Daily Archives: July 10, 2011


A colleague who is not a native English speaker was looking at Doris & Bertie’s “Does your writing pass the ‘mum’ test?” The poster and the “mum” (mother) in question are both British, it would appear, and one comment on a bit of consulting-biz buzzword babble was “all sounds like tosh.” My colleague was wondering what tosh meant, as to her (perhaps by no coincidence an erstwhile dreadlock wearer, though of Polish extraction) it was just the name of a reggae musician.

Well, indeed, to me, tosh also immediately calls to mind the noted reggae man and Rastafarian Peter Tosh (born Winston Hubert McIntosh). But I am aware at the same time that it refers to trash, bosh, rubbish, piffle, stuff and nonsense… basically some bit of dish-dosh that someone pulled out of their tush.

It’s such a nice, hand-flipping word – it seems like just the sort of thing some toff might say when having a bit of a tiff and wishing to brush it all off and dash back to his quaff (perhaps a Pimm’s): “What a load of tosh.” The milieu: likely early 20th century, the costume perhaps tennis whites or dinner tails, the author Wodehouse or Waugh or someone like that. Or even, perhaps, you will picture hearing it from a 1940s middle-class housewife in her row house in Wandsworth or Wapping…

Well, the 1920s through the 1940s in Britain were this word’s heyday. So now when you use it you can call on not only the attitude and the sound it presents but also on the taste of that milieu. The word in this sense first showed up in the 1890s, though, and there were other words also tosh that showed up earlier in the 1800s: “bath or footpan”, 1880s, and “valuable items (especially made of copper) retrieved from drains and sewers”, 1850s; there’s also an 18th- and 19th-century Scottish adjective tosh meaning “neat, tidy” or “agreeable, comfortable” (not necessarily plush or cushy, let alone posh, but at least with a nice touch of titivation).

The relation of these words to one another (if any or much of any) is not clear, nor is the origin of our trashy tosh. It may have some influence from bosh, a Turkish word with much the same meaning brought into English in the earlier 1800s. But of course bosh bursts with a blunt /b/, whereas tosh spits crisply off the tip of the tongue with /t/. Both are like a water balloon bursting, but the former more through overfilling and the latter through dashing on your door. And tosh also brings to mind tush, by which I mean here not the short form of tuches but the impatient interjection, rhyming with hush, that means “oh, rubbish” or “what a load of tosh”. This tush, around since the 1400s, may have influenced tosh, but we don’t know for sure.

At any rate, tosh is a nice, concise word with which to brush off prolix poppycock – the kind of twaddle turned out by those who believe that if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, you should baffle them with… well, tosh.