How to Describe Gibberish

By Maeve Maddox

The recent post on greeking prompted a reader to remark:

And, of course, there’s Double Dutch. Where did that come from?

Double Dutch is another expression meaning “incomprehensible speech.” The “Dutch” refers to the idea that a foreign language is incomprehensible to one who hasn’t learned it. The “double” is an intensifier. “Double Dutch” is a language twice as difficult to understand as “plain ‘Dutch’”.

Here are some more nouns to express the idea of unintelligible vocalization that is either entirely unintelligible, or which may be understandable on some level, but makes no sense, or is inconsequential.

babble: probably an imitative word suggesting baby talk. I used to think it came from the story of the Tower of Babel, but apparently no etymological connection can be traced. The meaning “to repeat oneself incoherently” is known from about 1418.

balderdash: originally referred to a jumbled mix of liquors, for example milk and beer or beer and wine. In 1674 it meant “senseless jumble of words.”

baloney: originated as American slang word meaning “nonsense.” Could be from bologna, but could also have derived from blarney.

bilge: “stupid talk or writing” The bilge is the “lowest internal part of a ship.” A lot of nasty stuff accumulates there.

blather: “nonsensical talk” May have come into English via Scots dialect from a Scandinavian word meaning “babble.”

bull: Most of us probably think of “bull” as short for “bullshit,” but bull with the meaning “trivial or false statements,” has been around since Middle English. The ME word probably derived from French boul meaning “false talk, fraud.” It may be connected to modern Icelandic bull meaning “nonsense.” Bullshit is American slang dating from 1915 with the meaning “eloquent and insincere rhetoric.”

bunk: another American slang word meaning “nonsense.” It originated in 1847 with a politician from North Carolina who explained that his boring speeches in Congress were intended to impress his constituents “back home in Buncombe.” The spelling quickly became bunkum and has dwindled into bunk.

drivel: “stupid or senseless talk.” This one comes from OE dreflian, “to dribble or run at the nose.”

eyewash: “blarney, humbug.” According to the OnlineEtymologyDictionary, this expression is

chiefly British, is perhaps from the notion of “something intended to obscure or conceal facts or true motives.” But this, and expression my eye also may be the verbal equivalent of the wink that indicates one doesn’t believe what has been said (cf. Fr. mon oeil in same sense, accompanied by a knowing pointing of a finger to the eye).

gibberish: probably another imitative word suggesting the sound of chatter. Gibberish is totally unintelligible.

gobbledygook: “unclear, wordy jargon.” This is another word we owe to the sphere of politics. In another post I mentioned the eponym “maverick” that comes from the surname of rancher Samuel Maverick (1803-1870). The word gobbledygook was coined in 1944 by one of his grandsons, Texas representative Maury Maverick. In a memo dated March 30, 1944, he banned the use of “gobbledygook language” and threatened to shoot anyone who used the words activation or implementation. He said he based the word on the sound a turkey makes.

guff: “empty talk, nonsense.” This is another word of imitative origin, possibly based on puff.

hogwash: “worthless, false or ridiculous speech or writing.” Originally hogwash was slops fed to pigs. Then it came to mean “cheap liquor.” The meaning “inferior writing” dates from 1773.

jargon: The word entered English with the meaning “unintelligible talk, gibberish” in 1340. It derives from a French word meaning “a chattering of birds.” Now it can mean technical terminology associated with a specific occupation. Practitioners understand jargon, but to those not in the know, it’s gibberish.

mumbo jumbo: “unintelligible or incomprehensible language.” The term is supposed to derive from an African idol in the Niger region, but no likely source has been found. The meaning “big, empty talk” is documented from 1896.

piffle: “foolish or futile talk or ideas.” Probably an imitative word derived from a contemptuous blowing sound, or it could be a conflation of trifle and piddle.

poppycock: “senseless talk, nonsense.” This one sounds comical, but if you think about it, it’s as disgusting as bilge:

1865, probably from Du. dialect pappekak, from M.Du. pappe “soft dung” (see pap) + kak “dung,” from L. cacare “to excrete.” –OnlineEtymologyDictionary.

prattle: “idle or meaningless chatter.” This is another imitative word. The verb is prate.

tripe: “something of no value.” The literal meaning of tripe is

the rubbery lining of the stomach of cattle or other ruminants, used as food. –Answers.com

twaddle: “silly talk.” The origin is unknown.

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7 Responses to “How to Describe Gibberish”

  • Brad K.

    Ah! My favorite pithy phrase seems safe from being classified as “nonsense” – screeds of turgid verbiage. I guess the gist is still considered to have some useful content, no matter that one would rant and prate at length, in expressing an opinion vehemently.

    Or did you overlook “nonsense”? Or any body of expression with “silly” or “stupid” prepended? Would unintelligible nonsense be redundant? If one speaks cryptically, does that mean that the expression of information is so abrupt and abbreviated that much of the meaning is lost. But if one encrypts their message, then the content is unintelligible BS to any but those able to unencrypt the message. Is “encrypted” or “cryptic” then other terms for messages that aren’t understood?

    What about made-up sounds, or the theatrical “rhubarb” – muttering to provide a vocal subtext without content?

    I think I must leave this exercise, lest my communications be distorted, warped, or misunderstood. ‘Night!

  • Iapetus999

    Here’s my favorite:
    me·shu·gas (me′s̸ho̵o gäs′)
    noun
    craziness; foolishness; nonsense
    Etymology: Yiddish

    My example:
    What is this meshugas you’re spouting? Are you oiver botel[senile]?

  • Jim

    All references using the word Dutch have their roots in history of tensions between the Dutch and the English as far back as sea battles with cannon balls and perhaps even further.
    It’s an insult to use another culture in what looks like an acceptable expression:
    Dutch uncle: providing unrequested advice
    Going Dutch: being cheap, not giving anything away
    Dutch courage: daring to say/do more under the influence of alcohol.

    Just to name a few…
    Jim

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    I would not be unreasonable to remember that the adjective “barbarous” came from a greek word (actualy, a greek onomatopy) that described the “bar-bar-bar” made by non-greek-speakers, whose languages the greeks didn’t understand.

  • Laura

    What a great list!

    It’s amazing how many of these I’ve seen in the historical romances I love to read.

    Personally, I’m partial to the term “hooey” (which isn’t on the list above). Usage: bunch of hooey, load of hooey. It’s always related to some tale that that someone heard someone else telling.

    Another one I like is “cock and bull tale”. My mom uses this one a lot, e.g. “what kind of cock and bull tale did he come up with this time??” in reference to a contractor that wasn’t reimbursing her for work he did NOT do.

    Thanks for a great list, Maeve. Keep up the good work! :c)

  • Eve Logan

    How about “Jibber Jabber”, is this another imitative word?

  • ATP

    I enjoy speaking in Non-Sequiter. It’s a language that uses nonsense, usually to entertain or annoy others.

    Example:

    Teacher: Okay class, what’s two plus two?
    Me: Fish!

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