Q: I came across your site when looking up “malarkey,” a word my father used when I was growing up. He often used “bourgeois” to mean the same thing, “nonsense.” Can you explain how a word referring to the middle class could take on this sense?
A: We don’t want to shock you, but our best guess is that your father was using “bourgeois” as a euphemism for “bullshit,” a term he didn’t want to inflict on your tender ears.
A similar-sounding word, “bushwa,” has been a euphemism for “bullshit” for more than a century.
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says “bushwa” was “probably” derived from the French “bourgeois, as popularized by the radical movement, esp. in the early 20th C.”
The dictionary says the word is “now taken as a euphem. for bullshit,” in the sense that one would use “nonsense” or plain “bull.”
Random House’s earliest example of “bushwa” is from a 1906 issue of the National Police Gazette: “ ‘Bushwa,’ … a term of derision used to convey the same comment as ‘hot air,’ drifted East from the plains along with other terse expletives.”
The reference may have been to language popularized by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the “Wobblies”), formed in Chicago in 1905.
The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that “bushwa” (also spelled “bushwah”) is “apparently a euphemism for bullshit.” But it doesn’t suggest that it was derived from “bourgeois.”
However, “bourgeois” was apparently the source. This passage from the historian Dorothy Gage’s book The Day Wall Street Exploded (2009) describes members of the “Overalls Brigade” of the IWW in 1908:
“They bellowed out revolutionary songs, scorned the niceties of ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) society, and made a point of dressing in the workingman’s garb that eventually became the Wobblies’ trademark uniform.”
And in this passage another historian, Bruce Watson, discusses popular terms used by the Wobblies in the first decade of the 20th century:
“A ‘scissor-bill’ was an unenlightened worker, some ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) who still believed in ‘Pie in the Sky,’ i.e., capitalist promises of a better life ahead.” (From Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, 2006.)
Several histories of the Wobblies were published during the 1960s, and in reviewing one of them for the Journal of Southern History in 1970, George T. Morgan Jr. wrote:
“IWW rhetoric and songs fed the myth of the Wobbly as a wild and woolly warrior, a man who contemptuously scorned the conventional morality of what he characterized as ‘bushwa’ society.”
So it seems that “bushwa” was a pronunciation—perhaps a deliberately dismissive one—of “bourgeois,” a term that was hateful to early 20th-century labor activists.
Over the years, many American authors have used the term in hard-boiled fiction. A couple of citations from the OED:
“Looks to me like it’s all bushwa.” (From a novel by John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers, 1921.)
“If you’re a detective, what was all that bushwa about Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard?” (From Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, 1960.)
As for “bourgeois,” English borrowed it from the French bourgeois in the early 1600s, when the two words had the same meaning: an inhabitant of a town or borough in France.
(In French, bourg was a walled settlement or market town. The term comes from burgus, Latin for castle or fort. But the ultimate source, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is bhergh, a prehistoric root meaning high.)
Over time, the English noun “bourgeois” broke from its original ties to France and took on three primary senses that could be applied to people or things anywhere in the world:
(1) the middle class or a member of the middle class, (2) someone or something that’s conventional, unimaginative, or materialistic, and (3) in Marxist theory, a capitalist exploiter of the working class. The adjective adopted related senses.
It’s unclear from OED citations when each of these meanings developed, but the dictionary has examples for all three dating from the 1800s.
The pejorative sense of “bourgeois” used by your father apparently evolved from the Marxist meaning of the word, which Oxford defines as “a person who upholds the interests of capitalism, or who is considered to be an exploiter of the proletariat.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the “capitalist” sense of the word is from an 1850 translation of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in German in 1848:
“Bourgeois and Proletarians. Hitherto the history of society has been the history of the battles between the classes composing it.”
(The original German: “Bourgeois und Proletarier. Die Geschichte aller bisherigen Gesellschaft ist die Geschichte von Klassenkämpfen.”)
The OED also cites this passage from a work of Engels: “It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money.” (From an 1886 translation of Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1845.)
The OED’s most recent citation is from 2010: “By forcing workers to work for money, the bourgeois transformed workers into commodities.” (From Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd. ed., edited by Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy.)
It’s that “exploiter of the proletariat” element of “bourgeois,” built into the word by Marx and Engels, that inspired the “bullshit” sense of the word and the “bushwa” pronunciation.