VERBIAGE.

A recent post by Geoff Nunberg at the Log discusses the dudgeon people get into over verbal blunders by politicians (and inevitably the comment thread descends rapidly into tedious political bickering); however, he links to this fascinating post from 2008 (which I apparently missed at the time) in which he provides a new etymology for verbiage: apparently it has nothing to do with the other verb- words (from Latin verbum)!

As it happens, though, the word almost certainly doesn’t come originally from verb- + -age, as the OED says it does. According to Alain Rey’s Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française, the word verbiage first appeared in French in 1674. It was derived from the the Middle French verb verbier or verboier, which he glosses as “gazouiller” (“chirp, warble”) as applied to birds, and which he connects to a 13th-century Picardian verbler, “warble, speak in singsong” this in turn derived from Frankish *werbilon, “whirl, swirl” (cf German Wirbel “whirl”). “Since the 17th century,” Rey writes, “the derived form verbiage has been connected by popular etymology to verbe and for its meaning to verbeux [ = 'verbose, wordy'].” Since the English verbiage isn’t attested until 1721 (and then, as it happens, in Prior’s poem about Locke and Montaigne), it seems quite likely that it was borrowed from the French — this would explain both its idiosyncratic form and its unaccountably restricted original sense. Both morphological and semantic analogy, then, would favor a popular reanalysis of the form of the word as verbage and of its meaning as “wording.”

I did not know that, and I’m glad to learn it.

Comments

  1. Alain Rey’s Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française …
    It’s an engaging, erudite, three-volume work. Good to see it referred to. I go to it when TLFI and specialised early-French dictionaries leave me unsatisfied.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I agree with Noetica. It is not along the lines of a traditional dictionary like the TLFI, which is very informative but also very concise, it has short essays like the one quoted. But it is in three large volumes – more suited to a library than to one’s study.

  3. So “verbiage” originally meant “Twitter”. How apposite.

  4. Ah, Marie-Lucie. Alain Rey’s Dictionnaire culturel en langue française (twice as big, at 9200 pages) is the one for libraries – or for the study. The less expansive three-volume one is for the bedside bookshelf.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    Quel pavé!

  6. I hadn’t been familiar with the Dictionnaire Historique, but now (of course) I wish I had a copy.

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