This word, originally bequeathed to us from Scotland, has become a great American tradition.
It’s not that the word itself is used so often, especially not lately, although it still shows up from time to time: a search of the New York Times archives finds the most recent instances of it in their newspaper date to November 2016, May 1994, October, 1983, September 1981, then 1971, 1967, 1965, 1967, 1956, and then a fair few back through the 1950s. But it was popular at the very birth of the United States as an independent country; the Scottish song “Maggie Lauder” was much sung in the American camps during the Revolutionary War, and the word blatherskite is used in the first verse. And since then, there has always been some blatherskite to be found if you are looking.
What is blatherskite? It’s what a blatherskite says. Who is a blatherskite? Someone who says blatherskite.
If this seems as circular as a little dust devil or trash tornado whirling in an empty lot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, you’ve got the general gist. Blather should be clear enough; it’s the verbal lather you needlessly froth the air with when you’re blathering on – or blithering, which is about the same thing (and comes from the same source). And skite? It may or may not be related to the skate in cheapskate (but less likely to the skates one uses on ice), but it is likely from the verb skite meaning ‘shoot, dart, slip quickly’. A skite is also a contemptible person, but it’s not impossible that this comes from blatherskite; in the antipodes, skite can mean ‘brag, boast’, and this is likely shortened from blatherskite (one of the few occasions when blatherskite can be shortened). And then there’s a word common in Scotland (and Ireland) that is almost the same as skite, just swapping an h for the k… very much in the same ballpark for this sense.
So a blatherskite is a word-salad-shooter, one might say, and blatherskite is the word salad so shot by the shooter. To the unfortunate ear they are one and the same, an obnoxious source and an obnoxious output. Not autonomy but metonymy. The excess of words and insufficiency of sense leads to a reduction, a telescoping of hose and water to a single point of reference. Well, what the heck. You want to avoid them both.
Would you like to see an example of blatherskite in the wild? I think a letter from one Warren E. Cox published in The New York Times on January 24, 1954, will serve well:
Of all the blatherskite I have ever read in the public press your article “Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect” (Jan. 3), by Aline B. Louchheim, takes the cake. The religious cult of the gruesome, the repulsive, the inane and the degenerate, called “Modern Art,” preached in such temples as the Modern Art Museum, and cried to the four winds by such frantic priestesses has, over the past thirty years, become boresome to all save those whirling dervishes who are obsessed with their own nastiness. The fanatics of this cult have made their own purgatory on this earth and one can wish them no worse hell than that of their own creation.
There you have it: that completes the circle: blatherskite by a blatherskite inveighing against blatherskite. Like a kite held aloft by the hot wind of blathers emitted by… none other than the person strapped to it… who is also holding the string. A hell of their own creation.
Surely this is a word for the times. I’ll look for it in print.
The excerpt from Warren E. Cox’s letter to NYT is a sheer gem!
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