Clover’s Literary Corner: Silly Season

caramel popcorn isolated on white background

That beach party was a real lollapalooza! They served a delicious slumgullion, there was plenty of folderol, and we even danced the fandango. There were all kinds of shenanigans, including a huge kerfuffle about the true winner of the beach volleyball game in which the losers got quite bumptious. Everyone was running widdershins like an insane tornado! Some of us just lollygagged around, watching the brouhaha, but others joined wholeheartedly in the foofaraw. Some nincompoop with a video camera crashed the party and tried to bamboozle us into being on TV, but we were flabbergasted at this idea and knew it was just a money-making boondoggle. What a doggone whippersnapper! So not to be hornswoggled, we told him his idea was a load of malarkey.  The next morning, the chairs, tables, and everything were all cattywampus on the sand. I myself was quite flummoxed by all the goings on, but I soon realized it was just summer hijinks and innocent fiddle faddle. Definitely a night to remember!

Say wha-at? What kind of nonsense is this? As we head into high summer, let us throw care to the winds, stop carping about grammar rules, and indulge in some pure language levity. This kind of old fashioned, whimsical language isn’t used much these days, but is so much fun to say! My parents used to use a number of these words regularly, with “horsefeathers!” being my father’s favorite expletive (he also favored the less innocent horsepiss). 

What makes the colorful words in this story so funny and pleasing? Is it their many syllables? Their double letters and repeated sounds? Their frequent –le endings? Or is it just their silly sound? Come with me as we explore the meanings and origins of these wacky words—with grateful indebtedness to If you’d like more of the same, sign up for their delightful Word of the Day newsletter. 

A lollapalooza is defined as an outstanding or impressive example. The origin of this word is unknown, but it has been around since the 1890s as a synonym for humdinger or doozy. Rube Goldberg popularized the word with his 1930s cartoon character Lala Palooza (wouldn’t that be a fun name for a pet?). A slumgullion is a meat stew that actually doesn’t sound very appetizing, being derived from slum, an old word for “slime,” and gullion, an English dialectical term for “mud” or “cesspool.” It appears in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872) to refer to a beverage, the stew meaning coming later. Folderol is a useless ornament or accessory, and the Fandango is a lively Spanish dance performed by a man and a woman to the accompaniment of guitar and castanets, first named in 1770. Its true definition actually has nothing to do with films; they just adopted that name because it’s such a pleasing word to say!

We’re all familiar with our local toy emporium Shenanigans, but what does it mean? High-spirited or mischievous activity, or a devious or underhanded trick—both of which children have been well-known for since its first appearance in print in 1855. Kerfuffle, from Gaelic, means a disturbance or commotion typically caused by a dispute or conflict, and is only slightly different in meaning from brouhaha, which most etymologists believe derived from the oft-repeated Hebrew phrase meaning “blessed be he who enters” (Psalms 118:26) (go figure). Bumptious, an adjective meaning proud or self-assertive in a loud and rude way that annoys other people, was used by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield (1850) to describe a conceited man proud of his wig!

Two of my favorites of these rediscovered words come next in my beach party story. The first is widdershins, which simply means counterclockwise or in a contrary direction. But this word’s origin is especially fascinating! From the Old High German widar, meaning “back” or “against,” and sinnen, meaning “to travel.” Legend holds that demons always approached the devil widdershins, so such a path was considered evil and unlucky. By the mid-1500s, English speakers were using it for anything following a path opposite to the direction the sun travels across the sky (that is, counterclockwise). And this word even turns up in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, in the name of the character Willy Widdershins! 

Moving on, many of us oldsters were told by our parents to stop lollygagging —that is, dallying and wasting time—and get to work (I still tell myself this from time to time). And my favorite of all is foofaraw, which has two meanings—either frills and flashy finery, or as used above, a disturbance or to-do over a trifle. In writings of the pioneer West, foofaraw refers to the frivolous trinkets, baubles, and gewgaws used in trade. Around the 1930s, the word’s more common meaning of a fuss or brouhaha developed, probably from the to-do that showy foofaraw stirred up. Etymologists speculate that it may have resulted from a mishearing of Spanish fanfarrón, meaning “braggart,” or the French expression fou faraud, meaning “foolish dandy.”

We are probably all familiar with the gullibility of a nincompoop, or simpleton, and his/her tendency to be bamboozled, that is, deceived or hoodwinked by underhanded methods; hornswoggled is a close synonym (this must have happened a lot in the old days, to have so many words for it!). Flabbergasted and flummoxed are close in meaning, describing a state of being shocked and perplexed to the point of confusion. A boondoggle, or impractical and wasteful activity often involving corruption, has come a long way from its original meaning. In the 1920s, Robert Link, a scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts of America, coined the word to name the braided leather cords made and worn by Boy Scouts as a neckerchief slide, hatband, or ornament. The word came to prominence when such a boondoggle was presented to the Prince of Wales at the 1929 World Jamboree. 

Whippersnapper is first recorded in 1700, having evolved from snippersnapper. It means an insignificant young person who annoys older people by acting important. Malarkey is simply bunkum, or foolish talk. Most of us know that cattywampus, a variant of catawampus, means askew or awry; but it can also mean savage or destructive. It is considered a dialectical version of catercorner. And before it was a caramelized popcorn and nut confection, fiddle faddle meant nonsense as long ago as 1577!

These unusual old words lend color and humor to our language, and connect us with the past and with the people who coined them. Now that you’ve been reminded of them, maybe you’ll soon find an opportunity to use one! 


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