Which Origin is Pure Poppycock?

By Rob Kyff

May 3, 2017 3 min read

"Fake news." "Alternative facts."

It's nothing new. Creative and colorful terms for tall tales, fishy fibs and deceptive distortions slither like con men through American lingo. The origins of some of these expressions are, appropriately enough, unbelievable. Can you tell which one of these derivations is pure poppycock?

—Claptrap: Eighteenth-century playwrights sometimes inserted platitudes or mawkish speeches into their works to elicit predictable applause. Because these lines essentially trapped people into clapping, they were called "claptraps." Soon "claptrap" became a general term for any kind of nonsense or rubbish.

—Bunk: In 1820, North Carolina Congressman Felix Walker, whose district included Buncombe County, rose in the U.S. House to speak about the Missouri Compromise. When he started spouting irrelevant nonsense, Walker explained that he was "making a speech for Buncombe." Soon people were describing any piece of foolish or insincere jabbering as "bunkum" or "bunk."

—Poppycock: This term arose during the 1850s when Americans heard Dutch immigrants use the derisive phrase "zo fijn als gemalen poppekak," which literally means "as fine as powdered doll poop." In Dutch, "pop" means "doll," and "kak" means you know what. Americans soon Anglicized the term to "poppycock" and applied it to any form of verbal deception.

—Balderdash: One of the most popular contests of the Scottish highlanders was the boulder dash. It featured brawny men dressed in kilts clambering over a field of huge rocks. This event was considered so ridiculous that, by 1700, "boulder dash," and later "balderdash," had become a general term for "nonsense."

—Hogwash: You might assume that this term comes from water used to rinse off hogs, (though why anyone would bother to wash dirt off pigs who wallow in mud is beyond me). In fact, "hogwash" refers instead to the food served to swine. A pig's liquid Happy Meal often included worthless "wash" (water that had been used to wash out pots and pans), so "hog wash" soon came to denote cheap liquor, bad writing and, eventually, a fraudulent statement.

The phony?

"Balderdash." Truth be told, its origins are obscure. It may derive from a frothy mixture of beer and milk called "balderdash," or from the English dialect word "balder," meaning "course language," or from the Welsh "baldordd," meaning "idle talk or chatter."

But I can't stop picturing that boulder dash.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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