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It began with twaddle.
I was watching the CNN Republican presidential debate last week and simultaneously doing research about a 19th century argument over issues in higher education. While the candidates were busily responding to all the insults that had accumulated since their previous debate, I was reading one college administrator criticizing another for proposed curriculum reforms that were “twaddle from beginning to end.”
It was clear that twaddle was a pejorative term, but it wasn’t one I knew. With one eye on the proceedings in Simi Valley, I did a quick check on my iPad for the definition of twaddle. It turns out that it means “trivial or foolish speech or writing,” a kind of nonsense.
By coincidence, my dictionary search had given me the perfect word to describe what I was watching on the television screen. Much of what passes for political speech in a presidential election season is, in fact, twaddle.
Then I searched for synonyms of twaddle and was delighted to find a long list of words that can be used to describe silly speech. There was drivel, claptrap, and blather; piffle, bunk, and balderdash; gibberish, hogwash, hooey, poppycock and more. There are subtle differences in meaning among those synonyms, and I actually began to enjoy the presidential debate as I tried to categorize each candidate’s comment with the best version of nonsense available from the array of words before me. Was I hearing claptrap or balderdash; drivel or piffle?
Rand Paul called much of what Donald Trump says about the appearance of others sophomoric, just before Trump made a sophomoric comment about Paul’s appearance. The word sophomoric was, unfortunately, an insult to 25 percent of the high school and college students across the country who generally behave better than Donald. But Paul went further. He said that the kind of observations and insults Trump routinely dispenses really sound like the things you hear in middle school. He might have called those insults drivel, the childish version of nonsense.
Then there was Trump’s speculation about the connection between vaccinations and autism, a serious subject that should have prompted a careful response with accurate information and sensitivity to the families with autistic children. Instead, what we got was balderdash, the form of nonsense that involves both stupidity and exaggeration.
It didn’t help when Ben Carson only gently corrected Trump about the inaccurate statements he had just made regarding the safety of vaccinations. I heard balderdash; Carson thought Trump was “a pretty good doctor.” That was piffle, which as a noun means nonsense, and as a verb means “to talk or behave feebly.”
Carly Fiorina had a very effective moment when she said that women across the country understood exactly what Trump’s comments about her face meant. But she also gave a vivid description of video footage showing Planned Parenthood doctors hovering over a squirming fetus while discussing the harvesting of brain tissue. No one has proven that such video footage exists. Asserting that it does is claptrap, which one dictionary calls an “expedient for winning applause” and another calls “mendacious cant.”
My classification game was amusing for a while, but it couldn’t last for the entire three hours of the debate. I was getting ready to abandon the television when I found one more synonym for twaddle: “trumpery.”
Yes, trumpery is in the dictionary. It is an old word. Shakespeare, with a slightly different spelling, used it in the Winter’s Tale. It appears in sentences written by Swift, Trollope, Arnold and Scott. And what does trumpery mean? It means “showy but worthless.”
My evening was now complete. I knew exactly what I was watching on television: trumpery and twaddle, and the decline of American political discourse.
This essay originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 25, 2015.