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.