There are only so many words you can use in your daily speech that, inevitably, many words fall into obscurity and unwarranted neglect. It is a shame and part of my mission is to rescue some of the more colourful words and phrases in our wonderful language from their unwarranted obscurity.
One such is the noun blatherskite which, when it is used, is generally used pejoratively to describe someone who talks a load of nonsense. We have all met a number of them in our lives. But blatherskite can also be used to describe the nonsense that they are spouting so you would expect a blatherskite to be talking a load of blatherskite. There are variants around – bletherskate, bletherskite and bladderskate – and the Oxford English Dictionary shows a marked preference for bletherskate. We can trace the earliest usage to bletherskyte and blatherskite seems to be more of a North American variant.
It crops up in the lyrics of a Scottish ballad called Maggie Lauder, attributed to Francis Sempill and dating to around 1643. In the first verse, the bonnie wee lassie that is Maggie when confronted by a bold piper “right dauntingly she answered him/ jog on your gate ye blether skyte.” The song was popular, crossing the pond to become part of the repertoire of the Yankee soldiers fighting in the War of Independence. From there it became part of colloquial speech rather than in written English. The consequence of this is twofold; there are few examples to be found in literature and when it is transcribed, dialects and speech characteristics can change its spelling.
The word was used as a description of nonsense in an editorial in The Nation dating from 1900; “Instead of inviting a pro-slavery man or a doughface to dinner, and listening to his blatherskite apologies for his own position, he held him up to the scorn of gods and men.” It was used to describe the purveyor of nonsense by John Dos Passos in his 1930 novel 42nd Parallel; “Bryan’s a big bellowing blatherskite but even he represents something.” And the New Republic in 1943 reported that “Memphis can run its own affairs and no blatherskite or demagogue of the North or South should be permitted to interfere with the friendly relations between the races that now exist in Memphis.”
Note the variant spellings but each of the quotations uses the word to denote a high degree of scorn and disdain. Perhaps it is not surprising that it often appears in a political context. To logophiles, it also has a very pleasing dactylic metre, making it all the better to criticise an opponent with a mellifluous word.
As for origins it is clearly a compound word, both elements of which appear to have their roots in Old Norse. Blathra meant to talk nonsense and from that blether and blather were introduced into Scottish dialect. They both meant talking nonsense or claptrap. Blither and from that the once popular English epithet blithering come from the same source.
The second part of the compound is more problematic. A skate or skite in Scots dialect was used to describe someone who is held in contempt, mainly because of their pomposity, and owes its origin to an Old Norse for excrement.
Any more of this and I will be accused of being a blatherskite.