What a load of tripe! 7 words to describe bad writing
A lot of time is spent trying to describe and understand the greatest writing from the greatest authors. How can we adequately define the genius of Shakespeare? How can we put into words the glories of Virginia Woolf? Well, this blog post won’t help you out there – but we’ll take a trip to the other end of the talent spectrum, and explore some words that might come in handy if you need to describe some truly terrible writing.
If you’ve ever thought that drivel sounds a bit like dribble – well, you’re not completely wrong. As far back as Old English, drivel was used as a verb to mean ‘to let saliva or mucus flow from the mouth or nose’. In turn, this probably influenced the way that dribble narrowed in meaning from its first sense of ‘to let (anything) flow or fall in drops or a trickling stream’ to the more specific ‘to allow saliva to flow down over the chin’. Dribble came several hundred years after drivel, in the 16th-century, but the modern use of the noun drivel (‘nonsense’) only arrived in the 19th century. It was originally metaphorical, comparing nonsensical words to saliva.
If you’re disparaging some writing, the sound of the word bilge helps (to my mind) really hammer home that you think something is ‘nonsense; rubbish’. But the marine-minded will already know that bilge means ‘the bottom of a ship’s hull’, probably as a corruption of the word bulge. While this sense dates back to the early 16th century, it later took on the meaning ‘the foulness which collects in the bilge’ (pleasant thought). From there, it developed its current slang meaning – appearing first, according to the OED’s current entry, in a school story for children.
The Scottish writer R.L. Stevenson didn’t think much of historical romances, or at least bad ones, and came up with the term tushery to mock them. The word was intended to convey the ‘conventional style of romance characterized by excessive use of affected archaisms such as “tush!”’ and, when Stevenson coined the word, it was in an 1883 letter saying that ‘it’s great sport to write tushery’. Tush itself has been used as a written representation of ‘an exclamation of impatient contempt or disparagement’ since at least the mid-15th century.
Deriding ‘trivial or unsophisticated reading matter’ can be done in one quick syllable with pap. This figurative use can be a bit broader – it refers to ‘something easily acquired or understood but lacking in value or substance; light intellectual or spiritual fare’ – but it now usually refers to literature specifically. (Though the word ‘literature’ might be in dispute.) And if this is figurative, what’s the literal use? It relates to pap meaning ‘semi-liquid food, such as that considered suitable for babies or invalids’, which has been in use since Middle English. The etymological origin is uncertain, but it’s been suggested that the word is ultimately imitative of the sound made by an infant opening and shutting their lips.
Similarly emphatic is tripe, which has been used figuratively of artistic work considered worthless – and, indeed, anything considered worthless – since at least the 1670s. As you’ll probably know, it is also a food (appetisingly defined as ‘the first or second stomach of a cow or other ruminant used as food’). What you might not know is that imitation velvet was once known as tripe, so-called because it resembled the aforementioned stomach. Which conjures up a lovely design statement.
‘Bland intellectual fare’ has been called pabulum since the 1970s, when Nature magazine castigated ‘a pabulum of romanticized science digested to gibberish for consumption by pre-adolescents’. Ironically, pabulum’s earliest sense is ‘anything taken in by a living organism or tissue to maintain life and growth’, and a more complimentary figurative sense came about in the 18th century: ‘that which nourishes the mind or soul’. It’s possible, the OED notes, that the pejorative use may have arisen partially through confusion with pablum. If you don’t know what that is – see below.
Americans might recognise Pablum as a proprietary name for a wheat-based children’s breakfast cereal. From the 1930s onwards, this use led to it being used more widely as soft, easily digested food – and figuratively for insipid or undemanding intellectual fare. Irony strikes again – because pablum was probably formed originally as a shortening of pabulum. We’ve come full circle.