Into every copyeditor’s life, a little rain must fall. Setting aside the literal rain that drives us back under the covers of a Monday morning, the metaphorical rain of a copyeditor’s career comes in the form of horrible manuscripts.
We’ve all had to deal with them: The manuscripts that are so riddled with misspellings, mixed metaphors, and missed messages that we’re just sure this was the author’s first draft. The manuscripts that are so convoluted and malformed that we cannot properly edit them because we cannot divine the author’s intent. The manuscripts that make us question our choice to commit our lives to wordsmithing.
In short, nonsense.
(And it’s even worse when it’s your own manuscript.)
Thankfully, English provides a plethora of words to describe such authorial nonsense. Some words are borrowed from other cultures, others seem to appear instantaneously, coined from little more than a good ear and a sharp need. Here are eleven of them to add to your lexicon:
amphigory: This type of nonsense writing or verse comes from the French amphigouri, though no one really knows where that word came from. It may be a wholly fabricated word, but it does resemble the Greek roots amphi- “on both sides” + -egorein “to speak publicly” (which also gave us the word allegory).
balderdash: In its early use, balderdash was a jumbled mix of liquors, which, if over-imbibed, might lead the drinker to spout the “nonsense” balderdash of today. There has been quite a bit of conjecture over the years about the source of this word, but no consensus has been reached among etymologists.
blather or blither: The latter word for this type of rapid, sometimes voluble nonsense talk comes from alteration of the former, and the former likely comes from the Old Norse blathra “to wag the tongue.” You might have used the phrase blithering idiot to describe someone who spouts blather, but a more satisfying word is blatherskite, formed from incorporation of the Scots dialect skate “contemptible person.”
bosh: This word for not only foolish talk but foolish acts comes directly from the Turkish boş, literally “empty.” Apparently it found some popularity after it appeared in J.J. Morier’s 1834 novel Ayesha, the Maid of the Kars. Here’s an excerpt: “The parts which are taken from the Christian Bible are divine; those which are the works of a mortal are not divine. They are spurious. They are bosh — nothing.” [emphasis in original, likely as an indication of the word’s foreign origins]
bunkum, sometimes shortened to bunk: As the story goes, in 1820, Felix Walker, North Carolina’s Representative for Buncombe County, felt he hadn’t had much opportunity to speak in front of Congress. It’s not that he had something important to say; he just wanted to get himself on the record — and in his home state’s newspapers — to prove to his constituents that he was, indeed, on the job. He insisted he be given the floor, and when it was granted, spoke at length about nothing of import to Congress. He talked for the sake of talking. By the 1840s, bunkum — a phonetic spelling of Buncombe — was a common word for “nonsense.”
drivel: The Old English dreflian gave us the verb drivel “to drool or slaver.” By the mid-1800s, the more metaphorical “rambling nonsense” meaning had taken hold, letting words, not saliva, run unstopped from the mouth.
flapdoodle: As the editors at Merriam-Webster point out, “combining the letters F, D, and L is a great formula for creating funny words.” No one knows exactly how this word came to be in the mid-19th century, but the fact that doodle was an 18th-century slang term for the penis may point to its construction as a word to describe a certain rhetorical impotence.
folderol: Look! More Fs, Ds, and Ls! Folderol (sometimes falderal) originally described a nonsense refrain used in 18th-century lyrics, much like “Tra-la-la” and “Hey nonny nonny.” Revelers would literally sing “FAL-DER-AL.” Folderol defines itself: It’s just nonsense words.
hokum: Probably a 19th-century combination of hocus-pocus and bunkum, the pretentious nonsense of hokum, and it’s subtle reference to sleight of hand, might serve some ulterior and sinister motive.
malarkey or malarky: No one is sure where this type of insincere or foolish talk came from. It seemingly just sprang out of the Roaring Twenties, the same decade that gave us the bee’s knees, the heebie-jeebies, skiffle, and yoo-hoo!
poppycock: This particular type of nonsense came to English just before the American Civil War from the Dutch pappekak, meaning “soft dung.” So when you’re faced with poppycock, “Cut the crap!” would be an apt response.
Copyeditors aren’t the only people who have to deal with blather, folderol, and poppycock, of course. There is enough nonsense to go around, and then some. But don’t worry: As the drivel flows and the flapdoodle grows, our English language will grow with it.