Sometimes there’s word that splendidly captures what it is you are trying to express. I was reading something that had me in a slow boil of mixed nausea and outrage. It prattled on with inflated self-importance, laying out a trail of utter arse-gravy with the expectation that I was going to nod and murmur, “How true!” I was supposed to take this bucket of delusional idiocy and embrace it as a brilliant revelation. I was speechless and writhing in my seat.
“Codswallop!” I exclaimed. My son looked up from his laptop curiously, sliding his headphones back from one ear.
“Codswallop,” I repeated. “This is utter codswallop.”
He nodded. “That’s a good word,” he said, sliding the earpiece back into place and returning to what he was doing.
And I thought, yes, it’s a very good word. It really sounds like what it means. It sounds like a load of loose dung hitting the bricks. There’s a feel to it like being hit with a cold, dead fish. It rolls out of the mouth in a most satisfying way. We need a word like codswallop to describe that with which we are confronted all too often.
Like so many marvelous things, we get this word from the Brits, who aren’t sure quite where it came from although they have a few, somewhat unlikely guesses. Whether it arose from the script of a 1959 UK TV series, or evolved as a slang term for an insipid soft drink, or came out of a rite of initiation not unlike Python’s fish slapping dance, “codswallop” has entered the vernacular to mean nonsense.
But by its very nature, “codswallop” feels like a much stronger term than merely nonsense. Nonsense can be harmless and fun. Children’s book are filled with nonsense, among the cream of which is Dr. Seuss. Collapsible frinks and Ofts who weigh minus one pound are good fun. I would not call the work of Dr. Suess codswallop.
No, there is an implication of something contemptible. Offensive nonsense. Distasteful, repulsive nonsense. Creationist rants against evolution are codswallop. The fabricated claims of Fox Network “News” commentators are codswallop (so are the fabricated claims of what Fox has reported – see image above). Campaign speeches are largely codswallop. Much of what bubbles and burps up onto your screen in a random search of the Internet is codswallop. (And on Facebook; again, see image above, which showed up in my Facebook feed. Doesn’t the lunatic fringe say enough stupid things without having to make them up?) “Codswallop” is a splendidly expressive alternative to “Bullshit” that you can use in a mixed audience.
Human beings have long been immersed in codswallop. We can’t help it. Our very excellent brain is skilled at reasoning, at pattern recognition, at imagining possible answers to complex problems and concocting plausible justifications for the things we believe. Unfortunately, without some means to fact-check what our bulging cortex comes up with, we end up with a great deal of faulty reasoning, patterns that aren’t really there, wrong answers and fond delusions. Codswallop. Fortunately, we have a way to separate the truth from the codswallop. We have developed critical thinking and the scientific method. And if we only taught two things in school, those two should be it. Armed with those tools, nearly everything else can be figured out.
Having armed my boys with critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of science (not to mention a firmly anchored moral compass), I feel no fear letting them loose in that seething pit of codswallop, the Internet. Because, aside from the porn and poop, there is a rich wealth of knowledge and information out there, different people and cultures to connect with, games to play, glorious dreams and clever creations to discover. It’s the hive mind, the connected uber-brain of humanity, and we are loading it up as fast as we can with everything there is to know. We are laboring to get all our great literature online, all our scientific knowledge, arts, music, and innumerable commentaries thereon and analyses thereof. I am unceasingly amazed and filled with joy at the ease with which I can do research, verify facts, and identify codswallop.
Never before have we had so easily at hand the means to ferret out the truth in any given controversy. And yet, bafflingly, so many of us choose not to do it.
Ironic though it may be, now more than ever, we need a word like “codswallop”.