A load of old codswallop? Revising codswallop, n.

A load of old codswallop? Revising codswallop, n.

In 2005, the Oxford English Dictionary, together with the BBC, launched the Wordhunt Project: an appeal to the public for help in finding earlier evidence for fifty words and phrases of unknown origin. The results of this appeal formed the basis of the BBC2 TV series Balderdash and Piffle in 2006, featuring a three-person OED panel which adjudicated on the public’s submissions. One of the words in the appeal (and later in the series) was codswallop, which had made its first appearance in the OED in the supplementary volume published in 1972, in which it was recorded as a slang word meaning ‘nonsense, drivel’. Strikingly, however, the earliest evidence for codswallop in the supplement is from a Radio Times article from 1963, a mere nine years earlier, yet the word clearly struck the OED staff as being sufficiently significant to warrant inclusion. The participants in the Wordhunt were therefore faced with two questions: where does codswallop come from; and did it really rise to prominence in just a decade, or was it older – perhaps much older?

The first of these questions had already given rise to many theories, partly because there were so many options to choose from. OED contains seven different entries for nouns spelled ‘cod’ (denoting a wide variety of things, such as the testicles, a marine fish, a fool, or a joke), and one could make a case for several of these being the first element of codswallop. There’s only one entry for wallop n., with meanings ranging from ‘a heavy or clumsy movement’ to ‘a heavy blow’ to ‘alcoholic drink’, but one could also imagine a connection with Nether Wallop and similar Hampshire place names. Where to begin?

One theory links the ‘alcoholic drink’ sense of wallop, n. with the name of engineer Hiram Codd (another contender!), who invented the ‘Codd bottle’ for carbonated drinks. Hence, it has been argued, ‘Codd’s wallop’ is a mere soft drink – something worthless, at least to the serious drinker, and hence the source of the extended meaning of ‘nonsense’. However, none of the early evidence lines up with this, and codswallop only ever has one D, so the OED panel’s view was that, unlike the bottle, this didn’t hold water. Other suggestions also foundered. But could any progress be made on the second front? Could codswallop be taken further back?

The text of the 1963 Radio Times quotation makes it clear that codswallop was already in general use (emphasis mine):

Just branding a programme as ‘rubbish’, ‘tripe’, or—there are a lot of these—‘codswallop’, gives little indication of what moved the viewer to write.

It therefore seemed likely that an earlier example would be found, but only one submission fulfilled the OED’s criteria: a quotation from a 1959 episode of the BBC TV comedy series Hancock’s Half Hour. In Balderdash and Piffle, presenter Victoria Coren met the writers of the series, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were pleased to have their work memorialized in the OED, but refused to take any credit for coming up with codswallop: “it was in everyday language, I’m sure of it,” said Galton. Why did they use it? Because it sounded funny, said Simpson: it wasn’t rude, but the audience knew that it stood for something that was much ruder. The quotation was added to OED Online, and there the matter rested: a modest antedating had been found, but the word’s origin remained obscure.

Roll on to 2020…

When I discovered that I had the opportunity to revise codswallop, I was delighted. I’ve been a fan of Hancock’s Half Hour for many years, in both its TV and radio incarnations, so the Hancock connection intrigued me.A few years ago, on a whim, I’d gone looking for earlier evidence for codswallop, and had come across a 1958 newspaper article (so a year earlier than the Hancock script) which related the story of a Bournemouth butcher who’d decided to change his surname from Fish to Carrington-Fisher because his family were being called things like Fishy, Kipper – and Codswallop.

However, I wasn’t sure how to pursue this line of inquiry, so instead I looked for other combinations of ‘cod’ and ‘wallop’ to see if any of these suggested anything promising. The first edition of the OED had included, in its entry for walloper n., the compound ‘cod-walloper’, meaning a cod fishing vessel. I found two additional meanings: a large fish (in New York dialect, but now obsolete), and a person who handles or deals in fish for a living. The existence of three distinct senses for ‘cod walloper’ meant that it was worth treating as a separate entry, so cod walloper, n. now appears in OED Online as a distinct headword.

This was suggestive, but not decisive. It seemed likely that, in codswallop,we were indeed dealing with the fish. But I could see no link between the ‘large fish’ or ‘cod fishing vessel’ senses and codswallop. The third sense, the person dealing in fish for a living, was more promising. The earliest quotation, in a 1915 Royal Navy newsletter, discusses the facility with which a ‘Billingsgate cod walloper’ could dispose of a special constable by voice alone – presumably a reference to the stereotypical volume and/or coarseness of fish porters and their wives. Small wonder, then, that ‘cod walloper’ was also used as a general term of depreciation. And this got me looking at another piece of evidence in a new light.

In the OED’s files relating to this range, there was a paper slip with a quotation from a 1928 edition of the News of the World:

What is a ‘cod’s wallop’? According to a learned counsel..the term is an East-end colloquialism for ‘a woman who cannot keep her mouth shut’.

This was thirty years earlier than anything else– but showing a completely different sense. It obviously needed to be mentioned in the OED entry, but it wasn’t clear whether it had the same etymology, since we weren’t sure what the etymology of codswallop actually was. However, it was in the same semantic ballpark as the depreciative use of cod walloper to refer to a person, and one might even hesitantly posit a connection with the stereotypically noisy and coarse people working in the fishing industry. The 1958 quotation also seemed to make more sense if read as an example of the ‘depreciative term for a person’ sense, which meant that the 1959 quotation from Hancock’s Half Hour was once again the earliest attestation for the ‘nonsense’ meaning. But how, if at all, were the two senses related?

I wondered if there were other examples lurking in Hancock’s Half Hour. It turned out that there were two more, another from the TV series, and one from a radio programme, and both from 1959. Something I read suggested that there was a reference to a village called ‘Little Codswallop’ in a 1957 episode, but this turned out not to be the case. It did, however, cause me to try searching using other adjectives. Somehow, I arrived at ‘young codswallop’ – which brought up this entry in the blog of actor, writer, producer, and director David Pibworth, in which he discusses his love of words. With mounting amazement, I read the following reminiscence:

[…] Alan told me that his Uncle had used the word and used to say “come here young codswallop” and they (Ray and Alan) had thought it a good word to use in place of a swear word.

Here was another example of codswallop being used of a person, but that person was Alan Simpson himself — and as a direct result of this, he and Ray Galton had decided to use the word in Hancock’s Half Hour with its modern meaning! The only thing better than this would be to have direct testimony in the words of the writers themselves, but sadly they had both recently passed away. Then I remembered that they’d been interviewed for Balderdash and Piffle. I contacted the production company to ask whether any cut material from that interview had been retained, and to my great delight I received an archive of research on codswallop – including a full transcript of the interview with Galton and Simpson.

Alan Simpson’s memory was clear: he’d first heard the word in the 1930s, as a funny name that his uncle used to call him, and so when they were looking around for a rude-sounding word that wouldn’t be blue-pencilled by the producer, codswallop came to mind. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, both writers stressed that they hadn’t coined the word, and the earlier evidence bears this out – but they do seem to have popularized this shift in meaning, and introduced it to the wider world. The original meaning of codswallop doesn’t seem to have spread far, if at all, outside London, and perhaps was never particularly common even there; this would explain why there is so little evidence for it, since there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why its usage in print would be actively avoided. After all, it only sounds rude.

One thing that struck me was that, of the three examples of codswallop in Hancock’s Half Hour, only one was spoken by Tony Hancock himself. The other two were uttered by Sid James, both times modified by ‘old’, and once occurring in “What a load of old codswallop” — a sentence that I encountered again and again in later use. I wondered whether Galton and Simpson had included codswallop in the scripts for Citizen James,the programme they wrote for James after he left Hancock’s Half Hour. All six episodes of the first series (broadcast in 1960) were written by Galton and Simpson, and have been released on DVD. So I watched them – and indeed, in three of the six episodes, codswallop appears, and each time, the speaker is Sidney Balmoral James. And in fact, in a 1963 edition of the Advertisers Weekly, I found the following:

The Jeremiahing about the future of TV advertising is what Sidney James would call a ‘load of cod’s wallop’.

1963 is where we came in. So it appears that codswallop, in the sense that everyone knows it, really did rise from nowhere to be added to the 1972 OED Supplement in the space of a decade or so – but also that it had somewhat deeper roots.

Sadly, we still don’t have all the answers. The ultimate origin of codswallop remains somewhat murky, although we’re now looking for an explanation of the original sense, rather than the later one; and while we know that that Galton and Simpson deliberately innovated in using it to mean ‘nonsense’, they may not have been the only or the first people to do so. But the propagation of the word, via the medium of Sid James, is almost certainly due to them; Hancock’s Half Hour in particular was watched and listened to by a very large proportion of the British population in the 1950s and early 1960s, so if anything could embed a word in the public consciousness, it could. And the thing about codswallop is that it feels like an old word, even if it isn’t. Ray Galton called it ‘Dickensian’ – and I imagine that many of the audience also thought so, when they decided to apply it to less successful programmes in letters to the Radio Times

This has been a labour of love for me, and I’m thrilled to have been able to shed some light on the history of codswallop. I am very grateful to David Pibworth, for recording his discussion with Alan Simpson and Ray Galton and thereby pointing this research in the right direction, and for his further reminiscences and kind words in subsequent correspondence; and to Archie Baron, for providing access to Takeaway Media’s archive relating to codswallop. If you can shed any more light on the history of this word, or indeed any other, please do contact the OED!

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

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