Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Things I Find Fascinating #2: "Nonsense Words"

Not-so-shocking confession:  I love the English language. Immensely.

I love the fact that the same word, spelled the same way, can have two entirely dissimilar meanings if the emphasis is placed on a different syllable. Case in point: the word "invalid".  If I say that your argument is inVALid, I am letting you know that I think you arrived at your conclusion based on false reasoning or factual errors. However, if I say that you are an INvalid, I am classifying you as a person who is incapacitated by a chronic illness or disability. Fascinating!

I also love the fact that there are literally dozens of ways to express the same sentiment in different words. Case in point: the word "nonsense".  "Nonsense" – in and of itself – is a wonderful word, explicit in its meaning, yet unpretentious in its expression. But oh, the weird and wonderful words that can also be used to connote absurdity! Let's examine a few of them:

1) Fatuous:  First of all, even when this word is spelled right, it looks like it's spelled wrong. No self-respecting seven-letter word should ever contain three consecutive vowels. But don't blame the word. Blame the Latin language from which it derives. Second of all, say this word aloud a couple of times. (It's pronounced FAT-you-US.) True, it's no "Djibouti", but it's a surefire chuckle-worthy word. Sadly, this clueless young lady's colossal misunderstanding of the word is a perfect demonstration of it.

2)  Balderdash:  This word's so wacky they named a board game after it. Yes, the word came before the game. About 400 years or so before the game, in fact. No one's really sure where the word originated, but I like to think of it as a distinctly British expression, whether that's accurate or mere stereotype.

3)  Codswallop:  This is another indubitably British synonym that is great fun to repeat endlessly – perhaps when no one's around so as to avoid strange looks. The bloke in this video has a great explanation for the word's somewhat obscure origin.

4) Falderal  (also spelled falderol or folderol) No, this is not that prescription you have to go pick up at Walgreens after work. This is yet another great word that means foolishness or nonsense. One guy liked the word so much that he wrote a song about it. I haven't heard the song myself, but I'll bet it's a load of codswallop.

5)  Hogwash:  Now, I would have thought that the origin of this word would have something to do with the notion that washing a hog is utterly ridiculous, considering that the hog itself is relatively unconcerned with its own cleanliness; however, that is not the case. Apparently, hogwash is another word for the slop that some less-than-fastidious swine farmers would feed to their hogs, apparently completely inconsiderate of the hogs' gastronomical preferences or the nutritional value of said slop.

6)  Buncombe (also spelled bunkum)This is a relatively recent word, as words go, originating in the early 1800s when U.S. Congressman F. Walker from North Carolina delivered a speech deemed insincere by his peers, who claimed that the politician intended merely to please his local constituents. His constituents in Buncombe County, that is. And so a new nonsensical word was born.

7)  Trumpery:  No, this word does not mean "the act of firing someone on a reality TV show while sporting a hideous combover". But wouldn't it be great if that was what it meant? This is yet another nifty word for nonsense, denoting specifically something that is utterly devoid of value or usefulness. It derives from a Middle English word meaning "to deceive." I don't know about you, but I'm becoming more and more convinced that this word does refer to "The Donald".

8)  Twaddle:  Okay, not only is this word a fun one to say over and over again – after double-checking that you are alone in the room – but it also has one of the wackiest origins I've found yet. The word "twaddle" originated in the 1540s when some random smart aleck decided that it would be great fun to combine the words "twiddle" and "tattle". I kid you not. That is its origin. I can just picture this guy, sitting around twiddling his thumbs while ratting out his friends and shouting: "I'm twaddling, I'm twaddling!" This is a perfect illustration of why random people should not be allowed to invent words.

9)  Malarkey (also spelled malarky) Originally used to refer to speech or writing designed to obscure, mislead, or impress, this gem of a word is now more commonly used – alongside other great words like "shenanigans" – to indicate that something is rubbish or nonsense.

10)  Gimcrackery:  Last but not least, we come to a word that has quickly become one of my new favorites. This crackerjack synonym was originally used to refer to a nonsensical item; that is, a cheap, showy trifle or gadget. Now, it's just a really absurd way to say that something is really absurd. Every time I see or hear this word (which, admittedly, isn't often), I can't help but think of the old children's song, "Jimmy Crack Corn". The following video is classic gimcrackery – a rousing rendition of this and other folk songs by Pee Wee Herman and the Singing Train Hobo. It may be 54 seconds of your life you'll never get back, but you didn't really need them anyway.

Watch it here:

Once again, thank you for indulging my strange fascinations. Maybe you've learned something. Maybe you'll have some new and utterly useless things to talk about with your friends and neighbors. Maybe not. But thanks for stopping by anyway! Come back anytime.

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