Weird Words, Part 7

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 edition


No seriously, this is a preface and it’s not about the word “preface.” Although, it is kind of a weird word if you think about it too much. I tend to do that … think about words too much. Many times to the point where they suddenly seem meaningless. I got hung up on the word barrette once. Said it so many times that suddenly it seemed like I couldn’t pronounce it properly any more. That ever happen to you?

When I’m at a loss for any real inspiration, I start thinking about words. Happens more than I care to admit. I’ve also thought about adding posts that begin “Things I Don’t Understand” and maybe “Random Thoughts” to help me get through the uninspired times.

I had decided to dazzle you with information about the word “preface” despite my disclaimer. Don’t try to find the etymology of “preface.” It’s a circular mess that offers very few satisfying facts. Certainly nothing I could make into a joke no matter how obtuse I might get. Sorry.


I can’t (or won’t) say that I use this word very often. But when I do (or might), it is most likely followed by a sharp exhalation of air from between my mostly closed lips (pfft!). Isn’t that how it was always done in all those old black and white movies that only the insomniacs (or diehard film addicts) watch anymore?

The first use of this word is said to have been recorded around the 1590’s. That’s pretty darn old. Like so many seemingly made up and nonsensical words, the exact origin of this one is not known. Originally, it was said to be a jumbled mix of liquors. For example, milk (milk is a liquor? Hey, I’m just reporting what others have written, don’t blame me) and beer, beer and wine, etc. So I guess that technically many of the drinks you might find in some upper class bar (I’m not talking about the “establishments” on Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott near where I live) are balderdash. I can sort of get the “dash” as in a dash of this and a dash of that. But what’s with the “balder?”

In Norse mythology, Balder (or Baldr) is a god associated with light, beauty, love and happiness. Hmmm? I suppose that some could argue that happiness could be found in a cup of balderdash. Personally, I’m doubtful.

Somewhere around the 1670’s it came to mean a senseless jumble of words. That’s an interesting leap. Or maybe not so much so. Consider someone who is profoundly drunk trying to say something a little more complicated than “Gimme ‘nother.”

Today, most dictionaries define it this way (except for mine which is, it seems, totally inadequate to the task of satisfying my curiosity):  trivial nonsense, stupid or illogical talk, absurdity, bull, drivel, fiddle-faddle, gibberish, piffle, poppycock, rubbish, trash, twaddle. There are a few really good weird words in that list. But I’ll move on to another that I found while researching balderdash.


I don’t remember actually using this word, but I have been called this in the past. It wasn’t all together a pleasant experience. I remember there was a fair amount of yelling involved.

Usually I really like Etymonline, but today they haven’t been of much help to me. Witness this:  1674, apparently a “jingling extension” [OED] of *whip-snapper “a cracker of whips,” or perhaps an alteration of snipper-snapper (c.1590). Cf. also late 16c. whipperginnie, a term of abuse for a woman.  Goodness! Guess I’ll have to try some other sources because to my mind “whippersnapper” is used to indicate someone young and inexperienced in the ways of the world. How we got there from a “cracker of whips” or a “term of abuse for a woman” I can’t imagine.

One of the main roads where I live was built on an old dirt track that haulers once used to get from Prescott to the outlying areas east of there. They had to go over Bullwhacker Hill in the process. It was named such because you had to really whip the bull oxen in order to get them to pull the heavy loads up that hill. The name has always conjured images of dusty men in cowboy hats sitting on a wooden bench in front of their loads yelling at and cracking their whips at the poor oxen; whip snappers. The downgrade on the east side of the hill isn’t as bad as the upgrade, but I’ve often wondered how the oxen felt about that. First you pull really hard and then you have to hold back really hard. Boy, I’ve certainly gone off on a tangent here. I could eliminate this whole paragraph, but then you might think there was something wrong with me if I did. Oh wait, you wouldn’t even know that I did that. So I could go ahead and do it anyway. Nah.

 Back to topic, I got this from the Word Detective:  “Whippersnapper” is a somewhat archaic term, rarely heard today outside of movies, and then usually from the mouth of a character portrayed as chronologically-challenged and hopelessly old-fashioned to boot. (I wish I’d written that, it’s really good.) A “whippersnapper” is an impertinent young person, usually a young man, whose lack of proper respect for the older generation is matched only by his laziness and lack of motivation to better himself. (Guess I’ll have to revise my definition of whippersnapper. Not to mention my opinion of the person who used it on me. Were they blind as well as rude? Although, there was this one older woman who thought I was a boy when I was working in a fast food restaurant. But I think it was the cap, uniform, and my hate of traditional brassieres that was to blame for that.)

One might imagine that the term derives from the understandable temptation among more productive citizens to “snap a whip” at such sullen layabouts, but the whips in question actually belonged to the whippersnappers themselves. Such ne’er-do-wells were originally known as “whip snappers” in the 17th century, after their habit of standing around on street corners all day, idly snapping whips to pass the time. (They must have been bored out of their minds if they thought that was entertaining.) The term was based on the already-existing phrase, “snipper-snapper,” also meaning a worthless young man, but in any case, “whip snapper” became “whippersnapper” fairly rapidly.

Though “whippersnapper” originally referred to a young man with no visible ambition, the term has changed somewhat over the years, and today is more likely to be applied to a youngster with an excess of both ambition and impertinence. I’ll add that often it also is applied to those young folk who want to do things differently from their elders. Maybe that is the impertinent angle. I have to say that impertinence is really a matter of perspective. I probably shouldn’t get started on impertinence. Does anyone else besides me find this stuff at all interesting? Goodness, I certainly hope so.


I just had to revisit this word from the balderdash definition. It’s just too darn juicy to ignore.

Again Etymonline has let me down. All they had to say on the subject is that it dates back to 1782 and is probably from “twattle” which dates back to 1556 and that it is of obscure origin. Another source also says that it is sometimes used as “twiddle-twaddle” which would seem to link it to “fiddle-faddle.” Wasn’t that a snack food that was popular many years back? And what does that say about snack foods in general?

I think it’s the “twattle” relationship in “twaddle” that first piqued my interest and elicited the “juicy” remark. A little piece of “twattle” is “twat” and twat has some interesting definitions. The Urban Dictionary says that it is a great word to shout out, although I have my reservations about that. It also says that it is a woman’s vagina (oh dear, am I allowed to print that here!), a blow (as in punch, not the kind you drink) to the face or genitalia (“You twatted me, I’ll twat you back), that it is used by Tweety, or that it is an offensive term for a person, and an acronym for The War Against Terrorism. To me that last is probably the best use for twat. Can you just see some politician using it that way when we all know what we mainly associate with the word? Could be funny though: “Our TWAT is doing well, don’t you think?”

So, anyway, much of what I write is just balderdash. But what do you expect from a young (at heart) whippersnapper like me?

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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