Warren Harding (1865-1923) was a magnificent specimen of manhood, but is generally accounted one of the worst ever presidents of the United States of America (Donald Trump is pretty easily worse, but we know a lot more about him). Harding’s impressive style, it seems, concealed a near-complete lack of substance. William Gibbs McAdoo, a Democrat, spoke of Harding’s speeches as “…an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Apparently Harding used the word bloviate a lot and, because his style of oratory was characterised by bloviation, it is not surprising that he was given credit for it. Some authors have suggested that bloviate was coined by Warren Harding, but quotations in OED2 go back to 1845 – well before he was born. Unhappily for Harding’s memory, dozens of books dealing with language or oratory use bloviate principally in connection with Harding’s style.
Bloviate is a good-sounding word, pleasing to say but not much heard these days. OED2 defines it as “to talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric”. Its sound evokes the parallel idea of a blowhard. How can we have lost such a word in a world run by lawyers and politicians?
It is generally the case that those who bloviate are found to be speaking rubbish. It is astonishing to find how many words English provides to describe rubbish. English does not provide many proper words for ideas concerning ideas, emotions or sex, it provides generously for ideas about rubbish. In Tom Stoppard’s Artist Decending a Staircase, a choleric old modernist painter (reformed) offers a terse appraisal of his unreformed colleague’s latest work, which comprises a layered sound recording made in a silent, empty room. This provokes the following exchange:
DONNER: I think it is rubbish.
BEAUCHAMP: Oh. You mean a sort of tonal debris, as it were?
DONNER: No. Rubbish, general rubbish. In the sense of being worthless, without value, rot, nonsense. Rubbish in fact.
BEAUCHAMP: Ah. The detritus of audible existence, a sort of refuse heap of sound …
DONNER: I mean rubbish. I’m sorry, Beauchamp, but you must come to terms with the fact that our paths have diverged. I very much enjoyed my years in that child’s garden of easy victories known as the avant-garde, but I am now engaged in the infinitely more difficult task of painting what the eye actually sees.
Donner could also have described Beauchamp’s work as bilge, bosh, bullshit, crap, dung, eyewash, flim-flam, horseshit, nonsense, nut, ruck, skittle, slop, tosh, or trash. The OED2 notes nearly 400 words whose central meaning is rubbish.
Tosh is not much heard these days. It was invented in the late nineteenth century and was frequently used in cricketing circles. On 25 June 1898 Tit-Bits noted that “Among the recent neologisms of the cricket field is tosh, which means bowling of contemptible easiness.” Tosh is an interesting word, because it has a number of other meanings apart from that which cricket conferred on it. It is a bath or footpan; it is also those items of value that may be retrieved from sewers and drains. As a contraction of tosheroon, it means two shillings, or money generally (compare Australian slang dosh); it can also be used as a neutral, informal mode of address, equivalent to guv’ or squire. Strangely, when tosh is used as an adjective it takes on an entirely new set of meanings: neat, tidy, trim, comfortable, agreeable, familiar.
Bilge is a very satisfactory word: short, luscious and stinking, it conveys a sloshing sense of its meaning. Its primary meaning is the bottom of a ship’s hull, or the filth that collects there, but it is also very often used in its metaphorical sense of rubbish or rot. Much less obvious is its use as a verb, meaning ‘to stave in the hull of a ship, causing it to spring a leak’. So Admiral Anson wrote in his account of his epic, four-year voyage around the world: ‘She struck on a sunken rock, and soon after bilged.’ And this use as a verb may also be metaphorical. In 1870 Lowell wrote: ‘On which an heroic life … may bilge and go to pieces.’
Bilge is interesting in another way. Of the 625,000 or so words in the English language, only 11 others end with the letter sequence -lge. Three are well known and obvious: bulge, divulge, and indulge. The rest are very strange and rare:
bolge (n): the gulfs of the eighth circle of the inferno (Also malebolge. Dante did not think well of it.)
effulge (v): to shine forth brilliantly (Hence, the coded proverb: ‘All that shines with effulgence is not, ipso facto, aurous.’)
emulge (v): to drain secretory organs of their contents
evulge (v): to disseminate among the people; to make commonly known, hence to divulge
promulge (v): to make known to the public, as in promulgate (Also provulge, and probably a corruption of the same)
milge (v): to dig round about
thulge (v): to be patient
volge (n): the common crowd; the mob (‘The mob’ is a contraction of mobile vulgaris: literally ‘the common people in motion’.)
While bilge is a good word, my favourite word for expressing succinct condemnation is bullshit. It has the merit of being terse, expressive, and naughty enough to shock without being beyond the pale. It can sometimes be heard on ABC radio, which is our linguistic gold-standard. It appears without a fig-leaf in more than 40 judgments in the NSW Supreme Court, but only in circumstances where it is quoting the evidence. It is at risk of becoming polite however, which would strip away much of its force. In 2005 Harry G. Frankfurt published a book titled On Bullshit. Frankfurt is a philosopher, so his take on this vital subject is useful but not obvious. He discusses the difference between bullshit and lying by reference to an anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein who distinguishes between a ‘… statement … grounded neither in a belief that it is true, nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true’.
Incidentally, bullshitter was recognised by Sidney J Baker in his Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang, but it had not been absorbed into the Oxford as at February 2012. A draft addition in the OED2 dated 1993 suggests that it will be recognised in due time. Until then, it remains a distinctively Australian expression for a bloviator.
Bloviating usually involves self-important, over-inflated speech. Other varieties of idle speech are well-catered for by English vocabulary. Words denoting idle talk include (among many others) babble, balderdash, bibble-babble, bourd, braggadocio, cackling, clatter, claver, fiddle-faddle, flim-flam, gossip, jangle, jaunder, jibber-jabber, labrish, palaver, prattle, tattle, tittle-tattle, trattle, truff, twattle, yap and yatter.
Most of these are self-explanatory; some are obviously archaic. Jaunder is simply idle talk. Claver is ‘idle garrulous talk, to little purpose’. There is a Scottish saying: ‘Muckle claver and little corn’ (muckle = much), referring to eloquent preaching which uses many words but has little substance. The pun is on claver, clover. A truff is ‘an idle tale or jest’. It is a fifteenth-century word, which seems to have disappeared some time in the seventeenth century.
Twattle (also twaddle, and in that form commoner in Australian English) is idle talk or chatter; and just as we now have the expression chatter-box, in the eighteenth century there was twattle-basket.
Yatter is onomatapoeic and self-evident, but not often heard although it is still in use. It is originally a Scottish dialectal word and is still used in Scotland. OED2 offers a quotation from (of all places) the Brisbane Sunday Mail: ‘No one in the Brisbane Valley any longer believes the tourist yatter given out by Government … circles.’ The quotation dates from May 1978, when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the Queensland premier. Given Sir Joh’s narrative style, and his famous reference to press conferences as ‘feeding the chooks’, yatter seems to be an apt word in the circumstances.
Just as idleness of speech is well served by English vocabulary, so is idleness of character. About 500 English words have idleness at the core of their meaning. Words which suggest idleness of character include: bumble, do-nothing, dor, drone, gongoozler, loon, lubber, lurdan, lusk, picktooth, quisby, ragabash, rake, shack, sloth, slouch, sluggard, toot, trotevale, truandise, vagrant, and wastrel.
Some of these are obvious, but others deserve a closer look. A bumble is a blunderer or idler, also known as a batie bum. A gongoozler is originally ‘an idler who stares at length at activity on a canal; hence more widely, a person who stares protractedly at anything’. A highly specialised word indeed, its first recorded use is in that well-known organ Bradshaw’s Canals & Navigable Rivers of England & Wales. In an attempt at survival its meaning broadened, but the word remains obscure.
A lubber is ‘a big, clumsy, stupid fellow; especially one who lives in idleness; a lout’, and it became specialised as a sneering term used by sailors to mean ‘a clumsy seaman; an unseamanlike fellow’, especially in the compound expression land-lubber.
The OED2 defines lurdan as ‘a general term of opprobrium, reproach, or abuse, implying either dullness and incapacity, or idleness and rascality; a sluggard, vagabond, “loafer”’. Its heavy sound fits it well to the task, and the word has been around since the fourteenth century, so it is a pity that it has disappeared. Similarly, a lusk is ‘an idle or lazy fellow; a sluggard’. Cotgrave’s description of someone as ‘… sottish, blockish … luske-like’ could not be mistaken for a friendly observation. Like lurdan, it dates back many centuries, but even as the number of people increases to whom it could be fairly applied, it has fallen out of use.
Lusk sounds like a good word to describe Donald Trump, although it does not convey anything of his self-interest or his dishonesty. And he surely is good at bloviating, even if he does not know the word. Maybe it’s time to invent hashtag for him: #BloviatingLusk .