Susie Dent Top Ten

Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 Words for Utter Rubbish

This week, Susie Dent's compiled the definitive list of words that are full of bluster, but mean, in actual fact, very little - or, as she puts it, sheer and unadulterated twaddle.

This week, Susie Dent’s compiled the definitive list of words for utter rubbish. Full of bluster, they mean, in actual fact, very little – or, as she puts it, sheer and unadulterated twaddle.


I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about. A lot of us feel the same as Oscar Wilde. But there is nothing, and there is nonsense, and when it comes to words that, to borrow from another great, are all sound and fury but signify nothing, the dictionary does us proud. Here then are ten words from across the centuries – many familiar, others not – that mean sheer and unadulterated twaddle.

ugly liquid susie dent's

‘Balderdash’

balderdash

This now-dated but punchy description of nonsense appears in Shakespeare’s time, when it described an unappetizing frothy liquid – not unlike the wordbarm’, the frothy head on a glass of beer, which eventually gave us ‘barmy’. The liquid in question might contain a curious mix of milk and beer – or, worse, quicklime and pigeon’s dung. You can see how the meaning of ‘vile rubbish’ came about.

balductum

Another stomach-churning offering, ‘balductum’ described hot milk curdled with wine, and comes from the Latin balducta, ‘pressed milk’. It is included here because the sound of the word has an element of ‘balls’ about it too.

flim-flam

There is a lightness about 'flim-flam’ that lends itself to the idea of nothing but hot air. It is one of many onomatopoeic couplets meaning a 'trifle’, 'conceit’, or 'piece of idle talk’. Others include 'skimble-skamble', ‘whimwham’, and ‘fidfad’.

all my eye and Betty Martin

18th-century speak for hogwash. There are numerous theories as to where the phrase comes from, ranging from a corruption of a Latin prayer dedicated to St Martin (‘beate Martin’ means ‘blessed Martin’), to a mysterious Betty Martin who lived in London. If the latter, she would belong in the ghostly collection that also includes Flipping Ada, Flaming Nora, and Mickey Bliss (he who gave us the rhyming slang Mickey Bliss/piss, and so ‘taking the Mickey’).

flapdoodle

‘Fudge and flapdoodle!’ exclaims a character in a 19th-century novel. The word, a fanciful invention, can describe either a miscellaneous piece of knick-knackery or total bosh and humbug.

trumpery

Speaking of useless knick-knacks, ‘trumpery’ from the 15th century means ‘deceit’, ‘imposture’, or (ironically) ‘fraud’. By the 17th century it had come to define anything that is extremely showy but worthless.

rubbish

poppycock

A word very much still in demand, ‘poppycock’ has surprising and offputting origins. It has nothing to do with the flower that is a poppy, and everything to do with a Dutch doll (pappe). Cock here is a respelling of ‘cack’, which as we all know means ‘excrement’. Put the two together and you have ‘doll’s shit’.

cod

‘Cod’ is given multiple meanings in the dictionary, from a fish to a friend to a euphemism for ‘God’. For our purposes it can also mean a hoax or leg-pull, or a piece of utter nonsense. Its origin can probably be explained by its association with yet another meaning of ‘cod’, namely the ‘scrotum and testicles considered together’. This is the ‘cod’ in ‘codpiece’, and once again brings us around to the use of the male anatomy to pithily describe a ‘load of bollocks’.

quatsch

An extremely satisfying German word for ‘rubbish’, 'Quatsch!’ is used as a dismissive rejection of something that has been said or done. It comes from the use of the word for the sound of stepping into squelchy mud.

quisquilious

Finally, this is a word to use if you wish to describe something as rubbish whilst apparently saying the opposite. ‘Quisquilious’, from the Latin quisquiliae meaning ‘waste matter or refuse’, is so mellifluous that few people would realize you are actually saying their words are a load of piffle.


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