It turns out that the word ‘codswallop’ is a bit of an etymological mystery. Although the origins of many of the words which appear in our Word-of-the-day series can be traced back and explained quite succinctly, the origins of codswallop cannot. Of course, for native British English speakers, we instantly understand the word to mean ‘nonsense’ or ‘rubbish’—what a load of codswallop! But non-native speakers may be left confused, wondering how the conversation turned to the topic of fish so suddenly.
Let’s break the word into two: ‘cods’ and ‘wallop’. What do these mean? The word ‘Cod’ derives from the Old English word codd which meant ‘bag’. This was later written as cod and used to describe a scrotum (this may be where the cod fish, or ‘bag fish’, got its name).
Next is ‘wallop’. This word derives from the Old Northern French walop and described the sound of a horse’s gallop. Through extension, it eventually came to describe the bubbling sound of boiling liquid.
Ah, so that’s it! We have solved the mystery of the origins of codswallop!…It’s a bubbling scrotum! No? Er…a galloping bag? Wait a minute… A fishy French horse! (What?!)
The word codswallop refuses to be explained—and many people have tried.
There are popular stories of Hiram Codd, the Englishman who invented the Codd-neck Bottle in 1872 (used to bottle carbonated water). Once you understand that the meaning of ‘wallop’ went on from the sound of bubbling liquid to become a slang word for beer drinkers to describe low quality beer, you could be forgiven for thinking that this explains the origin of ‘codswallop’ (that is, a rubbish soft drink that no true beer drinker would go near – it’s Codd’s wallop!). Unfortunately, this is unlikely given the timelines for the life of Hiram Codd and the fact that ‘codswallop’ only appeared in English print 1959 (in the script for the BBC show Hancock’s Half Hour). The word codswallop has also never appeared in print with the double ‘d’—‘coddswallop’.
Perhaps it is best to go back to the fish connection and to consider the second sense of the word wallop, which is the noise of a galloping horse as it flounders and whacks the ground-wallop!
But we could go backwards and forwards all day looking for the answer when, in actual fact, there is none. Codswallop is said to have been in public use by 1959 (when the BBC writers used the phrase but didn’t coin it). Unfortunately, no one ever documented the reason why. It could simply be that someone created a nonsense word with which to describe nonsense and it has, therefore, flummoxed us ever since.