Sunday, July 18, 2010

Much Ado About Nonsense

My word of the week will seem familiar if you subscribe to A.Word.A.Day, either because you love words or because someone, perhaps a kindly spinster aunt, signed you up for this service. Because new words are like her children AND DON’T YOU WANT TO MEET THEM?!?!

It was Friday’s word. But trust me on this one. I’m taking it somewhere good. The word, for those of you who don’t subscribe, is an underrated member of a group of words that sound like they shouldn’t be real words but in fact are, even though they name things that either don’t exist or aren’t important.
folderol (FOL-duh-rol) — noun: 1. nonsense or foolishness. 2. a trifle or a gewgaw.
Also spelled falderal or falderol, the word is one of those that sounds like it couldn’t possibly name a real thing. And in a way, it doesn’t, at least if you don’t consider nonsense to be really real. (Brainmelt.) I have this wonderful scenario in my head in which someone asks “What does folderol mean?” and is simply given the answer “Gewgaw.” And when the asker asks what gewgaw means, they get told that “A gewgaw is a folderol,” the whole process ultimately illustrating the “nonsense” definition of folderol.

The fact that folderol can be defined as “gewgaw” reminded me a few other words that sound kind of like a word a kid might make up and are therefore fun to say: knickknack, argle-bargle, foofaraw, hullabaloo, rigmarole. I’m sure there are others that I can’t think of at the moment, but one thing these words all have in common in that they make the things they describe seem unimportant — innocently with words like hullabaloo and less so with words like rigmarole. (One man’s worthwhile series of safeguards is another man’s rigmarole.) I was actually surprised when I looked these words up and found out that none of them actually arise from childish speak, though folderol does come from “a nonsense refrain in some old songs.” Like zig-a-zig-ah?

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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  1. Oddly enough, I group this word with fiddle dee dee because, as the internet tells me, it's found in Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. It's amazing how looking at an obscure word can make the synapses fire.

  2. I believe children's author Eloise Jarvis McGraw was particularly fond of the word "argle-bargle." It makes me think of pirates.

  3. I love crazy words. Ever play the board game Balderdash? They have crazy words and you have to make up your own definitions.

  4. Godaigamer: Actually, it's good that you pointed that out because it reminded me to include a line about the actual etymology of "folderol" that I stupidly omitted from the this when I first posted it. It comes from a nonsense refrain used in old songs, so your association with "fiddle dee dee" isn't far off.

    Nathan: Not familiar with that author, but it does seem like "argle-bargle" would be a word that children's authors would use. You also remind me that I've always wanted to open a drinking establishment called Argle Bar.

    Powdered: I do enjoy that game, but I realized it's not a good game to play with people who enjoy weird words, since it's often the case that everyone knows what that word means.

  5. Anonymous12:39 AM

    Word of the day: Semi-reduplicative.