Q: I characterized a theory in an academic paper as “hogwash.” A well-read colleague thought “claptrap” might have been better. I can’t figure out a meaningful distinction. I suspect this would not be interesting to your readers, but just in case …
A: Yes, there isn’t much of a distinction between “hogwash” and “claptrap” these days, but we don’t think a discussion about their use in academia would be academic to our readers.
Although both “hogwash” and “claptrap” mean nonsense, “claptrap” may also suggest pretentiousness and insincerity to those aware of its etymology, while “hogwash” may still have a whiff of the barnyard for some.
When “hogwash,” the older of the two terms, showed up in the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “kitchen refuse and scraps (esp. in liquid form) used as food for pigs.”
The earliest OED example is from Jacob’s Well, an anonymous Middle English sermon cycle, written around 1450, in which the human soul is likened to a foul well in need of cleansing. Here a humble nun is humiliated by other nuns in her convent:
“Þey in þe kechyn, for iape, pouryd on here hefd hoggyswasch” (“For a joke, they had poured hogwash on her in the kitchen”).
In the early 1600s, Oxford says, “hogwash” took on the sense of a “liquid for drinking that is of very poor quality, as cheap beer, wine, etc.”
The dictionary cites A New Description of Ireland (1610), by the English writer and soldier Barnabe Rich: “The very remembrance of that Hogges wash which they vse to sell for ij.d. the Wine quart, is able to distemper any mans braines.”
In the late 1800s, the word took on the modern meaning of “nonsense; esp. worthless, ridiculous, or nonsensical ideas, discourse, or writing.” The first OED example is from an article by Mark Twain in the June 1870 issue of Galaxy Magazine, a short-lived American monthly:
“I will remark, in the way of general information, that in California, that land of felicitous nomenclature, the literary name of this sort of stuff is ‘hogwash.’ ” (The “stuff” here is “sham sentimentality” in literature.)
However, the term “hogwash” hasn’t entirely escaped its porcine origins, especially for punning headline writers, as you can see from these examples:
“Swine intervention: California animal lovers call pig rescue a load of hogwash” (The Guardian, June 16, 2017), and “No hogwash: Pigs shut down Ky. highway after semi overturns” (the Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, IA, Aug. 9, 2017).
As for “claptrap,” it originated in the early 1700s as theatrical jargon for a “trick or device to catch applause; an expression designed to elicit applause,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Universal Etymological English Dictionary (Vol. 2, 1727), by Nathan Bailey:
“A CLAP Trap: A name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them go off with; as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap by way of applause from the spectators at a play.”
By the early 1800s, “claptrap” was being used to mean catchy language or cheap, showy sentiment, as in this OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, from Byron’s satirical poem Don Juan (Canto II, 1819): “I hate all mystery, and that air / Of clap-trap, which your recent poets prize.”
And by the late 1800s, the word had acquired its modern meaning of nonsense, as in this Oxford example from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1880 novel Endymion: “He disdained all cant and clap-trap.”
You’re right that most people would see no meaningful distinction between “hogwash” and “claptrap.” But a sensitive academic with the OED handy might be ticked off more by one than the other, though we can’t imagine which term would be more upsetting.