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Let me take you back to a world before social media, a world where it is not yet possible to ‘like’ a thought, or to anonymously and casually call someone an impossibly rude word just for supporting a political party that is not yours. And a world where, if you wish to pick a fight, you had better be ready to have a fight, because it’s highly likely that the person you’re slagging off is standing in front of you, fists clenched.

What you need then is an armory of terms which act as a dismissive wave of the hand, without suggesting there is a fundamental flaw in the biological makeup of the person whose thoughts you are dismissing. You need the words which can explode their logic immediately, like a comedian’s trick cigar leaving a black scorch all over their reddened face, without dishonoring their family and therefore leaving yourself open to challenges and duels and all of that stuff.

Being naturally quite an argumentative sort of nation, the British have a ton of words, fit for just such a purpose. Some are no longer in circulation, some get a dusting-off from time to time, whenever needed, and some are all over the Internet like Facebook squared. They’re all marvellous, of course.

Piffle, for example, simply does not get used enough. It goes in hard, all plosive and pugnacious, and ends silly, like a burst balloon. To call someone’s argument piffle is to make it seem trivial, wrong-headed and small. Fiddle-faddle, on the other hand, deserves whatever dusty crevice it has long-since been shoved into. The aim is to act as though your opponent’s argument is beneath contempt, not create the impression that you’re trying to spit the grit out of a mouthful of trifle.

Twaddle, on the other hand, is very good: starts with a very pleasing, attacking tw, and ends on just the ride side of baby talk. It could not mean anything but nonsense; the kind of nonsense that is beneath contempt too.

Kanye West once had a certain amount of trouble using the word rubbish in a guest rap he did for Estelle’s single “American Boy,” but it’s such a common word over here that if he hadn’t, I’d have left it off the list. It’s a great slapdown word though, very satisfying to say, especially if you linger on the long shh at the end, while your opponent fumes silently.

Claptrap dates back to the 18th Century, and denotes pretentious speech which is designed to raise a cheap cheer. It describes a deliberate style of oration which is designed to ensnare applause, playing to the gallery; a literal clap trap. Presidential debates? Claptrap. Deliberately taking a binary position on an emotive issue because nuance is harder to sell to a fired-up audience? Claptrap. Stating an obvious truth as if you’re the first person to have ever thought of it? Well you get the idea…

Tripe has less of a refined mandate than claptrap. Tripe is a dish, once very popular in the North of England, made by cooking the lining of a cow’s stomach (or, for the culinary adventurers among you, that of a sheep, pig, deer or even goat). The sort of thing that gets made into sausages or burgers or dog food nowadays. If you’re accused of talking tripe, your opinion is being equated to a cow’s innards. It’s only one step up from saying someone is talking crap.

Balderdash is glorious, isn’t it? A word that dates back to Shakespearian times, and seems to have come from the pubs. A mix of unknown and frothy liquids – milk and beer, for example – was called a balderdash, and it’s a small step from there to suggest that someone’s line of reasoning is a bad cocktail of ingredients that don’t work together, causing a frothy, empty chemical reaction that seems impressive but isn’t. Doesn’t that describe 90% of Twitter interactions right there?

Tommyrot (note, NOT tummyrot) also comes from bad food. In the 19th Century, a tommy was a loaf of bread, and tommyrot is simply the mould on a bad loaf. To speak of spreading tommyrot, in the sense of talking nonsense, carries with it a twist of extra poison.

Flummery, on the other hand, is a fruit pudding made with corn starch. It’s also a pretentious ceremony, or speech from a pompous fool, as is mummery, which derives from Mummer’s plays. Neither word is in current use much, but don’t you wish they were?

Oh by the way, if you’re expecting to see poppycock on this list, I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. It’s not British, for starters. The word derives from the charming Dutch expression zo fijn als gemalen poppekak, which literally means “as fine as powdered doll shit,” and was used to describe someone with a messianic, holier-than-thou zeal for religious matters. Dutch settlers brought it over to America, and the word caught on, probably because, like so many on this list, it sounds like a swear word.

And in many ways, the reason these words are slipping from currency is because the actual curses have taken them over. Bunk, for example, is barely ever used, and yet it’s a brilliantly sharp dig in the solar plexus. It’s just not as effective as a comment on YouTube.

Just one of the unfortunate side-effects of taboo-breaking, I suppose.

What British slang shall we look at next? Tell us here:

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine