“Codswallop”

Sometimes writing this blog is like shooting fish in a barrel. Specifically, cod. I was reading Facebook and alighted on a post from the writer Tom Carson in which he said, “Because I just couldn’t face another day of yelling at my TV set, I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth for the first time in 40 years instead. Yes, it still looks gorgeous — and man, is it ever a preening load of echt-1970s codswallop, especially in the ‘Yay! Let’s quit compromising and go for TOTAL incoherence! That’ll impress people six ways to Sunday’ second half.”

So, “codswallop.” First step, go to Google Ngram Viewer to confirm British origin and American adoption. Check.

But hang on. I was surprised to see the use of the word start (in Britain) just before 1960, where I would have thought it was Shakespearean.

On to the second step, the OED, which has two definitions. The first is: “British slang (depreciative, chiefly London). An overly talkative woman, a gossip. Also in more general use, as a mildly depreciative term for a person. Now rare.” The first citation is from the English newspaper News of the World in 1928: “What is a ‘cod’s wallop’? According to a learned counsel..the term is an East-end [of London]colloquialism for ‘a woman who cannot keep her mouth shut’.” Then there’s a quote from a 2005 interview with the English comedy writer Alan Simpson, who was from Brixton, south of London: “In the thirties,..I was about seven or eight and my uncle..used to use it as a proper noun, he used to call me codswallop.”

Simpson’s quote is important, because in other sources he is credited with inventing the word. Indeed, the OED credits the TV show Hancock’s Half Hour, written by Simpson and Ray Galton, with the first use of the other (now prevalent) definition, “Nonsense, rubbish, drivel.” In an episode that aired in 1959, the character played by Sid James said, “Don’t give me that old codswallop.” And it took off from there.

As for American use, other than by Tom Carson, in the New York Times in 2018, Kara Swisher called the idea that Twitter and other platforms are rigged against Donald Trump “codswallop.” She continued, “You can look that fine word up on Google if you want to know what it means, by the way.”

Today, she wouldn’t need that addendum. But her point stands.

6 thoughts on ““Codswallop”

  1. I’m quite sure I also heard “What a load of old codswallop!” it in at least one episode of “Round the Horne,” probably referring to a performance by “Rambling Sid Rumpo.”

  2. Thanks for the post. I had no idea codswallop was that recent in the sense of ‘nonsense’. I’m pretty sure my father must have used it, say in the 1960s, so it must have caught on quite fast.

  3. I’m stunned by the modernity of this remark.

    I have to say I always assumed it was Shakespearean, if not earlier, not least because the ‘cods’ are, of course, the testicles, or indeed the whole of the male genitalia, cf, codpiece. (Note the hard and fast rule that EVERYTHING in English means either the male genitals, the female genitals or the bringing together of the male and the female genitals.)

  4. A small detail Ben, but you can walk from Brixton to Buckingham Palace or the Palace of Westminster in 40 minutes. Brixton is in Sarf London, not ‘south of London’.

  5. Fascinating that it’s so modern and had an earlier meaning than ‘nonsense’, I had no idea. I’ve heard a theory that it referred to poor quality beer from ‘cod’ meaning ‘poor quality’ and ‘wallop’ meaning ‘beer’ (a very old-fashioned slang term that I’ve only ever seen written down or heard in black and white films) but that must itself be a ‘load of old codswallop’!

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