12 Old-Timey Ways of Saying “Nonsense”

Women at Australia's Flemington Racecourse—which gives us the phrase "Flemington Confetti"
Women at Australia's Flemington Racecourse—which gives us the phrase "Flemington Confetti"
Stuart Milligan/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

Balderdash. Codswallop. Bunkum. Poppycock. The English language has dozens of weird ways of calling out someone for talking utter rubbish—and these aren’t even the strangest. But as ridiculous-sounding as some of these words are, they all still have their own histories and etymologies behind them. Balderdash is thought to have once been a mixture of frothy liquors, or the foamy water used by a barber to shave a customer. Codswallop was probably originally a nickname for poor-quality beer, perhaps named after bottle manufacturer Hiram Codd. Bunkum comes from a pointless speech given by the Congressman for Buncombe County, North Carolina, in 1820. And poppycock either comes from a Dutch dialect word for “soft poop,” or from the old Dutch expression zo fijn als gemalen poppekak—literally “as fine as powdered doll’s excrement.” (No, really.)

The stories behind 12 even more obscure and bizarre words and phrases meaning “nonsense” are explored here.

1. All my eye and Betty Martin!

All my eye! first emerged in British English as a means of dismissing someone talking complete nonsense in the early 1700s. From there, it went on to be used in a variety of increasingly strange extended expressions, such as "All my eye and my grandmother!" and "All my eye and Betty Martin!," which dates back to the 1780s. Precisely who (or what) Betty Martin was is a mystery: different theories suggest it might once have been a nickname for an unknown piece of naval equipment, the name of an eccentric Irish theatre-owner and actress working in 18th century London, or a corruption of a little-known Latin prayer, Ora pro nobis beate Martine (“Pray for us, blessed Martin”).

2. To blather like a bubbly-jock

The 18th-century expression "To blather like a bubbly-jock," meaning “to talk rubbish,” brings together two brilliant old dialect words: Blather (as in blatherskite, another word for a habitual gossip) is an old Scots word ultimately derived from an earlier Scandinavian word for chatter or prattle, and bubbly-jock is an old nickname for a male turkey.

3. Collyweston

Collyweston is the name of a rural village in Northamptonshire, England, that made a name for itself in the early 19th century for the production of local high-quality slate. As the village became more widely known, the “west” part of its name inspired a pun in Victorian slang: “to be all colley-west,” or “to have your colley west” meant to be lopsided, out of place, or facing the wrong way. And so by extension the name Collyweston itself eventually came to refer to contradictory, inconsistent nonsense.

4. Cow-slaver

An old 18th-century northern English word for nonsense, in the sense of something completely worthless: cow-slaver is literally the froth or drool that forms around a cow’s mouth as it eats. Another equally unpleasant synonym for nonsense was bull-scutter, an old Yorkshire word for watery manure.

5. Flemington confetti

Flemington is a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and has been home to one of Australia’s oldest and finest racecourses since 1840. The expression Flemington confetti first emerged in Australian slang in the 1920s as a synonym for worthless nonsense or gossip—it refers to the mess of torn up betting slips and other papery debris left at the racecourse after a day’s racing.

6. Gammon and spinach!

In 19th century criminal slang, to gammon meant to cheat or swindle someone. It probably derived either from a pun on backgammon, in the sense of the victim being “played,” or in reference to them being metaphorically “tied up” by a scam, such as a joint of a gammon (bacon) before it’s cooked, but whatever its origin, the word eventually inspired a whole host of gammony expressions among the criminal gangs of Victorian London. "To gammon the twelve" meant to cheat a jury; "To stand gammon" meant to distract a victim while your accomplice robbed them; and "gammoning the draper" referred to an impoverished man tucking a handkerchief into the collar of his jacket to give the impression that he was wearing a shirt underneath. Gammon and spinach, as a synonym for something nonsensical or make-believe, probably dates from sometime around the mid-1840s—Charles Dickens used a version of it in David Copperfield in 1849.

7. Eye-wash

If something is eye-wash, it means it's done just for show, without any real reason for it (or sometimes, a thing done to conceal reality). It's military slang, and the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1857 account of a cavalry "that had even more gingerbread and eyewash about them than our own useless Regular Cavalry."

8. Moonshine on the water

Because the moon itself doesn’t shine (but rather just reflects the light of the sun), moonshine has been used proverbially in English to describe something fake or lacking real substance since the early 15th century. Although today it tends only to be used on its own (and often as a nickname for illegal, home-brewed alcohol, which dates back to the 1700s), originally, moonshine was often found in a variety of bizarre phrases and expressions, all meaning “nonsense” or “rubbish.” "Moonshine on the water" is one of the earliest on record—the OED has traced it back as far as 1468.

9. To poke bogey

In 18th/19th-century slang, "to poke bogey" meant to talk rubbish, or, by extension, to play a game unreasonably, in contravention of its rules. Although the origin of the phrase is hazy, at least one theory points out that both words might come from old words for ghosts or ghouls—bogey, as in bogeyman, and poke from puck or puckle, an Old English word for a spirit or demon.

10. To talk pack-thread

Pack-thread is the rough string or twine used to tie up packages for the mail. In 19th century English, talking pack-thread ultimately meant speaking “roughly” or heedlessly, well as “talking nonsense.” It was also used to describe profuse swearing, or else “wrapping” smutty language up in innuendo and implication.

11. Tommy-rot

In 18th-century military English, tommy was a nickname for the poor-quality bread doled out to soldiers as part of their rations. Tommy-rot was ultimately rotten bread, and, in the sense of something utterly worthless or spoiled beyond use, eventually came to mean “nonsense” in Victorian slang.

12. Very like a whale

Another English expression lifted from the works of Shakespeare, "very like a whale" can be used as a sarcastic reply to someone who has said something silly or implausible. It comes from a scene in the third act of Hamlet, in which Hamlet is absent-mindedly discussing the appearance of a passing cloud with Polonius. After first deciding that it looks “almost in [the] shape of a camel,” Hamlet changes his mind to “a weasel” and then to “a whale,” to which Polonius wearily replies, “very like a whale.”

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2013.

11 Dothraki Words and Phrases Every Game of Thrones Fan Should Know

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

You know the words khal and khaleesi, but consider working these other words and phrases from the Dothraki language—which was created by linguist David J. Peterson, and featured in Living Language Dothraki—into your vocabulary before the final season of Game of Thrones premieres on April 14, 2019.

1. M’athchomaroon!

The Dothraki way of saying hi, this word—which can also be shortened to M’ach! or M’ath!—translates to “With respect.” To say hello to a group of non-Dothrakis, you would use the phrase Athchomar chomakea, which literally translates to “Respect to those that are respectful.” Fonas chek, which translates to "hunt well," is one way to say goodbye.

2. San athchomari yeraan!

Peterson writes that the Dothraki have no word for “thank you.” Instead, use this phrase, which literally translates to “a lot of honor to you!” but basically means “much respect!”

3. Fichas jahakes moon!

These are Dothraki fighting words, meant to encourage the warriors in their khalasar (or Dothraki group). This phrase means “get him!” but literally translates to “Take his braid”—which makes sense, since Dothrakis cut off their braids after a defeat. A Dothraki who wins a lot of battles is a lajak haj, or “strong warrior.”

4. And 5. Yer shekh ma shieraki anni and Yer jalan atthirari anni

Jason Momoa and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Both of these phrases—the first said by a male, the second by a female—mean “you are my loved one,” but they literally translate to phrases well-known to Game of Thrones fans: “You are my sun and stars” and “You are the moon of my life.” As Peterson notes, “these expressions come from Dothraki mythology, in which the sun is the husband of the moon.”

6. Anha dothrak adakhataan

Peterson writes that “as a result of the importance of horses to Dothraki culture, there are many idiomatic expressions related to horses and riding.” This phrase is best used before a meal: It means “I’m about to eat,” and literally translates to “I ride to eating.” If you were Dothraki, you’d likely be eating fresh horsemeat (gavat) and drinking mare’s milk (lamekh ohazho, which is often just shortened to lamekh).

7. Hrazef

This is Dothraki for horse, and there are many other words relating to horses in the language. A good one to know is the word for the great stallion, a.k.a., “the deity worshipped by the Dothraki”: vezhof.

8. Addrivat

Joseph Naufahu, Tamer Hassan, Emilia Clarke, Elie Haddad, Darius Dar Khan, and Diogo Sales in Game of Thrones
HBO

If there’s one thing the Dothraki are very good at, it’s killing, and they have multiple words for the deed. This is a verb meaning “to kill,” and literally translates to “to make something dead.” Both Ds are pronounced. It’s used, according to Peterson, “when the killer is a sentient being.” (Drozhat is used when a person is killed by an animal or an inanimate object, "like a fallen rock," Peterson writes.)

9. Asshekhqoyi vezhvena!

The next time your friend or loved one is celebrating another year around the sun, use this Dothraki phrase, which means “happy birthday” but literally translates to “[Have] a great blood-day!”

10. Zhavorsa or Zhavvorsa

Dothraki for dragon. Finne zhavvorsa anni? means “Where are my dragons?” This word might not be super applicable in everyday life, so jano—the Dothraki word for dog or dogs—is probably more appropriate.

11. Vorsa

Dracarys—a.k.a., what Dany says to Drogon to get him to let loose—is the High Valyrian word for dragonfire. It's unclear if the Dothraki have a word for dragonfire, but the word for fire is vorsa. Sondra, meanwhile, is their word for obsedian—or, as it's called on Game of Thrones, dragonglass.

For more information on the Dothraki language and culture, pick up Living Language Dothraki: A Conversational Language Course Created by David J. Peterson Based on the Hit Original HBO Series Game of Thrones at Amazon.

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