folderol, falderal

Aina, reading The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott, found this passage: “At the rim of the stage an elegant young man stood beside the piano, one arm laid along it while he sang. A small squirrelly fellow played for him, very flourishingly as to the notes but no folderol in his face.”

She wrote down folderol for future finding. Or, of course, for asking me.

I’m not sure when and where I first saw folderol, but it might have been MAD magazine. Perhaps in a satirical song about bureaucrats or politicians. The context made its sense clear enough: blather, bunk, mumbo jumbo, foofaraw, perhaps fiddle-faddle or taradiddles. The usual dictionary definition is in the line of ‘foolish nonsense’. It gave me an image of bloated bumf and bombast filling file folders full or unreeling from a roll. It sounds vaguely like Latin in the muffled drawl of some peruked barrister, or perhaps legislative terminology as dismissively flaunted by a Foggy Bottom functionary. The usage by Endicott extends it to ‘nonsense, tomfoolery, filler’ in nonverbal senses as well.

But it is fitting and ironic that both Aina and I saw it first in a context of singing. The word comes from musical filler, in the same vein as fa-la-la-la-la, ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, hi-diddle-diddle, and so on. So first it was literally just a thing you sang in place of meaningful words.

Interestingly, though, the next meaning it had was not the predominant current meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary gives it as ‘a gewgaw, trifle; a flimsy thing’, with citations starting from the early 1800s, sometimes spelling it with hyphens: fal-de-ral. So, given its fluttery ornamental nature, you could say that this bit of folderol is a lexical falderal. Or this bit of falderal is a lexical folderol.

Yes, it has two spellings, and the one with a’s seems to be the earlier. Amusingly, while the OED gives both forms in the head but falderal first, and the Collins English Dictionary calls folderol a variant of falderal, Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary call falderal a variant of folderol. It’s a bit reminiscent of the bureaucratic redirection loops that often come with folderol. Or falderal. Anyway, if you happen to fall into the halls wherein falderal reigns above all, you may want to take a faldstool (or anyway a folding stool); you’ll be there for a while.

7 responses to “folderol, falderal

  1. I rather think it’s the same thing as all that nonsense warbling around in the chorus of “The Happy Wanderer”. The text of the five verses (shown at the link at the end of this comment) agrees very well with my memory of singing them, but we sang the chorus as follows, with three variations of the “folderol”.

    Val-de-ri,val-de-ra, val-de-rol,
    Val-de-ra, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha
    My knapsack on my back.
    (The last line always repeats the last line of the verse just sung.)

  2. In one of my favorite dialogue bits from Cold Comfort Farm, the simmering Seth uses this word, or at least his attempt at it, in commenting on Flora’s stitching of a petticoat: ‘Aye…women’s nonsense…fussin’ over their fal-lals..’ Interestingly, in a similar vein of thought as something ‘sing-song’, Seth’s primitive growls are described by the author as having ‘an animal harmony like the natural cries of stoat or weasel’. Wonderfully, ironically funny.

  3. It was a favorite word of my mother, born in 1992 on a farm in the hills of southern Vermont, Something silly, too complicated for its insignificance, impractical, overdone was “… all that folderol”. Said she to a sister who wanted a dress with ruffles and bows all over “you don’t want all that folderol.” And the sister didn’t get it.

  4. My mom was born in 1922, of course.

  5. My mother and her sister, born in 1926 and 1917 in Nebraska, but growing up in NW Arkansas, used the word in the same sense that Virginia Clark describes. It meant the same as “frou-frou”, which was also used, though pronounced “fruh-frah”.

  6. In the Grateful Dead song “Mountains of the Moon,” Jerry Garcia sings this:

    Hi ho the Carrion Crow
    Hi Ho the Carrion Crow
    Bow and bend to me

    This verse, written by Robert Hunter, was the first thing I thought of as I saw the title of this blog entry.


    -isaac brooks

    “Let us endeavor so to live, that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry.” -Mark Twain Isaac B. Brooks 8 Marshall Road Yonkers, NY 10705

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