Tag Archives: balderdash

Wordy board games


Game-playing is and always has been a central part of the human experience and is as vital to – and reflective of – a society’s culture as music, dance, literature or the other arts. Chess, checkers (known as draughts in British English), and backgammon are board games that date back thousands of years — and they weren’t even the first of their kind. Senet, found in Predynastic and First Dynasty burials of Egypt c. 3500 BC and 3100 BC respectively, is the oldest known board game (four sets were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb); other such forms of ancient entertainment were Mehen, from Predynastic Egypt; Go, originating in China; Patolli, originating in Mesoamerica played by the ancient Aztec; and Pachisi and Chaupar, ancient board games of India. What these games share is the goal of outwitting one’s opponent by strategically seizing points, property or territory using a process or combination of counting, logic, or luck.

Board games predated the development of writing and literacy, and although it’s no surprise that language eventually found its way into the world of parlor entertainment, it seems to have taken its time, only joining the fun in the 19th century when board and parlor games started to develop and broaden to amuse and entertain the whole family rather than just the older, nerdier teenagers and adults. Words in all their glory — whether strutting their spellings, their definitions, or their usage in expressions and phrases — now form the basis of a number of popular modern games that have been enjoyed by humans large and small over the past century.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that board games are given “publication” dates: I didn’t realize that games were “published”, like books — and it seems especially strange when the games in question have nothing to do with language.

Here are some of the more popular and enduring wordy board games, with their tag-lines and a very brief description of their rules and origins. Any others I’ve missed?



“Crossword game”: The grand old man of word games: two to four players score points by placing tiles — each bearing a single letter — onto a board in such a way that the tiles form words, crossword-style. The words must be defined in a standard dictionary.

The first version of Scrabble was created in 1938 by the American architect Alfred Butts under the name “Criss-Crosswords”, as a variation on an earlier word game he invented called Lexiko. In 1948, James Brunot, a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, bought the manufacturing rights in exchange for giving Butts royalties on sales. Brunot made some slight changes to the board, simplified the rules, and changed the game’s name to “Scrabble”, which means “to scratch frantically”. Legend has it that Scrabble‘s big break came in 1952 when Jack Straus, president of Macy’s, played the game on vacation and placed a large order for his department store …




“The game of words”: Reminiscent of the simple two-person game Hangman, up to 4 players try to guess a word chosen by another player by revealing specific letters. Probe was introduced in 1964 by Parker Brothers.




“The 3-minute word search game”: Using a plastic grid onto which lettered dice are shaken and settled (with a single letter facing up),  players search against the clock for words that can be spelled from adjacent cubes, ie. those neighboring each other horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Invented by Alan Turoff in 1972 for Parker Brothers. Turoff’s wife was also a toy designer, and they exchanged their marriage vows to the tune of “Babes in Toyland”.




2 to 6 players  score points by thinking of names – unique among players in the particular round — of  items in different categories with a given initial letter, all against the clock. Published in 1988 (the designer seems to be unknown).




“The game of unspeakable fun”: The object of the game is for a player to get her partner or team to guess the word on her card by defining it without using the word itself or any of the five additional words listed on the card. Taboo was designed by Brian Hersch and published in 1989 by Hasbro.


Apples to Apples:


“The game of hilarious comparisons”: From two decks of cards — adjectives and nouns —   a player (referee) selects an adjective card; the other players choose and play from the noun cards in their hands the nouns that best match the chosen adjective. The referee then chooses the noun card that appeals most to them and awards the card to whoever played it. Designed by Matthew Kirby and Mark Alan Osterhaus, it was published in 1999 by Out of the Box publishing.




“The anagram game that will drive you bananas!”: 2 – 8 players arrange their own tiles into a grid of connected words faster than their opponents. The winner is the first to complete a word grid after the pool of 144 tiles has been exhausted.

Abraham Nathanson, a Rhode Island artist, invented Bananagrams at the age of 76; the game debuted at the 2006 London Toy Fair. According to the New York Times, in its obituary for the inventor after his death just four years later, Nathanson “hit on the idea for Bananagrams while playing Scrabble with his grandson and chafing at the slow pace of the game. ‘We need an anagrams game so fast, it’ll drive you bananas.'”




“The game of quick draw”: The word-guessing game is played in teams, with players trying to identify specific words from their teammates’ drawings. Pictionary was invented by Robert Angel with graphic design by Gary Everson and first published in 1985 by Angel Games Inc.


The Origin of Expressions:


“The origin of expressions: Phrases – Fakery – Finesse – Fun”: Players receive a common everyday phrase, such as “Baker’s Dozen,” and write an explanation for the phrase’s origin. Players try to convince the others that their own origin is the true one. Players vote for the most plausible origin. A recent game, published in 2007 by Discovery Bay Games, the designer is uncredited.



49 shades of nonsense: a thesaurus of piffle


Art is Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box … Boris Johnson wants to take over from David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party … The History Channel’s Obama-Satan resemblance  … The Real Housewives franchise … The new TSA rules … George Osborne on Cyprus … Manchester United’s manager snubs a pre-match handshake … The Dow Jones Index …

These momentous news items have each been described as a load of old codswallop and poppycock by commentators in the world’s media in recent weeks — but not necessarily using that particular language. We probably don’t realize just how lucky we are to be able to draw on such a wide, rich vocabulary of words — many of them slang, a few taboo or vulgar — to identify and dismiss baloney with emphasis and flair when nonsense simply won’t do, even with the word utter placed firmly in front of it.  The etymological bios of these sassy characters are often as colorful as the words themselves.

applesauce:  by 1739, American English Slang attested from 1921 and noted as vogue word early 1920s. Mencken credits it to cartoonist T.A. (“Tad”) Dorgan. DAS suggests the word was thus used because applesauce was cheap fare served in boardinghouses. (OnEtDic)
balderdash: 1590s, of unknown origin; originally a jumbled mix of liquors (milk and beer, beer and wine, etc.), transferred 1670s to “senseless jumble of words.” From dash; first element perhaps cognate with Dan. balder “noise, clatter” (cf. boulder*). 1611 CHAPMAN May-day III. Dram. Wks. “S’fut winesucker, what have you fild vs heere? baldre~dash?” 1629 B. JONSON New Inn “Beer or butter-milk, mingled together..It is against my free-hold..To drink such balder-dash.” (OED)
balls: slang for testicles
baloney (also boloney): 1915–20,  Americanism; first known use 1922 (MW); Bologna sausage is commonly believed to be created from lowly scraps of meat cuts. It is assumed that this food, therefore, is the origin of the slang word baloney, meaning “nonsense” or “BS”. However, the origin of the word “Baloney” is a corruption, through the French, of the city of Bologna, Italy. As the university at Bologna was known for its legal education, the French, and later English, came to call legal clap-trap “Balogna,” or “Baloney.” (Wiki)
bilge: 1510s, “lowest internal part of a ship,” also used of the foulness which collects there (OnEtDic)
blah: (1940), probably imitative or echoic in origin (Wiki)
blarney: 1796, from Blarney Stone (which is said to make a persuasive flatterer of any who kiss it), in a castle near Cork, Ireland; reached wide currency through Lady Blarny, the smooth-talking flatterer in Goldsmith’s “Vicar of Wakefield” (1766). (OnEtDic)
blatherskite: c.1650, bletherskate, in Scottish song “Maggie Lauder,” which was popular with soldiers in the Continental Army in the American Revolution, hence the colloquial U.S. use for “talkative fellow, foolish talk,” especially in early 19c. From blather (v.) + dialectal skite “contemptible person.” (OnEtDic)
blather (also blither): 1787, from the verb: 1520s, Scottish, probably from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse blaðra “mutter, wag the tongue,” perhaps of imitative origin. (OnEtDic)
(also bollix) (Brit.): 13th c. Probably a derivative of Teutonic ball-, of which the Old English representative would be inferred as beall-u, -a, or -e“. One early reference is John Wycliffe bible (1382), Leviticus xxii, 24: “Al beeste, that … kitt and taken a wey the ballokes is, ye shulen not offre to the Lord…” (any beast that is cut and taken away the bollocks, you shall not offer to the Lord, i.e. castrated animals are not suitable as sacrifices). (OED) In British slang, as an ejaculation meaning “nonsense,” recorded from 1919. (OnEtDic)
bosh (Brit.): From Turkish bos (“empty, unoccupied”). Entered popular usage in English from novels of James Justinian Morier. (Wiki)
bull/bullshit: From Middle English bull (“falsehood”), of unknown origin. Possibly related to Old French boul or boule meaning fraud, deceit, trickery (Wiki) (and see cock and bull below)
bunk, bunkum or buncombe (chiefly U.S.): 1830s, from “speaking to Buncombe” (or “for Buncombe”). In 1820, Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County, NC in U.S. House of Representatives, rose to address question of admitting Missouri as a free or slave state. This was his first attempt to speak on this subject after nearly a month of solid debate and right before the vote was to be called. Allegedly, to the exasperation of his colleagues, Walker insisted on delivering a long and wearisome “speech for Buncombe.”He was shouted down by his colleagues.His persistent effort made “buncombe” (later respelled “bunkum”) a synonym for meaningless political claptrap and later for any kind of nonsense.The term became a joke and metaphor in Washington, then entered common usage.
claptrap: c.1730, trick to ‘catch’ applause,” a stage term; from clap (v.) + trap (n.). Extended sense of “cheap, showy language” is from 1819 (OnEtDic)
cobblers (Brit.): mid 20th c; Cockney Rhyming Slang: originates from ‘cobblers’ awls’, the pointed hand-tools that cobblers use to pierce holes in leather; rhymes with ‘balls’, meaning testicles (see above). (PhraseFinder)
cock and bull
/cock (chiefly Brit.): believed to have originated from stage coach travellers’ gossip and rumor exchanged between two coaching inns, The Cock and The Bull in Stony Stratford, England. These inns were a main stopping point on the turnpike road from London to Birmingham, Chester and North Wales (for Ireland). Other commentators suggest origin is in mythical or fictional conversations among animals; however, this seems to be based on supposition that the French expression coq-a-l’ane (“cock to donkey”) has been imported into English. This is not an unreasonable supposition, since the Scots word cockalayne appears to be a direct phonetic transfer from French. (Wiki). Often shortened to cock (Brit.) and bull (American – see above).
(Brit.): Unknown, attested from 1959 episode of UK TV series Hancock’s Half Hour; proposed etymologies from sense of cod meaning “scrotum” (as in codpiece) or “joke, imitation”+ wallop (slang for beer) hence cod + wallop = “imitation beer” (Wiki)
crap: “act of defecation” 1898; sense of “rubbish, nonsense” also first recorded 1898. (OnEtDic)
crock (of shit)
: based on the literal meaning of crock (container); used as an image of worthless rubbish since 19c., perhaps from the use of crockery as chamberpots (OnEtDic)
crud: 1940940, U.S. slang; originally 1920s army and college student slang for “venereal disease.” Said to be a metathesis variant of curd, which actually makes it an unconscious return to the original Middle English form of that word. (OnEtDic)
drivel: Middle English, from Old English dreflian; perhaps akin to Old Norse draf meaning malt dregs; first known use: before 12th century (MW); Old English dreflian, of uncertain origin; perhaps related to draff (OED)
fiddle/fiddle-faddle/fiddlesticks: 1570s (n.); 1630s (v.), apparently a reduplication of obsolete faddle “to trifle” (OnEtDic). “Do you suppose men so easily damage their natures? Fiddlestick!” (William Makepeace Thackeray, Miss Tickletoby ‘s Lecture, 1842)
flannel (Brit.): origin in sense of nonsense unknown
flapdoodle: origin uncertain. 1833, originally “the stuff they feed fools on” [Marryat]; an arbitrary formation (OnEtDic)
folderol (also falderal): a nonsense refrain in songs; first known use c1820 (MW)
fudge: perhaps an alteration of fadge “make suit, fit” (1570s), of unknown origin. As an interjection meaning “lies, nonsense” from 1766; the noun meaning “nonsense” is 1791. Farmer suggests provincial French fuche, feuche, “an exclamation of contempt from Low German futsch = begone.” The traditional English story traces fudge in this sense to a sailor’s retort to anything considered lies or nonsense, from Captain Fudge, “who always brought home his owners a good cargo of lies” [Isaac Disraeli, 1791, citing a pamphlet from 1700]. It seems there really was a late 17c. Captain Fudge, called “Lying Fudge,” and perhaps his name reinforced this form of fadge in the sense of “contrive without the necessary materials.” (OnEtDic)
gibberish: ca. 16th c. Either onomatopeic, imitating sound of chatter, probably influenced by jabber, or derived from root of Irish gob (“mouth”) (Wiki)
guff: 1888, from earlier sense of “puff of air” (1825), of imitative origin. (OnEtDic)
hogwash: mid-15c., “slops fed to pigs,” from hog (n.) + wash (n.). Extended to “cheap liquor” (1712) then to “inferior writing” (1773) (OnEtDic)
hokum (North American): probably blend of hocus-pocus and bunkum; first known use: 1908 (MW)
hooey: US slang 1920s, origin unknown (OED); ? Russian translit. of хуй slang for penis, synonymous with cock (Chambers Dict. Slang)
horsefeathers (also horse-hockey)(U.S.): said by J. E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang to be euphemism for horse-shit; coined by comic-strip artist and writer William Morgan “Billy” de Beck (American Speech, 1928). Made famous by Marx Brothers’ 1932 film Horse Feathers. (Phrase Finder)
malarkey (or malarky): 1924, American English, of unknown origin (OnEtDic). Found renewed fame when Joe Biden used it to describe his opponent’s remarks during 2012 VP debates.
moonshine: In figurative use, implying “appearance without substance,” from late 15c.; perhaps connected in that sense with notion of “moonshine in water” (cf. moonraker) (OnEtDic)
nerts: 1932, originally American English college slang, colloquial or euphemistic pronunciation of nuts as slang retort of defiance or dismissal (1931) (OnEtDic)
Niagra Falls: London Cockney rhyming rhyming slang (rhymes with balls: see above). (Probert)
: sailors’ slang, from Portuguese palavra “word, speech, talk,” traders’ term for “negotiating with the natives” in West Africa, metathesis of Late Latin parabola “speech, discourse,” from Latin parabola “comparison”. Meaning “idle talk” first recorded 1748. (OnEtDic)
: see poppycock below
piffle: Unknown, 1847. Perhaps blend of piddle and trifle; possibly puff (onomatopoeia, puff of air”) + diminutive -le (Wiki)
poppycock: 1865, American English, probably from Dutch dialect pappekak, from Middle Dutch pappe “soft food” + kak “dung,” from Latin cacare “to excrete” (OnEtDic)
rhubarb (Brit.): repeated by actors to give the impression of murmurous hubbub or conversation. Hence allusively. (OED)
rot: From Middle English rotten, roten, from Old English rotian (“to rot, become corrupted, ulcerate, putrify”) (Wiki)
(Yiddish): from the Yiddish sh- + megege meaning “dawdler, idler” (Encarter)
: In 1930s colloquial American English, it had a sense of “nonsense, rubbish,” based on a famous New Yorker cartoon of Dec. 8, 1928. (OnEtDic)
tommyrot: 1884, from tommy in sense of “simpleton” (1829), diminutive of Tom (as in tomfool) + rot (see above) (OnEtDic)
tosh (chiefly Brit.): Origin unknown; possibly derived from tosheroon (“5 crowns”), therefore something of minimal worth. (Wiki)
tripe: from Middle English, from Old French tripe (“entrails”) (Wiki). Applied contemptuously to persons (1590s), then to anything considered worthless, foolish, or offensive (1892) (OnEtDic)
twaddle: variant of an older word, twattle (mainly dialectal and not recorded much in print) meaning to talk foolishly or idly or to chatter inanely. A twattle-basket was a chatterbox. It seems to have been itself a variation on tattle, as in tittle-tattle, another English reduplicated term, also written as twittle-twattle. OED notes that these, and other forms, are probably echoic in origin and are primarily colloquial (World Wide Words)
waffle: derived from waff, a 17th-century onomatopoeia for sound of dog barking,  similar to modern woof. (Wiki)

Other common informal and vulgar synonyms for nonsense relate to refuse and excrement: eg. trash, garbage, rubbish, shit, crap, horse-shit (origins of sense of nonsense varied and unknown)

OED = Oxford English Dictionary
OnEtDic = Online Etymology Dictionary
MW = Merriam Webster
Wiki = Wikipedia, Wiktionary