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.

This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.