“How about some words that say something and nothing?”

Last week I gave myself a challenge: to discover and catalogue an hitherto unrecognised category of words. Not easy. All words say something, it’s the nothing that’s the difficult bit. So  I have been trying to compile a list of words that fit a very narrow set of criteria, and here are the results of my week’s worth of research. I have to say that it’s a very short list.


No, that’s not a word for my list, not hmm (hmmm too), that’s just you and me thinking aloud. That’s all hmm is: a lexical version of my exclamation of consideration. That’s what hmm (h’m too) means. It says everything it means and it means something.

Not harrumph nor ahem neither – let’s not hack nor hem and haw.

No, I am looking for words that have a meaning but are used without any sense of that meaning. I’ve got two (maybe three if you count the written word). There must be more.



Let’s go to the theatre. A nice chocolate-box, proscenium arch and all that orchestra stalls. On stage, upstage, somewhere in the background of a scene, actors are acting talking. It’s a low, indistinct buzz of atmospheric chatter that lends lifelike detail to the artificial, well-lit, suspended reality of the situation. Look closely. Use opera glasses if you must. Is it possible that these out-of-focus actors are using the renowned one word language of ‘rhubarb’?

Legendarily, rhubarb is what upstage actors speak. “Rhubarb”. Just that. Simple as. No harsh notes or jagged corners, just random repetition. Rhubarb, divorced from any meaning, is a word that has exactly the right phonemic sound and shape not to draw focus. Listen carefully. Is that a blending and blurring hum of drama kings and queens making ‘rhubarb, rhubarb rhubarb’ sound intelligent?

Rhubarb is such a useful word, first in my list of words that say everything and nothing, smoothly iterated, easily hidden in a crowd.

Of course, that’s not all there is to rhubarb. There’s all the meaningful rhubarb without which there would be no place in this something and nothing list. Obviously, rhubarb is a vegetable. If you thought it was a fruit you are probably thinking of tomatoes. In the US, apparently, it can mean a lively disagreement. You say tomatoes/I say tomatoes. Who are we to have a rhubarb about it?

And sometimes when nonsense is being talked in not particularly theatrical circumstances, or if good sense is spoken in a tongue that is not understood, it may be reported as rhubarb. Rhubarb, meaning nonsense, appears to have derived from the upstage prattle of actors.

“The Taffs were talking that yakky dah rhubarb.”[1]

rhubarb rhubarb

When rhubarb is used as a stand-in for reported speech two rhubarbs will do the job nicely:

“…and the prime minister’s like, ‘rhubarb rhubarb’, and I’m like ‘yeah, innit’.”

rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

On some occasions when you run out of words, or run out of the energy to keep going, or when what you have to say is so tediously predictable, or, for reasons of personal taste, you wish to replace details with words that euphemise everything and nothing, try rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.

On some occasions rhubarb rhubarb rubarb or for reasons of personal taste you wish to rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb everything and nothing, rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.

You might think that rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb is the perfect form of censorship but it’s much more of a nod and a w*nk than that: this rhubarb implies the content, and the nature of the content that it is replacing. These rhubarbs are meaningful words. Like, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, and so on and so forth, et cetera, etc, &c. Quacking gesture (talk, talk, talk).

The actors’ rhubarb on the other (non-quacking) hand has no discernible meaning. Hence its place in my short list of words that mean something and nothing.[2]



Say “cheese”. It brings your teeth together and stretches your lips to their widest. Cheese is a word of great power, one that can make a camera-ready poseur reach for the rictus.

We all know the meaning of cheese. It’s a comestible from the dairy. From Abbaye de Belloc to Zwister (according to cheese.com[3]) or, if you prefer your cheeses to leave the blander tang of Brexit in your gob, from Abbots Gold to Yorkshire Blue. That’s cheese, for you. There’s any number of cheese-related words. Whether you fancy it soft, hard, semi- or blue is your cheesy business.

Cheese and rice! Cheese it! Are you cheesed off? Hard cheese, chum…

In US slang cheese is money, and the big cheese is the boss or someone important.

Yet, when a photographer’s subject obeys the injunction and says “cheese” the word, at that moment, is empty of all meaning. It is being spoken purely for the shape of the cheesy grin that results. There is some evidence of ‘to cheese’ meaning to smile, however, that verb is unlikely to have any other derivation than that of making the shape of a word without regard to any meaning.


If you are feeling experimental, the word oats when spoken to a camera has the power to make you look sexy, apparently. Although that could depend on who is pointing the camera, I suppose. Try it.

So, there we are: cheese. A word that really does mean something and nothing. That’s the second one in my list: rhubarb for the sound it makes, cheese for its face-shaping properties; in each case the word’s meaning is irrelevant to its use. The third and – so far – final item is included for the shape that any number of words may make on a page layout.

lorem ipsum

This is pretty much the something and nothing Latin what Cicero wrote. Well, kind of. Not sure if it fits the list.Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 15.55.20

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43BCE) – according to Wikipedia so no rhubarb ­– was a wealthy ‘Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist […] His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for the writing and revision of Roman history.’

& according to generator.lorem-ipsum.info, ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, ad quo liber vulputate liberavisse, id vel putant quaeque, cetero nominavi molestiae ut sed. No tota pericula pri, ex pro laoreet petentium. Modus delicata corrumpit no eum. Ut vix tota porro volutpat, munere aliquam ornatus ea usu. At nec summo mazim reformidans. Eu doctus quaeque partiendo ius, diam constituam sea ei.’

& lorem ipsum is one of the more obvious ways that the modern world honours Cicero’s place in history, with faked and falsified Latin text used as dummy content by designers and their software. It started out, at a time when pre-digital giant Letraset bestrode the typographical landscape, as an extract from Cicero’s letters. & at that point it must have made some kind of sense to Latin scholars if no-one else. However, in order to echo the patterns of the European languages being serviced, the original Cicero was corrupted. Punctuation was introduced, non-Roman characters too. If you look at the lorem ipsum para above you’ll find a ‘z’. If you read Latin you’ll recognise it as so much nonsense.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 22.19.32

Ex vim homero ancillae. Ne mea alii unum. In est semper vivendo alienum, ea vix dictas accommodare concludaturque. Ei quem animal persecuti nam. Quo omnesque urbanitas id. Congue appellantur vix at.

Mea soleat voluptaria in, duo viderer albucius periculis at. Ut clita munere efficiantur duo, fuisset delicata liberavisse cu mea, ea est similique disputationi conclusionemque. An aeque omnium eripuit his, legere blandit abhorreant his an. Ne vix esse simul. Mei ignota iudicabit ei.

Quo in dissentiunt deterruisset. Nihil nostrum consequuntur at sea, ne nec utamur urbanitas. Duo ex dicat indoctum mediocrem, at quo adipiscing interesset neglegentur. Discere theophrastus te his. Enim vocent per ex, mundi audire erroribus an nam.

& that’s why I am not certain of lorem ipsum‘s place in my list of words that mean something and nothing. Some of the words, not lorem ipsum but some of them, have meaning – albeit in Latin – but the overall content is rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb, effectively using nonsense to dummy up nonsense.

Whatever. This is a very short list. Is there any chance you could possibly add to it?

Say “cheese”.

[1] Taff, a generalized nickname for a Welsh(man), abbreviated from Taffy, derived from a Welsh pronunciation of a the male name Dafydd (David). ‘Yakky dah’ is used in English as an all-purpose catchphrase and example of the Welsh language; derived as an approximation of Welsh iechyd dda (good health).

[2] Not to be confused with political words that promise something and mean nothing.

[3] “Find over 1750 specialty cheeses in the world’s greatest cheese resource.”