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In the Oct. 13 New Yorker, James Wood commented at length on Sarah Palin's pronunciation of verbiage in her interview with Sean Hannity ("Verbage: The Republican War on Words"), closing with this paragraph:

Hearing her being interviewed by Sean Hannity, on Fox News, almost made one wish for a Republican victory in November, so that her bizarre locutions might be available a bit longer to delve into. At times, even Hannity looked taken aback; his eyes, slightly too close to each other, like the headlamps on an Army jeep, went blank, as if registering the abyss we are teetering above. Or perhaps he just couldn’t follow. The most revealing moment happened earlier, when she was asked about Obama’s attack on McCain’s claim that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. “Well,” Palin said, “it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use, because the fundamentals, as he was having to explain afterwards, he means our workforce, he means the ingenuity of the American people. And of course that is strong, and that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack there, again, based on verbage that John McCain used.” This is certainly doing rather than mere talking, and what is being done is the coinage of “verbage.” It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language.

As a parody of a highbrow sneer, this is brilliant work.

We all know that Wood, who recently praised a novel's "contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability", and suggested that "one can accept Barthes's stylistic proviso without accepting his epistemological caveat", doesn't really believe that Gov. Palin's (admittedly awkward) extempore explanation was so difficult to understand that Hannity "just couldn't follow".

Furthermore, those of us with access to web search know that "verbage", far from being a new coinage, has been a staple gripe of peevologists for years, and that even the end-rhyme with "garbage" is an old joke, recorded for several decades  in the jargon dictionary's entry "A deliberate misspelling and mispronunciation of verbiage that assimilates it to the word ‘garbage'".

And we also know that the joke is a rather weak one, since the American Heritage Dictionary gives two pronunciations for verbiage (with no usage note), of which the second is the one that Gov. Palin used. (Merriam-Webster also offers her pronunciation as a second option, again without doing their readers the courtesy of pointing out that this pronunciation may lead Eton-educated literary critics to make fun of you.)

And in the end, those of us with access to the Oxford English Dictionary (and surely the New Yorker offers this service to its writers?) can learn that the earliest attested instance of the variant spelling "verbage" was 221 years ago:

1787 POLWHELE Engl. Orator III. 770 As the flippant Phrase Glides from his hollow Tongue, tho' oft debas'd By low commercial Verbage.

So, by simple Gricean reasoning, we're forced to the conclusion that Wood has crafted a merciless parody of a smug, careless, ignorant snob. Because, of course, we can reject out of hand the hypothesis that he is one.

[Update: Putting irony aside, let me try to clarify what's going on here. I don't agree with many of Sarah Palin's political views, to the extent that she has any beyond expediency. But I think it's a catastrophic and unnecessary mistake to throw her into the linguistic briar-patch as a representative of those who have a provincial accent, sometimes use stigmatized idioms or non-standard pronunciations, and don't speak in well-polished paragraphs.

That's what Jacob Weisberg did with the whole Bushisms industry, and look how well that worked. If you set up a political choice between the people who talk like Sarah Palin and the people who talk like James Wood, guess who wins?

But I also believe that it's morally wrong to try to win an argument by making fun of non-standard speech and lack of formal linguistic polish. As Colin Powell said about another irrelevant argument, "I understand what politics is all about. I know how you can go after one another, and that’s good. But I think this goes too far." ]


  1. Randy said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    ' the coinage of “verbage.”'

    Is he sure he didn't mean coiniage?

  2. John O'Toole said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 10:22 am

    And would that be a Woodian or Wooden critique of usage here?

  3. mgh said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    on the topic of highbrow sneer in the New Yorker, this post at another blog has a worth-reading comment on the magazine's "relentless mispunctuation" of idiomatic like, that places it aside the sentence ("It was, like, a total disaster") instead of within it ("It was like a total disaster").

  4. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    I have no problem with the New Yorker's punctuation of "like." I would, however, replace "that" with "which" in "that places it aside the sentence," to signify that the clause is nonrestrictive.

  5. language hat said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    the magazine's "relentless mispunctuation" of idiomatic like, that places it aside the sentence ("It was, like, a total disaster") instead of within it ("It was like a total disaster").

    Nonsense. To write idiomatic like as you prefer is to confuse it with the traditional usage: "It was like a total disaster" means, unambiguously, ""It was comparable to a total disaster." To render the colloquial sense, commas have to be used; whether one or two is a matter for a style guide to resolve, and the New Yorker chooses two, which is fine (and the way I write it myself). There are many things worth complaining about in the new New Yorker, but this isn't one of them.

    On topic, I completely agree with Mark's point about trying to "win an argument by making fun of non-standard speech and lack of formal linguistic polish," and I hope people pay attention and act accordingly.

  6. liamascorcaigh said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    Brilliant post, Mark, but your addendum is pure, bare-faced (forgive the paradox) ass-protection. It is not an "update" bcos it adds nothing whatever to the superb analysis in the body of the post, indeed it has nothing at all to do with the subject. It is a self-abasing exculpation of the intellectual temerity which led you to defend a Republican rube against Democratic East Coast elitist disdain. Thou hast sinned most grievously. Repent. Repent. So scream the e-mails. And so you repented. My brain, you confess, hath strayed but my heart still walketh in the Path of Lefteousness. Send ye not my career down the water closet of Everlasting Perdition. Make ye not of me a social pariah. Shun ye me not at Starbucks and the lobby of the Met. Behold, I contemn the Palin Drone even as much as the Wood Man whom I have just eviscerated for doing likewise. Yea, she puteth the rage into Anchorage, the yuk into Yukon. The Wood Man is my Grasshopper. I sought merely to hone his skills the better to destroy the Jezebel of Juneau, consort of Todd, the Gnome of Nome. Forgive me. Behold. I can see even an Obama banner from my attic window.

    Way to go, Mark. Those shreds that are now hanging off you are what remains of your dignity.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    llamascorcaigh: Repent. Repent. So scream the e-mails.

    In fact I haven't yet gotten any emails on the subject, pro or con. And having been an opponent of the Vietnam war while serving there in the U.S. Army, and a supporter of the 2003 Iraq war as a faculty member at Penn, I'm used to being among people who disagree with me.

    But as a blogger, I find that irony is often misinterpreted, and so my update was intended to make it clear that my goal was not to defend Sarah Palin's politics, but to object to James Wood's linguistics. Given your response, however, I've modified what I wrote, so as to eliminate all of the content behind my assertion of lack of support for Gov. Palin.

  8. Bobbie said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

    Maybe you should hide behind the foilage untili the election is over.

  9. TootsNYC said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    But I also believe that it's also morally wrong to try to win an argument by making fun of non-standard speech and lack of formal linguistic polish.


  10. James Kabala said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    Language hat: Maybe this is too radical even for this blog, but I'm not sure that the much-derided "colloquial usage" of "like" really exists outside parody. When people say, "It was like a big disaster," don't they generally mean, "It resembled a big disaster but did not quite attain that status?" I don't know if it's really used that often as a meaningless time-filler like "uh" or "you know," despite the widespread perception. Maybe I just need to move to California.

  11. Maria said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    @James Kabala: I live in New York City, and I can assure you there's no need to go to California to hear phrases like "It was, like, a total disaster". And it's not just blonde teenagers who use that construction. I'm, like, totally shocked that you would think it's not a real phenomenon.

  12. James Kabala said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    Maria: Maybe I didn't make myself clear. In fact, I think we actually agree. My point was not that people don't say "like" (they clearly do), but thatI think the like is often genuinely being used as a modifer, not a space filler.

    Take a thought such as the following. (I will use the conventional commas even though I share mgh's skepticism of their correctness.) "Bill is much taller than his girlfriend. He's, like, six feet five and she's, like, five feet two." I view the likes there as lending a deliberate note of imprecision to the statement. (The speaker doesn't know their EXACT heights.)

    In "It was, like, a total disaster," I view the modifier as adding a note of self-deprecation, e.g., "That was a really lame party we went to last night. It was, like, a total disaster." The speaker knows it was not a real disaster and that it would be overreacting to genuinely treat it as such. No one says, "I got mugged last night. It was, like, a total disaster."

    Maybe I'm just giving people too much credit. We agree that it is a common phrase, but I few it as often having meaning, whereas you (if I interpret you correctly, and if not you, then the majority of people), view it as usually meaningless.

  13. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    Mr. Kabala,

    Go hang out at a mall, or wherever teenagers, like, hang out in your area, and listen. I think you'll change your tune. Personally, I'm, like, having a hard time curbing that annoying habit in my 9-year-old.

    My mother, in the low-level college English composition classes she, like, teaches, warns her students at the beginning of every semester that the word "like" does not mean, like, "said," and that essays turned in with that substitution will be, like, marked down accordingly. And, with every paper, some students get marked down accordingly. And then they're all like, "She grades too tuff!"

  14. James Kabala said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

    "Like" in place of "said" is a separate issue, in my opinion. (Whatever happened to "goes," the favorite strange "said" substitute of my own youth?) My condolences to your wife for actually seeing it in print. I've seen some doozies in student papers in my time, but never that one, although I have heard students use it orally many times.

  15. William F Dowling said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    Mark: Lighten up. 'Coinage of "verbage"' is a joke. It doesn't matter that Wood didn't look it up in the OED. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Palin sounds like a bloomin idiot. I'm sick of national leaders who wear their ignorance on their sleeves, and I guess Wood is too.

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:59 pm


    Quite right – my daughter here in Wales uses, like, like, continually.
    She is, however, a blonde teenager.

  17. Sili said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    doesn't really believe that Gov. Palin's (admittedly awkward) extempore explanation was so difficult to understand that Hannity "just couldn't follow".

    Funny. I took that to be an additional snub at Hannity's intelligence rather than gov. Palin's lucidity.

    Is "verbiage" even a good word to use here? To me it means more of a 'barrage of words – possibly empty' rather than just 'choice of words/wording' which would seem to fit the governor's desired meaning.

    You supported the invasion? Interesting.

  18. mollymooly said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

    "the earliest attested instance of the variant spelling "verbage" was 221 years ago"
    In the interest of full information, let me point out that the OED citation occurs not in the entry for "verbiage", which does not list any variant spelling. It is in the separate entry for "verbage" ("variant of VERBIAGE. rare-1."), where
    the "rare-1" tag means "only one … instance of the use of the word in context is known to us"
    On the other other hand, the entry hasn't been revised since 1928 at the latest, so there are probably many more 19th century instances now known, as well as countless later ones.

  19. mgh said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    re: usage of "like": I should have thought twice before posting the comment here. It seemed close enough to on-topic, to me, to interest the author of the post and I failed to consider that it might lead to "hijacking" of the comments thread. I'd encourage those interested to read the original post I linked to (dislcaimer: I have no connection to that blog or its authors) and, perhaps, continue the discussion there (or in a more relevant venue here, if one is provided). Sorry for starting this.

  20. Mapuser said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    "Verbage" is almost a snowclone. In my former industry there was a LOT of writing for large proposals and the engineers (of course) used that term as a synonym for "text". My guess is that someone had heard of "verbiage" and mistook it as "verbage". The point that verbiage means "excessive words" only makes for some sort of irony because the proposals were usually excessive on several fronts.

  21. dr pepper said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

    Huh. You learn something new every day. Before this post, whenever i saw "verbiage", i assumed it was a mispelling of "verbage".

  22. Mark Liberman said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    Those who are concerned with the nature of approximative like may be interested in reading about its role in a case of linguistic transubstantiation associated with the previous presidential election.

  23. James Kabala said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

    Yes, I did sort of join in a hijacking. My apologies.

    Since we've gone this far, however, I might as well note that the original post seems to support both sides in this discussion to some extent.

    The Robertson statement and the "some but perhaps not all the characteristics" interpretation is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind, but I concede that no such spin can be put on a horror like (no pun intended) "her and her, like, five buddies did, like, paint their hair a really fake-looking, like, purple color." The one before "five buddies" is particularly heinous. (The one before "purple" can perhaps be fitted with my theory, however.)

  24. Rubrick said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

    This post was so much more interesting before I went back and noticed we were talking about James Wood, not James Woods.

  25. Nathan Myers said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

    David E: Should we conclude that your daughter is, in fact, a teenage blonde, or even a blond teen? I had always thought of "blonde" as a noun, with "blond" the corresponding adjective. (Mine will be, too, too soon.) To further hijack the thread, I have lately encountered "teener" among European expatriates, which (now that I look it up) the OED dates to 1894 Virginia, long predating "teenager". Going further afield, "predating" seems appropriate in this context. OK, I'm done.

  26. James Kabala said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    I learned "blond" was for men and "blonde" was for women, although you can get away with "blonde" for men (a rare case of the female term's being used as the generic). I believe this is derived from the French.

  27. language hat said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 9:05 am

    I'm not sure that the much-derided "colloquial usage" of "like" really exists outside parody. When people say, "It was like a big disaster," don't they generally mean, "It resembled a big disaster but did not quite attain that status?"

    No, they don't, and your assumption that they do is not "giving people too much credit" but misunderstanding how language works. You say your suggestion represents it as "having meaning, whereas [others] view it as usually meaningless," but this is not the case at all. There are many kinds of meaning, and the colloquial like under discussion is parallel to the particles of languages like Greek or Russian, affecting the tone of what is being said rather than adding a new packet of information. Would you say that the added stress and high pitch of "want" in a shouted "I don't want to!" doesn't have meaning?

  28. G. Selig said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    The core of Wood's piece is Palin's Orwellian claim that "it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use," itself a self-referential nugget on the [de]meaning of verbage.

  29. Anatoly Vorobey said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

    Language Hat,

    I think the problem here is that mgh used a misleading example to introduce the complaint directed at the New Yorker's use of punctuation. The real issue (elaborated at's blog) is the use of "like" in the pseudo-quoting sense, e.g. I was like, 'Come here and say that to my face!', not the interjectional "like" in It was, like, a total disaster. Now the New Yorker's decision to spell phrases like the former example I was, like, 'Come here and say that to my face!' is indeed (I would agree with the blog) regrettable and confusing, in no small degree precisely because it makes the reader think of the other meaning of "like", the interjectional one (another reason it's confusing is that there's normally no pause between "was" and "like" in this use of "like" in speech).

  30. Word Porn » Chthonic said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    […] have a lisp, but I do have to think carefully before trying to pronounce some new specimens of verbage like this. Otherwise there’s going to be some saliva where it shouldn’t be. Just like good […]

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