Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, both in a historical vein. First up, Blethering about blatherskite explores a colourful term for nonsense (or for someone talking nonsense):

Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).

Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.

The post goes on to explain how it crossed the Atlantic and discusses its phonetic suitability.


As You Dislike It considers the word very as an intensifier – a usage that prompted some protest when it first began to spread:

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change . . .

If you’re thinking of the parallel with literally – in both semantic development and conservative backlash – you wouldn’t be alone. I look at these and other aspects in the rest of the post.

Older articles can be read at my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

10 Responses to Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

  1. Roger Hill says:

    Regarding use of very, cf proper.
    In Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible,
    Danforth mocks Corey with “Oh, it is a proper lawyer!”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Aye, there’s a whole array of such terms that have become co-opted as intensifiers. Literally is probably the most controversial because its ‘literal’ meaning seems so explicit (and because of its great popularity).

  2. What would we do without very as an intensifier? I am constantly trying not to use it, but I wouldn’t want to give it up altogether. Before Shakespeare’s time, did people not feel the need to intensify every other phrase or word?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Some language critics hate very and advise against ever using it, but I find it useful. When I can favourably omit it, I do, but I’m happy to make appropriate use of it. It’s probably less popular among people who use alternatives a lot, such as totally, really, and (like) so. Similarly, other intensifying phrases would have been used before the rise of very in the 16thC.

  3. Joan says:

    Blatherskite probably went to the USA with the Irish

    • Stan Carey says:

      As my column notes, the word seems to have gone west in an old Scottish song, ‘Maggie Lauder’, which became popular in the US during the War of Independence.

  4. Tim Martin says:

    Members of my generation would most likely have learned “blatherskite” from Duck Tales, where Fenton the Duck uses the phrase “blatherin’ blatherskite” to activate his super suit and become Gizmo Duck.

    This video is terrible quality, but see 10 seconds in:

    • Stan Carey says:

      Brilliant! Duck Tales is familiar to me, but not so much that I knew about this. Here’s a clearer video:

      Also, the use of a double dactyl as a cartoon exclamation reminded me of “Sufferin’ succotash!”

  5. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Blatherskite Park in Alice Springs, Northern Territory of Australia, is a camping ground and sporting area just south of The Gap. According to the NT Place Names Committee:

    Named after the nearby hill ‘Mount Blatherskite’. Old time residents have the name ‘Blatherskite’ associated with horses. The story told is when the old racecourse was in close proximitity to the hill, one particular owner trained his horse around the hill and used to ‘blather’ and ‘skite’ of how his horse ran off the track, went around the hill and still won the race.

    So the “-skite” affix has taken on a different meaning than the original Scottish insult;unless of course the horse owner was talking shit!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Interesting! I never knew about Blatherskite Park or Mount Blatherskite. As you note, the origin story doesn’t fully explain the name – and it may be apocryphal anyway – but it is a fun story.

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