April 5, 2014

Distinguishing the words "blabber," "babble," and "blather."

I used "blabber" and "blather" in a single post today, and proofreading, Meade wanted to correct the "blabber" to "blather." I'd written, first, that "the columnists will blather about" who should replace David Letterman, and, later, I criticized a columnist for "stumbl[ing] into blabber like 'something ineffable and increasingly impossible to describe.'"

I had to question whether I'd used "blabber" mainly to avoid repeating "blather." These words may seem so close in sound and meaning that they are interchangeable, so this is the post that delves into the "blabber"/"blather" distinction.

The oldest meaning for "blabber" — according to the unlinkable OED — refers to mouth sounds like those made by a pre-verbal baby. This meaning can be found in "Piers Plowman" (1362):
"So I blaberde on my Beodes." And here's Palsgrave in 1530: "My sonne dothe but blabber yet, he can nat speke his wordes playne." Also quite old is the meaning "To chatter, babble, talk idly or senselessly."

So there's the word "babble" in the definition of "blabber." "Babble" — which is the oldest of the 3 words under discussion here — means "To talk excessively or inappropriately; to chatter quickly, excitedly, or at length; to speak indiscreetly; to tattle." (This word is not etymologically related to Babel, as in the Tower of Babel, satisfying though that connection feels.) Like "blabber," it connects to babies trying to talk, and perhaps the connotation is a bit more about the quantity and energy of the speech than the senselessness.

So what about "blather"? This word is defined as "To talk foolishly, talk nonsense." Here I think the emphasis is on the low quality of the meaning of the speech isolated from the chattering or babyish sound of the speech. This is a much more recent word than "blabber" and "babble," arising out of dialect, with the earliest example, from 1825, from a book explaining rural dialect: "He blathers and talks, is a common phrase where much is said to little purpose. A person of this kind is..styled a blathering hash."

Rudyard Kipling used the word in the 1891 novel "The Light that Failed": "If you were only a mass of blathering vanity,..I wouldn't mind." And John Wyndham used it in the cool 1951 sci-fi "The Day of Triffids": "Gentlemanly tones which blathered about this ‘magnificent spectacle’ and ‘unique phenomenon.’" See? Gentlemanly tones would not sound like a baby who's just learning to speak.

And D. H. Lawrence used "blatherer" in his 1920 play "Touch & Go":  "If the men took it up" — "it" being a demand for a raise — "it's because they've got a set of loud-mouthed blatherers and agitators among them like Job Arthur Freer, who deserve to be hung—and hanging they'd get, if I could have the judging of them." Again, it's not babyish blabbering/babbling that's going on here. These are adult men making strenuous political arguments that the character using the word obviously thinks are very bad arguments.

Having said all this, I like my decision to use "blather" to refer to all the talk about this and that person who ought to replace Letterman and "blabber" to refer to writing the words "something ineffable and increasingly impossible to describe." The "in-... in-... im-..." is a babyishly repetitive sound with little meaning, while the endless pontificating about various Letterman replacements really is more blather than blabber.

There are some poetic motivations in word choice that go beyond the proper meaning of the word. "Babble" calls to mind not only the Tower of Babel but also the cliché (which I would avoid), the "babbling brook," so it's a word that would suggest itself to me when I'm thinking of meaningless, repetitive sound. "Blabber" reminds me of "blubber" and "flabby," and it works for me when I want to be insulting about overlarded prose. In "blather," I see "lather," so I feel like the speaker is working himself into a lather or trying to lather us up.

I've tried to make this post concise and clear and loaded with meaning. I hope you don't find it to be babble, blabber, or blather. Or chitter or chatter or chitter-chatter.

Bonus Kipling:
Mowgli looked down with a smile, and imitated perfectly the sharp chitter-chatter of Chikai, the leaping rat of the Dekkan, meaning the dholes to understand that he considered them no better than Chikai.


mccullough said...

Cool post. Here's my mnemonic: Babies blabber; biddies babble; and blokes blather.

madAsHell said...

Here's my interpretation...
blabber....spreading gossip
babble......what babies do
blather....it involves a teleprompter

jimbino said...

Here's how the descriptivist folks at Language Log would approach the matter:

They Google or N-gram the word or phrase and deem correct any word or phrase used by at least 10 Amerikans with college degrees.

That's how we got "gigabyte" pronounced with a leading hard-g, how we got "decimate" to mean "devastate," how we got "grow the economy" and lots of other verbal infelicities like Eugene Volokh's "...forbid him from acting...."

traditionalguy said...

Words from the mouths of individuals are spoken messages from the tongues of men and angels.

Much can be lost in translation of unknown languages.

Chance said...

This is a misallocation of your editing resources as you continue to leave factual errors, most notably misstating that Lena Dunham went to the Iowa writing program, uncoreected!

David said...

Blubber. "Stop your blathering blubbering."

ronalddewitt said...

You should mention the ancient Greeks calling their non-Greek speaking neighbors "barbarians" because the Greeks perceived them as going "ba-ba-ba" when they spoke.

Megaera said...

Just me, but: Blabber connotes "blab", to tell on, to reveal something careless of consequences; babble derives from Babel, the notion of many speaking mutually incomprehensible phrases, so seeming nonsense despite actual meaning; and blather, verbose and rambling discourse, apparently pointless and of little value, but not actually devoid of sense.

Owen said...

Megaera: what you said. The words have very distinct meanings (for me). Poets would also appreciate the different tonalities and associations. "Blabber" is nearly "blubber" and connotes (for me) an urgent, helpless feeling, of one confessing under pressure. "Babble" is close to "Babel" but also "baby" as in "baby-talk" or senseless strings of sounds. And "blather" points to "blither" and "bluster" and "Blatherskite," thus producing a rich somewhat Irish stew of self-important chatter.


The Godfather said...

I'm sorry you didn't include "blither", which would have called for the "Joe Biden" tag.

For "babble" you could have cited Hillary Clinton's explanation of what she accomplished during her years as Secretary of State.

John Burgess said...

You've also got "blatherskite" for a contemptible person who speaks blather.

"Skite" is most likely related to "shite" which is, well, you know...

Simon Danger said...

Only a blithering idiot would blather on and on about blabbering, no?