As in past months, we've asked writer and educator Bob Greenman to pick some piquant words from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly. Here Bob focuses on a "cousins club" of words that eviscerate the empty verbiage of others. Rest assured that Bob provides us with neither blather nor piffle.
Meet Phoebe-Lou Adams. Between 1952 and 2000 she reviewed close to 4,000 books for the Atlantic Monthly, making her the magazine's most prolific contributor ever. Phoebe-Lou's critiques were brief and to the point, many of them fewer than 50 words. Here's part of what she wrote in the January 1983 Atlantic about an anthology of pitiably laughable government documents and memos filled with verbosity, padding, pettiness and vacuousness — right up the alley for a reviewer known by her editors for her "intolerance of nonsense." It contains today's first word.
blather BLA th:uhr
foolish talk; verbose nonsense
THE HAZARDS OF WALKING edited by Carol Trueblood and Donna Fenn. Houghton Mifflin, $3.95. An Army memo on the hazards of walking employs a full page and approximately 260 words, exclusive of letterhead, signature, and such, to instruct personnel to "Look where you're going." It is not the worst of the examples of bureaucratic blather that the editors have assembled.
—Phoebe-Lou Adams, January 1983
The blathering memo Phoebe-Lou refers to included cautionary words about holding on to bannisters, not reading documents while walking, and wearing safe shoes.
Legalese is akin to bureaucratese, couching what ought to be clearly-stated, simple-to-grasp ideas in roundabout, incomprehensible language, stupefying to the layman. Here's a section of my homeowner's insurance policy:
"If the insured is a mortgagee, this company's right of subrogation shall not prevent the insured from releasing the personal liability of the obligor or guarantor or from releasing a portion of the premises from the lien of the mortgage or from increasing or otherwise modifying the insured mortgage provided such acts do not affect the validity of priority of the lien of the mortgage insured. However, the liability of this company under this policy shall in no event be increased by any such act of the insured."
Blather, used another way — for, like most words, blather has many senses — was the subject of a February 2002 Atlantic article written by federal court judge Richard Posner. In it, he talked about the blather of professors who, "when they speak off the cuff, especially about matters outside of their expertise," tend to blather. He described Eric Foner as a "brilliant" and "distinguished American historian" who nevertheless wrote in the London Review of Books three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, "'I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House.'" "It is hard to imagine an ordinary person making such an obtuse, inconsequent, and insensitive statement as did this brilliant professor," Posner wrote. "Pure blather."
Basically, blather is anything that strikes the beholder as meaningless, pointless, inane, vacuous, fatuous or just plain stupid or nonsensical. It's any conversation or chatter that you find worthless. One person's blather is another's eloquence.
So, dear reader, is "The View" an hour of blather, or an hour of discourse? Or both? Bill O'Reilly? Ann Coulter? Regis and Kelly? Jay Leno? Oprah? Dr. Phil? Martha Stewart? People magazine? "Meet the Press"?
I couldn't find blather in recent movie reviews, but in dozens of reviews of the current film "Angels & Demons" that I read on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes, the blather idea was all over the place, most critics calling the script "nonsense," "hokum" and "claptrap." Kam Williams, a syndicated reviewer, summed up the movie as "a farcical, farfetched, patience-testing, 2½-hour insult to the intelligence." Now, that's blather.
While blather is usually a derogatory word, it takes on a self-deprecating charm when it's self-applied, as it is on blogs and Web sites like Blather from Brooklyn, General Blather, Unfettered Blather and FilmBlather. Not so BlatherWatch, a blog subtitled "Listening to talk radio so you don't have to."
The word blather comes from the Old Norse word blathr, but a more interesting word is blatherskite, a popular term in the nineteenth and early twentieth century for a contemptible talker of nonsense. The second part of the word derives from skate, a Scottish term of contempt, which has also given us cheapskate. From the New York Times (1927): "It is doubtful if a more poisonous blatherskite than the present mayor of this corn belt metropolis ever attained so high an office in American politics." Pretty neat epithet, and worth resuscitating, don't you think?
Writing on the website RealClearPolitics, Samuel Thernstrom, of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, derided Al Gore's proposals to reduce global warming as unrealistic, unfeasible, laughable and absurd. The column's title: "Gore's Climate Claptrap."
Blather, meet your cousin, claptrap. Claptrap's original, eighteenth-century meaning was language meant to elicit applause, an applause trap. In its original sense, TV talk show guests do it all the time when they mention their hometown, that it's their birthday, that they have a new baby.
One person's claptrap is another's creed. If I deem Rush Limbaugh as claptrap, others take his pronouncements as gospel. If I consider mythologist Joseph Campbell's "follow your bliss" theory as claptrap, many others revere it. Which leads us to this Atlantic passage. If you're an Ayn Rand acolyte you'll disagree with the critic's opinion of her books and her philosophy of objectivism, which holds personal happiness and productivity as the most desirable aims in life.
claptrap KLAP trap
pretentious, insincere, or empty language; nonsense
Ayn Rand, author of that weird best seller of 1943, The Fountainhead, has now produced a novel of over half a million words which might mildly be described as execrable claptrap; but which, I suspect, is going to rival the huge sale of its predecessor. Atlas Shrugged (Random House, $6.95) is the gospel according to Ayn Rand dressed up in fictional trappings which set a record for solemn grotesquerie.
—Charles J. Rolo, November 1957
Our blather and claptrap cousins club brings us to twaddle. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says that while twaddle's origin is obscure, it probably derived from twattle, a seventeenth-century word meaning idle talk or chatter. Bishop Charles N. Fowler employed it, in verb form, when he addressed prospective ministers at the New Jersey Methodist Conference in 1903: "You are not called upon to gabble or twaddle in the pulpit. A preacher nowadays must give his people food for thought."
Here it is, from the Atlantic:
twaddle TWAH duhl
trivial, silly or tedious talk or writing; idle chatter; nonsense
I must say that the perpetual declaration on the 'woman's page' of modern periodicals that 'every woman should know how to cook a meal, and make her own clothes, and feed a baby' fills me with scorn unutterable. But then for that matter the mere fact of a 'woman's page' fills me with scorn. Why not a 'man's page,' with a miscellany of twaddle, labeled as exclusively, adapted to the masculine intellect?
—Mary Leal Harkness, March 1914
And, then there's musical twaddle, as in New York Times critic Alan Kozinn's appraisal of a New York Philharmonic performance of Rossini's overture to "The Italian Girl in Algiers." "Mostly twaddle," he wrote. "Dippy melodies, boilerplate woodwind figures and parades of crashing cymbals."
Our final cousins club entry is piffle. You'll notice from the Atlantic passage just below, and the two that follow it, that twaddle and piffle are interchangeable — a rarity even among synonyms — to the point where one of piffle's defintions is twaddle.
piffle PI fuhl
It is customary to suppose that every unmarried woman bears the secret scar of an unfinished romance or disappointment, but that is all piffle. It sounds like the talk in a girls' school when the favorite teachers are discussed. There are disappointments and there are tragedies. But nearly all women who constitutionally want to be married are married — if not to one man, to another. I know very many spinsters, and wistfulness is not their quality.
—Margaret Lynn, May 1934
A May 1928 New York Times story began this way:
Mrs. Harry Houdini, in her first public address on the controversy over the question whether mediums have been able to communicate with her dead husband, yesterday afternoon characterized as "piffle" all such claims, but added that despite the hundreds of failures she was still hoping that the celebrated magician would speak to her from another world.
I asked Robert Anker, a Manhattan attorney, whether he's encountered blather, claptrap, twaddle and piffle from opposing lawyers during a trial. Not much, he said, but it happens occasionally during a summation. When it does, he said, he and other lawyers he has known have faced the jury when it is their turn and begun their summation by saying: "If my adversary had the law on his side, he would pound on the law. If he had the facts on his side, he would pound on the facts. Having neither on his side, he's pounding on the table." The phrasing is so well known by judges, he said, that when speaking to a judge without a jury, lawyers will simply say their opponent is "pounding on the table."
We end with a different sort of nonsense — doggerel, an uncomplimentary word of uncertain origin, first used by Chaucer in the fourteenth century, the OED tells us. Doggerel is to poetry what blather, piffle and twaddle are to speech or prose: irksome and tedious. The most insulting thing you can say to a poet is that he's written doggerel. Written with intentional wit, however, doggerel can be a treat.
Studs Terkel, the beloved Chicago writer who died in 2008, at the age of 96, wrote the October 2001 Atlantic article from which this next passage was taken.
doggerel DAW guh ruhl
trivial, awkward, often comic verse characterized by a monotonous rhythm; any trivial or bad poetry
Naturally, when I pick up a newspaper these days, the first place I turn to isn't sports, or arts, or the business of business, or the op-eds. I immediately turn to the obituaries. The old doggerel with which many mature readers may be acquainted has become my mantra.
I wake up each morning and gather my wits,
I pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name is not in it, I know I'm not dead,
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.
—Studs Terkel, October 2001
In the December 1989 Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch wrote: "The penny's uselessness is testified to by millions of little bowls sitting next to millions of cash registers, underneath the folk-poetic inscription 'Need a penny? / Take a penny. Have a penny? / Leave a penny.' This is doggerel we could do without."
My father was a traveling salesman of frozen foods who was on the road 40 weeks a year in the 1950's, driving from our home in Brooklyn, New York to call on customers as far away as Atlanta and Detroit to take orders for Sau-Sea Shrimp Cocktail, Milady's Blintzes, Rudy's 21 Shrimp in the Basket and Roman Pizza. During my junior and senior high school vacations I traveled with my father — my most cherished experiences with him, almost every day leaving me with indelible memories. With few interstate highways at the time, we drove thousands of miles on two-lane state roads where our constant companions were humorous roadside signs advertising Burma Shave, a brushless shaving cream. The signs, about five feet off the ground on wooden boards attached to poles, faced oncoming cars and were spaced hundreds of feet apart for leisurely reading. On each sign were one, two or three words which, read consecutively, added up to roadside doggerel, which always ended with "Burma Shave." My favorite — and the only one I remember — was:
This cream makes the
Plant her tu-lips
Where she oughter.
We began with blather; we ended with lather.