My new book Bullshit: A Lexicon includes history on words with a BS-y meaning. Some of them—malarkey, bunk, poppycock, twaddle, mumbo jumbo, and truthiness—you probably know. But some common words that usually don’t have a whiff of tommyrot are also in the BS lexicon. The following are nine terms that, much to my surprise, can set off a BS detector.
We mostly know this word as a magician’s exclamation, but it has also meant a bunch of stuff since at least the mid-1800s. This turn in meaning might have something to do with the bogusness of magic, but the reduplicative form of abracadabra couldn’t have hurt. The BS lexicon is full of words like fiddle-faddle, twittle-twattle, jibber-jabber, and flubdub.
Used mainly in Australia, confetti is part of nonsense-naming terms such as cow confetti, cowyard confetti, farmyard confetti, and Flemington confetti. The origin isn’t clear—aside from used confetti being a type of rubbish—but it may be a reference to discarded betting slips at the Flemington racecourse.
This folksy, regional word for excrement has been drafted into service in the BS lexicon. You can also spell it hockie, hocky, and hawky, and it appears to be related to cacky, a word for poo. Hockey can stand alone or you can discuss bull hockey or horse hockey, a pleasingly alliterative term for an unpleasant thing.
This term has a theatrical origin: Since at least the 1920s, rhubarb has been used in the theater, and not as a healthy snack. Actors (and sometimes audience members) would say “rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb” together to make it sound like there were background conversations. This form of nonsense evolved to mean a word for nonsense.
Often appearing in the phrase pile of pants, this use has appeared since at least the 1990s, mostly in England, where (as word expert Michael Quinion notes) pants means underpants, which might explain the twaddlesome nature of this expression. Here’s a 2000 use from The Independent that is always applicable to politics: “A Liberal Democrat stunned his fellow peers when he dismissed a landmark report on the future of the historic environment as ‘a load of pants.’”
This BS term was in the headlines back in June when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia used the phrase “Pure applesauce” in a dissent. Scalia is quite the BS maestro, as the same dissent included the language “The Court’s next bit of interpretive jiggery-pokery…”
Jiggery-pokery aside, applesauce has meant BS for quite a while. It’s an effective dismissal, as seen in this use in John O’Hara’s 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra: “‘I just didn't want to spoil your evening, that's all.’ ‘Applesauce,’ said Irma.”
This BS term often appears in the expression throwing the oil or the old oil. P.G. Wodehouse used it in 1954’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit: “It was imperative that they be given the old oil, because she was in the middle of a very tricky business deal with the male half of the sketch and at such times every little helps.” The old oil is grade A malarkey.
This is a BS word with a large family that includes hogwash, pig wash, eyewash, and propwash. A 1971 Oxford English Dictionary use from a law journal is self-explanatory: “Any suggestion that the principle was also applied can be dismissed as so much mouth-wash.”
9. PRUNE JUICE
This yucky drink has sometimes referred to untrustworthy language or ideas, perhaps ideas that are meant to act as a mental laxative. An appetizing use in a 1904 issue of Life magazine refers to “forty yards of political prune juice and platitude,” which could be a tweet about any 2015 debate.