“No more Tom Foolery. No more Ballyhoo,” the impatient counselor uttered to the brilliant character Will (played by Matt Damon) in the popular movie Good Will Hunting (1997). Do you remember? Great movie, of course, that old counselor in the film isn’t the only one to ever utter such terms. These days, perhaps a grandparent regularly uses some of the greatest terms of all time – all meaning “Nonsense!” As these terms fade with generations for more widely used slang, let’s take an entertaining look back at where these crazy terms originated.
A tomfool was originally Tom Fool. Tom was a stereotypical name and a Tom Fool was somewhat of an equal to the current term, “Joe Cool.” The fictitious proper noun, Tom Fool, was first recorded in the 14th century as a person who plays the part of a fool in a drama.
In 1836, the term ballyhoo was recorded as a sailor’s epitaph for an unpopular ship. This was thought to originate from the Spanish word balahu, a type of schooner common in the Antilles. In 1867, ballahou, was also used to describe an inferior ship.
There also may be a tie between ballyhoo as we know it today and the ballyhoo bird. According to an article on Harper’s (July 1880), the bird had four wings and two heads. It could sing through one bill and whistle through the other. Nonsense?
For years, the term hogwash was specifically used to describe slops fed to pigs. In 1712, the term was extended to cheap liquor. Shortly after, the term was applied to inferior writing (1773.) Its use to comment on anything “nonsense” has been broadly used since.
A very similar word in Dutch was recorded as poppekak. Poppekak was used in a phrase, ” zo fijn als gemalen poppekak,” this meant to show religious zeal. Literally translated, the term means “as fine as powdered doll sh*t.” The Dutch were thought to have brought this term to the USA. Though no such word appears to be attested in Dutch, the beginning of the word “Pop” means doll in Dutch. In 1865, Middle Dutch used the word pappe for soft dung. The second half of the word is similar to the old English word, “cack” meaning excrement (or Latin, kak meaning to excrete), which adds credence to the former explanation.
The term Pish Posh may have multiple sources. Since the 16th century, the term pish was used as an interjection. It meant contempt or impatience at first. It wasn’t long before the term pish was moved to mean disgust. Some speculate Posh was paired with “pish” for emphasis (linguists call this reduplication; where words are paired with small variance. For example, the term Hoity-toity is reduplication.)
Another possibility of origin is that pish posh is a variation of the term pish pash. Pish Pash was a stew popular in India, using small bits of meat and rice. Pash, of Old English origin, means smash (and could be bits of meat.) The term Pish Pash (dating back to 18th century Anglo-Indian) was used as “baby talk” with children at meals.
A fiddlestick was a common term used for a violin bow. The word Fiddlestick was recorded from the 15th century, and Shakespeare used it in Henry IV: “the devil rides on a fiddle-stick”, meaning that a commotion has broken out. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, fiddlestick began to be used for something trivial -perhaps because the word sounds silly.
According to Worldwidewords.org, “It took on a humorous slant as a word one could use to replace another in a contemptuous response to a remark. George Farquhar used it in this way in his play Sir Henry Wildair of 1701: “Golden pleasures! Golden fiddlesticks!”. From here it was a short step to using the word as a disparaging comment to mean that something just said was nonsense.”
Tom Foolery: http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19981207