Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Nov. 5 2015 10:00 AM

Felgercarb: An Underused, Sci-Fi Word for BS

As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day. 

Now we’re getting deep (so to speak) into the lexicon of BS—and of geeks too.

This term first appeared in the pilot of Battlestar Galactica back in 1978. Felgercarb—which sounds like some kind of bogus carbohydrate—doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and it hasn’t been much of a lexical success. It’s no truthiness (a word I’ll discuss Friday). But it does pop up now and then among the hardcore geek crowd.

For example, a comment on the appropriately named Hot Air works this term into a nice rant:

The ballot box has been corrupted with electronic felgercarb and illegal voters.
The courts have been corrupted by a lack of knowledge of the Constitution and a lack of ethics and morals.
The Pols are corrupt Kleptocrats.
The Executive is corrupt, PERIOD.
Even the currency is corrupted beyond recovery.

In reference to Windows 10 and privacy issues, SciTech Scotty wrote: “I'm starting to wonder if I want this felgercarb on my computer. I might use 7 for gaming, Linux for everything else.” Also on Twitter, Matt Dahan summed up felgercarb’s small, insistent place in English: “you know you're addicted to #SciFi when your swear words include 'frack,' 'frell,' 'felgercarb' and 'dren' #battlestargalactica #farscape.”

(Subtle hint alert! For far more on felgercarb and other sci-fi words, you should really buy my book, Bullshit: A Lexicon, which includes plenty o’ info on sci-fi BS words like Star Trek’s targ manure and Futurama’s crapspackle.)

Geekery aside, felgercarb is barely a stain on the English language, but BSG did have a few notable lexical contributions. Frak (or frack) is the biggest. This euphemism for the F-word was introduced on the original show, then used early and often on the reimagined show, which ran from 2003–09. Frak has everything going for it that felgercarb lacked. Frak is the same length as fuck, and it has two of the same sounds. It’s a natural coinage that’s easy to use in variations like clusterfrak and motherfraker. Frak has been successful enough to be included in the most recent edition of The F-Word, in which Jesse Sheidlower immortalized it alongside terms (such as starfucker and mofo) and idioms (like I’ve been to three county fairs and a goat-fucking contest).

Frak is pretty commonly used, especially in situations where people want to fly their geek colors. For example, a ChicagoNow blogger wrote: “Why the Frak Is There Gluten in Shampoo?!” Though the post is mainly about shampoo ingredients, you can tell the writer relishes the chance to explain the BSG reference to the uninitiated in paragraph one.

The other successful BSG word is Cylon. As the main bad guys of BSG, the Cylons were two kinds of villain in one. In the original show, they were evil robots who rebelled against humans. But in the 2000s show, some Cylons looked like humans, so they were also covert dangers, like replicants and vampires. “Who’s a Cylon?” was a major dilemma of the show and a fun thing to wonder about in real life about anyone you don’t like.

All these words could be put to very practical use during a presidential debate. I want to see a moderator bold enough to ask the questions that really matter:

“Do you get paid by the load of felgercarb?”

“Are you a Cylon? If not, under what circumstances would you betray Earth to the Cylons in exchange for Cylon sex?”

“What the frak?”

Previously on BS Word of the Day

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Nov. 4 2015 10:00 AM

Flubdub: A Folksy, Rhymy, Awesome Word for BS

As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day. 

I don’t know if I have a favorite word, but I do have a favorite type of word: reduplicatives.

I’ve loved ‘em ever since I read the word higgledy-piggledy in a Bloom County strip from my childhood, in a bygone era when I had to fight wooly mammoths for newspapers carved on stone tablets.

Reduplication works in several ways, none of which qualify as willy-nilly. Sometimes a whole word is repeated, as in bye-bye, boo-boo, doo-doo, and night-night. Sometimes the vowels change but the rest of the word stays the same, as with the pitter-patter of little feet. The reverse kind of reduplication keeps the vowel but changes the initial consonant, like when things go helter-skelter. And if you want to get Yiddish about it, there’s schm reduplication, as in ‘Winter, schminter!”

(Shameful plug alert: There’s more on all of this reduplication business in my book Bullshit: A Lexicon, which would make a terrific gift for your best friends, close acquaintances, and even hated enemies, because that’s totally what Jesus would do.)

Another reduplicative word is flubdub, which is one of the coolest terms I turned up in my bullshit research. Flubdub isn’t as well-known as other reduplicative words like mumbo jumbo and flimflam, but it damn well should be. Flubdub has been around since the late 1800s, and a 1904 use from the Rochester Post-Express gives a great sense of the word: “There is an immense amount of flubdub and nonsense and gush in this sort of talk.” Flubdub is a plethora of bullshit—maybe a plethora and a half. It’s the kind of BS that often demands more than one BS word, and it often appears in expressions like fuss and flubdub and flubdub and guff.

For an obscure word, flubdub has had a lot of meanings. Flubdub occasionally has a flub-related verb sense, as in “I flubdubbed the answer to that question.” Flubdubbing can mean fooling around, and a flubdub is an apple dumpling. The word can also be an insult. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) suggests this use is a variation of fussbudget or fuddy-duddy, and this sense of flubdub was once used memorably by Theodore Roosevelt in 1914 about then President Woodrow Wilson, who Roosevelt called a “Byzantine logothete, supported by all the flubdubs, mollycoddles, and flapdoodle pacifists.”

If you love reduplication as much as I do, you’ll be glad to know there are at least three other rhymy words related to ­flubdub: fubdub, flibdib, and fluff-duff. I dare you to work one of those into your next TPS report.

Nonshameful plug alert: If you like folksy words like flubdub, you need to dig deeper into DARE, a collection of American English words that are as local as your favorite craft beer. DARE also needs funding help, so maybe you could support their continued research into this lexically loaded land, with flubdub and fluff-duff for all.

Previously on BS Word of the Day

Nov. 3 2015 10:00 AM

Batshit: The Looniest Word for BS

As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day. 

I just wrote a whole book about bullshitBullshit: A Lexiconbut that isn’t the first shitty accomplishment of my writing career: I wrote a peer-reviewed article on batshit for the linguistics journal American Speech in 2006.

The thesis of that article was that batshit was surging in popularity and would eventually be as common and successful as apeshit. I don’t know if batshit has quite reached that level, but it’s unquestionably a common word for insanity. Just look at these recent uses:

“ ‘The Player’ Creator Teases ‘Batshit Crazy’ Twists for Wesley Snipes Series”
The Hollywood Reporter, Sept. 24

“Here’s Why Australian Politics Is Batshit Insane”
BuzzFeed News, Sept. 14

“Japan’s Destiny: The Taken King Commercial is Batshit Crazy”
Crave online, Sept. 10

“As Republicans Go Batshit on Immigration, Democrats Turn Into Sweet Angels”
Reason.com, Sept. 3

“Charlie Pickering Skewers ‘Batshit Crazy’ Attitudes to Sexual Assault on The Weekly
 Daily Life, Aug. 13

You have to figure batshit is an unlikely word to appear in headlines, so imagine how many times it appears in articles, TV shows, movies, and tweets, like this joke by Jenny Johnson: “Marriage is between 1 batshit crazy woman and 3 hillbillies. We must uphold the sanctity of this institution. Now... play that 'Rocky' song.”

So what does all this have to do with bullshit? Well, before batshit took the Lexical Crazy Train, it was one of many synonyms for BS. It’s been found in print meaning nonsense and/or something worthless since at least 1950. A euphemistic variation from a 1969 issue of Playboy (recorded in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) is a great example of the BS sense: “To contend that violence is the only tactic open to students seeking change is pure bat droppings.” Soon after, in the early ’70s, the now-familiar crazy meaning starts popping up. This 1971 use from Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story is one of the earliest known uses of batshit as crazy: “Most of America's males were in Korea or World War II or I. They killed, and they aren't all going batshit.”

But batshit has another meaning that’s nearly an antonym for crazy in the mainly Australian expression boring as batshit. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest use is less alliterative, as the 1964 novel My Brother Jack includes a character who would “describe somebody as being ‘as silly as a two-bob watch’ or ‘dreary as bat-shit’.”

Why is batshit boring in Australia and crazy in the U.S.? Maybe Australian bats need to vary their diets, or maybe it’s just the appeal of alliteration. I reckon it makes more sense that batshit strayed from bullshit into loonier meanings, because the word bat is so associated with insanity. Since at least 1901, bats in the belfry has been a term for craziness, and you can also be batty or just bats.

It’s no accident that Batman is the superhero most often accused of being as crazy as the riddle-spouting, deathtrap-making villains he fights. If you’re an immigrant from Krypton with unimaginable powers, it sort of makes sense to wear your underwear over your tights and punch bad guys. You’re basically a god, and gods are weird. But for a regular guy with no powers to dress like a bat and fight evil clowns … Well, that’s only a tad loonier than what the evil clowns are doing. Batman helps keep the crazy in bat, and he also brings the cool. Batshit is part of that cool too.

Previously on BS Word of the Day:

Nov. 2 2015 10:00 AM

Rhubarb: A Tart, Theatrical Word for BS

As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day. 

While researching words for bullshit—for my book Bullshit: A Lexicon—I noticed quite a few patterns. Many reduplicative words—like mumbo jumbo, fiddle-faddle, and flub dub—have a BS-type meaning. Some words for disgusting drinks—like balderdash and balductum—ended up in the BS realm, as hard-to-swallow beverages shifted to hard-to-swallow nonsense. Science fiction has generated several terms, such as felgercarb (from Battlestar Galactica) and targ manure (from Star Trek). But some BS words come out of language’s left field, with a completely unique origin that has no connection to any other word.

Like rhubarb.

This term for BS didn’t earn the name because of the rhubarb’s taste: instead, this was a word used in the theater (since at least the 1920s) by actors and audience members who would simulate a murmur of voices by chanting “rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.” This led to the word sometimes being reduplicated, as in the form rhrubarb-rhubarbed. From there, it became a general term for nonsense and a valid synonym for malarkey, bunk, crapola, and, of course, bullshit.

With an origin like that, I reckon rhubarb could be the foundation of a Twitter account similar to the idiotic but appealing @big_ben_clock, which tweets nothing but “BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG” or “BONG BONG” or “BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG” or … you get the idea. A feed with posts like “Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb” would instantly be one of the most sensible, mature accounts on Twitter.

Rhubarb also means a brawl or verbal argument. The OED’s earliest examples are baseball-related:

1941   N.Y. Times 19 May 20/6   There was what the boys call ‘a bit of a rhubarb’ in the eighth when Cavarretta tried to steal home... In the ensuing run-down, the Cubs charged Phil's progress was illegally blocked by Lavagetto.
1943   Baseballing Jan. 369/3   A ‘rhubarb’, which has become Brooklynese for a heated verbal run-in, especially between players and umpires.

That meaning isn’t totally unrelated to BS, as terms such as ballyhoo and hullaballoo refer to hubbub-heavy kinds of BS that could involve a verbal throwdown. To rhubarb can also mean to strafe: a plane dropping bombs or firing a machine gun is rhubarbing in a sense far more deadly than anything that happens on the baseball field. The brawl-y meaning informs variations such as rebarbative and rubarby. You can also be a rhubarber.

On another note, I can’t resist pointing out that an astrophysicist recently won a homebrewing contest with a rhubarb-infused beer that probably tastes like balderdash.

Oct. 29 2015 2:54 PM

The Ellipsis Can Be Powerful ... or Deeply Annoying. Here’s a Guide to Using It Well.  

“All hail the power of an ellipsis,” proclaimed a recent Guardian column, which went on to fete the punctuation mark’s mystery and economy. Two days later, the paper ran an essay on the first ellipsis to grace English theater: an “incomplete utterance” in the 1585 translation of a play by the Roman dramatist Terence. Except, the piece acknowledged, the statement in question was broken off not with dots, but with a dash. This is a baffling development for an article called “How the Ellipsis Arrived in English Literature.”

Consider the ellipsis.

OK, now. Consider the ellipsis …

Oct. 26 2015 4:44 PM

What Boobs, Jugs, and Hooters Say About Phonetics

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Following on my initial observations on the phonology of cuss words, and connecting to Iva’s recent post on cooters and hooters, I’d like to spend some time looking at some phonaesthetic clusters in words relating to private parts and emissions.

What the fuck are phonaesthetic clusters? Phonaesthetics is that somewhat fuzzy and sketchy area of linguistics that looks at the impressionistic, expressive relationship between sounds and meaning. It’s generally accepted among linguists that the relation between the sound and sense of a word is arbitrary, except in the case of imitative words like bang and chirp (and even then there’s a lot of arbitrariness). However, linguistic researchers have for decades noticed associations between certain sounds and certain properties: We tend to assume that something with an “i” or “ee” vowel is smaller or higher than something with an “u” or “oo” vowel, for instance.


Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

And sometimes we notice a set of words that aren’t etymologically related that have the same or similar sounds and refer to the same or similar things, such as words starting with sn related to the nose, or with gl related to light. It’s as though there’s a gravitational effect: We tend to choose words that fit the pattern, and sometimes we even shift the sound of a word to match.

So that’s phonaesthetics: a sound-feeling relationship. Now look at these sets of synonyms:

  1. boobs, hooters; gazongas, jugs; knockers; tits
  2. poontang, cooter, coochie; twat, snatch, gash, box; cunt, slit; ying-yang
  3. cock, prick, dick, pecker; dong, wang, schlong, ding-dong; Johnson, John Thomas; willy, wiener
  4. spunk, cum, jism, semen

Words with “oo” vowel sounds imply huge and looming, but they also imply round and hollow (your mouth is rounded and hollowed when you say them, after all). The “g” and “ng” sounds can also work with that, because they’re at the back of your mouth. So one presentation of breasts is boobs, hooters, gazongas, and jugs, emphasizing roundness and size; likewise, poontang, cooter, and coochie seem to focus on the hollow roundness of the vagina. Maybe ying-yang (obviously altered from yin-yang) fits in there too.

But maybe not. In the other hand (sorry, on the other hand), dong, wang, schlong, and ding-dong can’t be emphasizing hollowness, since they’re referring to a man-rod. They seem to be drawing on a different association of the “ng”: they recall long, hanging, and swinging. Yes, a given sound can have one kind of association in one context and another in another. And of course it’s all very impressionistic. We probably have a similar effect operating with Johnson and John Thomas. Meanwhile, the sillier, wigglier words for the male member are willy and wiener, with their “w” sounds and high front vowels.

But then there are the sharp, crisp, pointy words. They may seem more vulgar, too: I think most people would say tits is ruder than boobs or even hooters. No doubt this is at least in part because it matches the general pattern of swearwords. But let’s look at the aspects emphasized here. To my mind, at least, tits points more to the tips, the nipples; it is a more erect word. Unsurprisingly, we get a similar sound pattern in cock, prick, dick, and pecker.

But what do we make of twat, snatch, gash, box, cunt, and slit? Let’s stop and take a look at those sounds. We still have the crisp stop consonants. But the vowels are not the high front ones spelled with e and i, except in slit, which differs in having that slippery or slicing sl as in slot. All the others have low front, middle, or back vowels. They’re more flat or even roundish than pointy. But they are harsh and, in some cases—with the “sh” kinds of fricatives—messy.

Likewise, with knockers we have something that has the hard “k” sounds but at the same time a rounder vowel. It’s obviously a literal reference, too, to the knocking together, but bear in mind we don’t see them called bangers or colliders or swingers, and only rarely do we see them called bumpers. We choose one word over another from a set of suitable semisynonyms for impressionistic reasons, and those certainly can draw on associations with the sounds.

That leaves us with spunk, cum, jism, semen. These don’t refer to a body part, of course, but they do have something salient: the presence of nasal consonants after the vowels. Would you expect that in words for a viscous fluid ejected at high speed? Jizz, shortened from jism, seems more in line with that. It’s hard to say that these sounds are imitative or symbolic of any quality. Perhaps this cluster just came out of nowhere as an anomaly. But perhaps there’s something of gum and jam and gunk in it, something close and sticky and moist. I think it does give a clue to how we tend to think of the stuff. We could always call it squirt, but we rarely do.

Likewise, we tend not to call tits slappers, cocks Jeremies, or cunts pickle jars. We could, but they haven’t caught on, and I suspect the sound has something to do with it: We just don’t have an image of the thing that matches the sounds.

Oct. 21 2015 8:02 AM

Great Scott! Who Was Scott? The Origin of Doc Brown’s Favorite Phrase, Explained.

Today is Back to the Future Day, the day when we finally reach the precise date of Back to the Future II, survey the fact that we got memes instead of hoverboards, and utter Doc Brown’s favorite exclamation: “Great Scott!” But who was Scott?

Oct. 21 2015 7:30 AM

Sure, Back to the Future Was Wrong About Hoverboards, but How Well Did It Predict Slang?

The Back to the Future franchise may not have gotten everything right about 2015, especially in the realm of aerial transport. (What, you haven’t ordered your hoverboard on Kickstarter yet?) But what about its kirbo imagining of futuristic slang? While at first glance, the lexical prognosticating of director Robert Zemeckis (along with screenwriter Bob Gale) may seem just plain garbed, some of the movie’s coinages make a lot of sense. Or at least, you can see where he’s coming from. (Yes, 1985.)

Look no further than the yibberin’ of Valleymen in Cloud Atlas or the invented Old English of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake: The easiest way to dream up some plausible-sounding dialect is to pick new words that sound like the old words they mean. This precept is loosely related to the idea of the “phonestheme,” or sound that carries a certain connotation not because of etymology, but by pure association. Consider bojo, a Zemeckian noun meaning “idiot” or “fool.” Sure, it evokes bozo, but it also partakes of the contempt around the abbreviation boho for “bohemian”—and it carries shades of hobo, a disreputable word for a homeless person. The lo-bos described disdainfully by Officer Foley in the movie take this a step further: They’re “hobos,” but with the derogatory syllable “low” swapped in for extra abjection. And within the world of BTTF, lo-bo shares a resonance with low-res, a shortening of “low resolution” that figuratively conjures something shoddy or downscale. (In a computer-saturated age, poor quality images are more than technically flawed—they’re morally repugnant.) Then there’s garbed, wrong or mixed-up, redolent of both garbled and, more distantly, garbage. (Congratulations, Zemeckis, for semi-accurately predicting the ascent of garb, as in “That song is hot garb”!) Trank, of course, is a perfectly sensible shortening of tranquilizer, and an apt term for any lo-bo whose frontal lobes have been addled by sedatives.

You can see the same associative principles operating in Cloud Atlas, where a babbit denotes a baby (with the added softness and helplessness of rabbit thrown in) and to cogg a truth is to recognize or understand it. Likewise, just as Zemeckis chops “tranquilizer” to trank, David Mitchell extracts spesh from “special” and curio from “curiosity.” (According to linguists who study the propagation of slang, contraction and abbreviation represent two of the most common methods for concocting a new word.) But Mitchell also reaches for a less obvious technique: Unlike Zemeckis, he sometimes repurposes proper nouns (e.g. “Judas”) as standard-issue nouns or verbs (to judas, to betray). Gary Shteyngart does the same when he enlists “Starbucks” to signify generic coffee in Super Sad True Love Story. Kingsnorth, for his part, seems more reliant on aural similarity than his fellow term-crafters. Throughout The Wake, he invents homophones that sound almost exactly like the words he’s suggesting—wolde for “would,” waepens for “weapons”—but look utterly different.  

Beyond these tacks lie a plethora of methods for word invention that Zemeckis barely touched: reduplication, as in bye-bye and higgledy-piggledy; augmentation (adding extra syllables, as in a-tonality); even antimeria (the use of one part of speech as another, as in science the shit out of this). While the evolutions of vocabulary are mysterious and hard to predict, it turns out that creating new slang is pretty easy. Making new slang “happen,” on the other hand … therein lies the nump.

Oct. 20 2015 3:00 PM

Look at All the Zero Effs You Can Give!

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Some months back on the Strong Language blog, Stephen Chrisomalis counted how many swears we can give. Quite a lot, it turns out. We can give a fuck. We can give two fucks. We can even give a million fucks. We can especially give three fucks, based on Stephen’s numbers. And this doesn’t even begin to account for all the shit’s and damn’s we can give—or, really, don’t give. See, when it comes to giving a fuck, we’re ultimately playing a zero-fucks game.

To recap parts of Stephen’s piece, the sweary construction give a fuck functions as a negative polarity item. We say I don’t give a fuck as a way to emphasize that we really don’t care. The converse, I give a fuck, is not a way we would normally express care, unless for humorous effect, which appears to be increasingly the case of late.

Stephen pointed us to two particular memes illustrating some new ways we are playing with the construction: “Look at All the Fucks I Give” and “Not a Single Fuck was Given That Day.” As he noted, these memes play with the construction’s grammar (e.g., give a fuck > a fuck was given) and countability. Stephen focused especially on the latter, observing the growing use of fuck (and shit) as count nouns: one fuck, two fucks, fucks, (+1) fucks.

Well, furthering Stephen’s observations, it seems giving a fuck has made the big mathematical leap and discovered zero. For its humor, another iteration making the online rounds, “Zero Fucks Given,” takes the giving a fuck construction literally, both logically and numerically speaking:

Oct. 20 2015 10:01 AM

Graham Greene’s Vocabulary of Light and Dark Makes This the Scariest Short Story You’ve Never Read

For a story all about being afraid of the dark, the scariest thing in Graham Greene’s “The End of the Party” may just be his lexicon of light.

Greene may be best known for novels such as The Power and the Glory or his screenplay for The Third Man. Though a short, early, and lesser-known work, his 1929 “The End of the Party” still displays the craft that made him a giant of 20th-century English literature. Here, what is most masterful is the way Greene develops a subtle but eerie language of light to illuminate the enveloping and ineffable terror of his story’s dark. The effect is a chilling chiaroscuro in words.