lot about our need to find blunt, no-nonsense words to counteract the effects of (perceived or real) nonsense.
So, let’s take a closer look at some of the available synonyms for nonsense: words which mean roughly the same and provide some alternatives to that term.
Synonyms for ‘nonsense’
GIBBERISH is a common synonym for ‘nonsense’, and is commonly used to refer to speech that doesn’t appear to belong to any known language, or to inarticulate chatter which may as well be another language, so unintelligible is it. An early use of the word is found in Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, from 1579: ‘crye out streightway, that we speak no English, but gibbrish.’
If you want to be a bit more judgmental when calling out someone’s nonsense, then DRIVEL is a handy word. It originally (from the fourteenth century onwards) denoted saliva dripping from the mouth, and is thought to be related etymologically to dribble. Then, in the nineteenth century, it came to be applied to foolish talk, nonsense, or …
TWADDLE. Here’s another useful synonym for nonsense. Since the eighteenth century, twaddle has been used as a term for senseless or silly talk. Its origins are uncertain, but it may be from a similar word, twattle, which means ‘idle talk’ or ‘chatter’.
In 1944, the US Congressman Maury Maverick coined the term GOBBLEDEGOOK, denoting language, especially bureaucratic or official jargon, which is pretentious, unintelligible, and long-winded. The word comes from gobble, the onomatopoeic word describing the sound made by a turkey, though ‘degook’ was just Maverick’s inspired extension of this existing word.
Curiously, Maverick was not the first member of his family to give us a word which has since entered common use. His grandfather, Sam Maverick (1803-70), also a US politician, owned a large herd of cattle in Texas. Because his calves were unbranded, they were known as ‘mavericks’, and the term came to be used in reference to anyone unconventional or unorthodox.
CLAPTRAP is another synonym for nonsense with a curious history. In the plural, it originally referred to a trick or device which was designed to catch or ‘trap’ applause (i.e., claps from the audience). In the eighteenth century, it was used for an expression designed to elicit applause. Then, in the nineteenth century, it came to refer to language designed to catch applause, or cheap showy sentiment. Since such sentiment was often a load of old nonsense, the word claptrap came to be applied to nonsense of all kinds.
Another synonym for ‘nonsense’ with a curious history – this time from the United States – is BUNKUM. There’s a county in North Carolina called Buncombe. In the early nineteenth century, as the debate on the ‘Missouri Question’ in the 16th congress neared its conclusion, and the member for Buncombe got up to speak, a number of members called for him to sit down again. But he told them that his constituents expected him to make a speech for Buncombe, even if it was a load of old nonsense, so make a speech is what he would do.
From this, the term entered more general use, being used for any political speech that wasn’t sincere but was designed merely to win over voters and so on. And from that, in time, we got a new term for ‘nonsense’. By the end of the nineteenth century, the term was being shortened to BUNK, as in Henry Ford’s famous declaration that ‘history is more or less bunk’.
And what about HUMBUG? That term arose in the mid-eighteenth century, originally referring to a joke or hoax. It then became a synonym for a sham or something that was fake, as in Scrooge’s famous exclamation in A Christmas Carol. Nobody is quite sure why the sweet known as the humbug shares its name with a synonym for nonsense; the word appears to have arisen in Gloucestershire.
Of course, if these terms don’t strike the right note, you could always say someone is talking RUBBISH. That’s been in use as an alternative word for ‘nonsense’ since the sixteenth century. ROT is more recent, having come to mean ‘nonsense’ or ‘rubbish’ in the mid-nineteenth century.
Sticking with the rubbish theme, a stronger term for ‘nonsense’ is a word not found in polite conversation, shall we say. B*LLSH*T emerged in the early twentieth century, and, curiously, the first citation in the OED is a letter from Wyndham Lewis referring to a little-known early poem by T. S. Eliot, ‘The Triumph of B*llsh*t’.
Before we leave sweary synonyms behind, we should mention B*LL*CKS, which has meant ‘nonsense’ since at least 1919 (the date of the first citation in the OED; another early use is George Orwell, in a letter of 1936, where it was spelt ‘bollux’).
And another term for nonsense, COBBLERS, is an example of rhyming slang: it’s from cobbler’s awls (an awl being the pointed tool used by shoemakers – or cobblers – to make a hole in leather), i.e., ‘balls’ (yes, that kind again). ‘Cobblers’ only came to mean ‘nonsense’ in the 1930s. Quite why BALLS of various kinds have been used as synonyms for ‘rubbish’ or ‘nonsensical talk’ isn’t clear.
Let’s skip from balls to BALDERDASH, whose etymology is unknown. It initially meant a frothy liquid (back in the sixteenth century), so perhaps it doesn’t require too much of an intuitive leap to go from ‘froth’ of one kind to another kind of froth with little substance. It also referred to an alcoholic drink (usually a jumbled mixture of different drinks), before coming to mean ‘nonsense’, or a jumbled mix of words, in the seventeenth century.
HOGWASH underwent a similar journey, at first denoting kitchen scraps – the sort given to hogs, i.e., pigswill – and then to watered down beer or wine, before coming to mean nonsense, though in this case not, it appears, until well into the nineteenth century.
POPPYCOCK is of nineteenth-century origin, and has a curious etymology, stemming from the Dutch poppekak, literally meaning ‘doll’s excrement’. (The Dutch word for a doll, pop, is also present in the name for the dolls used in European witchcraft, which are known as poppets.) Dutch immigrants to the US began using the term to refer to any old nonsense.
MUMBO-JUMBO also bears the mark of history, starting out in the eighteenth century as a Western term for a god or spirit said to have been worshipped by certain West African peoples. It also became applied to any idol or other representation of such a god. This rhyming term is believed to be from the Mandinka word maamajomboo, a mask used in religious ceremonies in Africa.
To conclude this list of synonyms for nonsense, here are some other, rarer terms which are worth a revival. A BRIMBORIAN is something that is useless or nonsensical, while a MOROLOGIST, from the Greek for ‘dull’, is a boring fool who talks nonsense. BARAGOUIN, meanwhile, is an obscure seventeenth-century word for gibberish or DOUBLE-DUTCH.
Antonyms for ‘nonsense’
There are more synonyms for nonsense than there are antonyms: the English language is replete with colourful terms calling out meaningless utterances, but we have relatively few terms to describe the opposite. The obvious antonym for ‘nonsense’, of course, is SENSE: something that is readily understood and expressed effectively and often plainly.
WISDOM might be another term that could be described as an antonym for nonsense, in that wisdom, once again, tends to be clear-headed and understandable.
TRUTH and CLARITY also stand at the other end of the spectrum from ‘nonsense’, and the opposite of writing which is nonsensical is INTELLIGIBLE writing (or speech): words that make sense.