Not the same old folderol: ‘Nonsense’ words

English has so many creative ways to proclaim that something is ‘nonsense.’ Part 2 of a series on the nuts and bolts of humorous words.


Flimflam, fiddle-faddle, balderdash, bosh. English has so many creative ways to proclaim that something is “nonsense.” Last week we scratched the surface, talking about malarkey and other words that contain a “k” sound. This week we’ll look at two other features that often distinguish these words, which give them a humorous cast and lessen the sting of their critique. 

Many words for nonsense have a dactylic stress pattern: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. According to one online compendium of literary devices, this DUM-da-da rhythm “creates such a sing-song pattern that it does not often sound appropriate for serious subject matter,” but is perfect for nonsense words. Balderdash, poppycock, and folderol all have this lilting, waltzing cadence – ONE two three, ONE two three – which lightens their tone. Folderol in fact has musical origins. It was taken from the choruses of 18th- and 19th-century songs, which often contained meaningless but catchy syllables like “fol de rol, de rol de ra, diddle, diddle / fol de rol, de rol de ra.”

Double dactyls, like jiggery-pokery, are even better. That word had a moment recently in British news coverage on Brexit. One newspaper headline read “Boris Johnson will try no deal Brexit jiggery-pokery, warns Scottish MP.”

Other words for nonsense were formed via reduplication, in which a syllable is repeated, sometimes exactly and sometimes with a slight change. Reduplication is a hallmark of children’s speech. They often double syllables, saying “wawa” for “water,” for example.

Bish-bosh, claptrap, flimflam, and fiddle-faddle all developed through this process. Bosh is the Anglicized version of boş, a Turkish word that means “empty.” It became fashionable slang in England with the 1834 publication of “Ayesha, The Maid of Kars,” about a young English aristocrat who rescues a beautiful woman from a Turkish harem. It turns out that she is a young English aristocrat, too – what are the chances? (This novel may have also introduced the Turkish word kismet, destiny, into English.) To me, “bosh!” is onomatopoeia, the hissing “shh” resembling a sigh of frustration or irritation, and the reduplicated “bish-bosh” is even more evocative.

Claptraps were originally tricks that playwrights or actors would use to induce an audience to applaud – literal “traps for claps”– but by the 19th century the word meant “rubbish, nonsense.”  

There is one word for nonsense that has everything: lots of “k” sounds, reduplication, and (most of) a double dactyl: ackamarackus. This was 1920s slang, like malarkey. Since we’re gearing up for the 2020 election, it might be time for a revival. We’re sure to hear a lot more of “the old ackamarackus” this year.

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