Gobbledygook and Other Sorts of Nonsense

Anything worth saying is worth saying plainly. And doing so is often less trouble. Still, nonsense language persists.

In fact, so many communications are nonsensical that the English language has evolved dozens of words to describe the varieties of nonsense you may be unfortunate enough to experience. For all of us who wish to speak intelligently, even about the nonsense we encounter, here’s a breakdown of the types of nonsense you may encounter in your every day discourse.

BalderdashBalderdash – bold, rhetorical flourishes lacking substance; formerly, a mixture of beer or wine or both with whatever else happened to be on hand, often creating a muddy, undrinkable concoction. The word is so bold that it inspired a game, the rules of which require that each player be given a word and then state either the real definition or create one on the spot. The players must then accept the definition or call “balderdash.”

BolognaBaloney – (also boloney) – Somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, Americans began using this word to describe something that was foolish or nonsensical. Two theories are popularly expounded to explain the origin of the term. One suggests that the people of the Italian town Bologne have a reputation for spinning tall tales, perhaps because many of them are trained in the law. The other references the processed meat product and the many truths and urban legends regarding its manufacture.

There’s little linguistic evidence to support the derivation of the word from either of these origins, but that does nothing to stop otherwise perfectly intelligent folks from trying to make the connections, however tenuous they may be. Ben Zimmer summarizes the litany of these theories and a few others in a beautiful article on Language Log.


As an example of both meanings of “bollocks,” British punk rockers The Sex Pistols disbanded and reformed TWICE, sidestepping breach of contract suit while still retaining the advance from the record company. In other words, they earned lots of money by doing nothing. Brilliant!

Bollocks – From the Middle English for “balls.” Somehow in the early 1900s, testicles became a symbol for something that was worthless or void of real substance (long before the female rights’ movement and effective birth control!). Both terms, balls and bollocks, are still used today – in America and the UK respectively – to deride a statement as nonsense.

DrivelDrivel – literally drool. The term is often used to describe writing about popular culture, current events, or anything that is of extreme fascination to a limited number of people (or people with limited intellectual resources.)


TurkeyGobbledygook – needlessly convoluted and obtuse speech or writing; derived onomatopoeically from the sound made by a turkey. The word originated in the 1940s, and some sources (such as The New York Times and Wikipedia) attribute it to a United States Congressmen fed up with the rhetorical games of his fellow committee members (the OED offers alternate origins from the same time period). It is generally associated with government writing.

Thankfully, if you’re a government writer and you’ve run out of things to say, you can always visit the gobbledygook generator and insert another little bit of nonsense into your next report. Or if you would prefer to speak sensibly, you may wish to visit PlainLanguage.Gov’s Quick Reference Guide, which offers examples and word lists to eliminate the nonsense.

LogorrheaLogorrhea – a lot like diarrhea, except instead of oozing fluids, one oozes words. Gross! Most often used to describe someone who is mentally reduced to gibberish – it’s even a technical term in the mental health field for someone with a rare chemical disorder – but the word can also be applied to someone who just doesn’t know when to shut up and spews a lot of nonsense as a consequence.

Of course, if you happen to be a logophile, you may want to check out Stephen Chrisomalis’ International House of Logorrhea, a collection of obscure words NOT intended for everyday use.


If you need a flowchart to order a cup of coffee, you’re engaged in a form of discourse commonly called “rigmarole.” (And you’re probably overpaid.)

Rigmarole (also rigamarole) – a long, overly complicated process. The word comes from a ragman’s role, or the list of the junk that a “ragman” or “rag-and-bone-man” will sort from your garbage to sell, including rags (used to make paper), bones (for tools, the fat from which would be rendered into soap), and metal.

Ragmen were common in England and Europe from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, when public garbage collection made their trade unprofitable, although scrap metal dealing is regaining its popularity. The American TV sitcom Sanford & Son depicted the declining profession. Similar shows today include Storage Wars and Pawn Stars. (Some information courtesy of Wikipedia)

Like this post? For more nonsense words, check out Glossophilia’s Thesaurus of Piffle. And please, share some examples with us of the sorts of drivel, gobbledygook, and rigmarole you’ve had to endure recently. Remember, misery loves company!

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