A WORD IN THE HAND: TRIPE
Disrespect for yummy innards is twaddle only the English can stomach
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
One of life’s great mysteries – apart from the disappearance of Lord Lucan, the vanishing of Gaddafi’s millions and the total evaporation of any Brit who voted “leave” – is tripe.
Tripe, the appetising dish made from the stomach of a ruminant, has been around since the 14th century. No mystery there. People eat all sorts of things, and perhaps the body part that once did the digesting is more digestible than the other bits.
What is strange, however, is how tripe came to be associated with worthless, foolish or offensive nonsense. As in “what a load of tripe you are talking”.
This expression caught on near the end of the 19th century among English speakers who at the time were still largely united in their enjoyment of boiled stomach.
If they had come to loathe stews made of animal innards, it would be easier to understand why they turned against tripe. But they still loved eating the stuff, so why use it to describe balderdash? Why not refer to idiocy as peas, porridge or cronuts?
“Balderdash”, incidentally, is a word that in the late 16th century referred to bottles of beer, milk and wine all jumbled up together. From a disorganised load of liquids, it came to mean “a senseless jumble of words”, which translated into “poppycock” (a word of Dutch origin that marries porridge to excrement, if you must know).
Balderdash fell out of favour when tripe took over. As far as I can tell, only the English treat offal with such disrespect. The Italians do not dismiss silliness as trippa, nor do the Xhosas demean ulusu by making it double as an insult.
“Hogwash” is a far more reasonable word to use in place of tripe. In the 15th century, hogwash was exactly what it sounds like: a sloppy mess fed to pigs. It extended itself to cheap beer and then to bad writing – what we might also call twaddle or tommyrot.
The origins of “twaddle” are unknown. “Tommyrot” is perfectly clear: it is nothing more than a “tommy” (a simple-minded fellow, also “tomfool”) who is talking rot.
Other languages have their own colourful idioms for foolish utterances. A Russian who suspects you are spouting garbage will accuse you of hanging noodles on his ears. This I learnt from amateur idiomologist Jag Bhalla, who points out on his word blog that the original meaning of “idiot” was someone not interested in public affairs.
In his book, I’m Not Hanging Noodles on your Ears, Bhalla also shares the strange Spanish idiom “when snakes wore vests” (meaning a long time ago) and the Russian expression “when the crayfish sings on the mountain”, which means never but is far more fun than the English “when hell freezes over”.But back to noodles. The noodle is more than a vital part of chow mein and a slang word for “head” (originally “noddle”). The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that in the 1750s, “noodle” was an insult used on someone who talked a lot of tripe, or had tripe for brains.It is still in use today, but “don’t be such a noodle” now has more affectionate overtones, describing a person who is not entirely stupid but occasionally does or says silly things. Which is fine. I like noodles. But I still think tripe has been unfairly treated.