"Verbage" — not what it seems

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I agree with Mark that James Wood's condescending comments about Palin's use of verbage are pure de-haut-en-bushwa. On the other hand, let's not delude ourselves about this item. Palin's verbage is not simply a term for "language" or "wording" that has been happily circulating in vernacular speech since it was first attested 200 years ago, in defiance of the assaults of prescriptivists. Verbage is not colloquial English — I mean, people don't go around saying, "Hey, Sparky — watch your goddamn verbage!" It arises as an approximation of a fancy-pants word that people have seen in print: it's a lot more plausible to assume that people would misread verbiage as verbage than that they would mishear it that way, particularly since this is a re-analysis favored by analogy. The fact is that in both its form and its meaning, verbiage is a weirder word than most people — including the editors of the OED — realize.

One reason why the reanalysis of verbiage as verbage is so easy is that it isn't obvious what that i is doing there in the first place. The root verb- yields words like verbal, verbose, not verbial or verbiose, and there's no reason why the suffix -age should introduce an i (the i in foliage comes from the Latin root folium). Then too, why should the combination of verb- + -age imply prolixity? By all rights, the word should mean simply — and only — "wording," as Palin assumes it does. (After all, acreage doesn't mean "an excessive amount of land.")

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."

But whatever the derivation, my guess is that the majority of literate speakers consider the verbage pronunciation an error or an illiteracy, and that a smaller but significant percentage of them would also say that it was a mistake to use verbiage to mean simply "wording" without any implication of wordiness, even though as the OED indicates, the word has been used in that sense by reputable writers since the early 19th century. It's too bad the American Heritage didn't record that opinion or ask the members of its Usage Panel what they thought about that variant, in the interest of alerting its readers to the potential risks in using it (it isn't only the James Woods of the world who consider it an error, after all). I take some responsibility for the omission, since I was chair of the Usage Panel when the entry for this word was prepared. But it's in the nature of the lexicographical enterprise that you can't get around to everything, and  silence shouldn't always be equated with unqualified authorization.

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11 Comments »

  1. J. said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

    cf. 'foliage' -> 'folage' ?

    "Fall folage" is for sure out there. The difference is that the i in this one is supported by other derivatives (foliate, foliation, folial, etc., not to mention folio), though the root may be more opaque to many people than verb- is. And of course here there's no question of a meaning shift. Geoff

  2. Robert Coren said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

    Thank you for putting your finger on what has been bothering me about this whole sequence, namely that I didn't think (my understanding of ) "verbiage" was exactly what Palin meant to convey, quite apart from the variant.

  3. Amy Stoller said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

    Oddly enough, only yesterday I got caught up in a discussion with a cousin about the growing prevalence of the "folage" pronunciation of "foliage" in the US – based on my entirely unscientific "survey" of home-and-garden shows on cable television. (My cousin had never heard this pronunciation.) I thought people were simplifying the pronunciation to chime with "marriage" and "carriage" – both of which (I think) had a middle syllable once upon a time. (Anyone who thinks I don't know what I'm talking about is almost certainly right. But in that case, what is the explanation for "folage"?)

    That's not to mention "foilage," which outnumbers folage in hit counts. Okay, this is often a typo, but sometimes you find "foilage" numerous times on the same page. Geoff

  4. Rick S said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 1:29 am

    I'm pretty sure I learned "verbiage" in high school English, without the "excessive" connotation, and with "verbage" as its proper pronunciation per my English teacher. I remember because, having grown up in the era of phonics, the excision of the "i" has always annoyed me. So Gov. Palin's use exactly matches mine—except that from now on I intend to pronounce it the way I always thought it should have been.

  5. Rod Whiteley said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 4:59 am

    I looked up "verbiage" and found: "a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content" This is what I always thought it meant — a comment on the content as well as on the style — so it's odd that you don't mention that.

    [(myl) It's always good to see someone using a dictionary. But it would be even better to see commenters reading the posts that they comment on. Geoff didn't just "mention" the implication of excessive wordiness and lack of content, he discussed it extensively, and used some new (to me and to the OED) information about the word's Germanic etymology (related to "warble" rather than "verbal") to explain it. That whooshing sound was the point of the post whizzing over your head...]

    It's odd, too, that your colleague here did not simply look up "derivative" and "quant" to find out what they mean before writing his own profusion of words.

    [(myl) If you're referring to Arnold Zwicky's recent post, I think you might, once more, need to actually read the post before commenting on it. Arnold is well aware of what "derivative" and "quant" mean, in several of their senses. His point was that people sometimes get confused when they assume that a word must have the same meaning in all contexts; and he gave a specific example involving derivatives. Your point, on the other hand, is entirely unclear to me, though I sense a certain negative attitude. Let me remind you of our famous guarantee -- double your money back in case of less than full satisfaction -- and urge you to take advantage of it.]

  6. Stephen Collier said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 6:52 am

    "Fall folage" is more than just out there; currently it predominates by almost 3:1 ver "fall foliage". Googlefight is a useful website for such oppositions: see http://www.googlefight.com/index.php?lang=en_GB&word1=fall+folage&word2=fall+foliage

  7. Bianca Steele said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    Rick S’s observation seems plausible to me. Whether or not his high school teacher was correct, it also seems plausible to me, moreover, that there is a subset of high school teachers who produce an unusually large number of pedants with wrong beliefs (for example, that “his point was that people sometimes get confused” uses the passive, because it uses the verb “to be”) and an extremely strong sense of certainty. Such pedants seem to comprise an unusually large number of people with blogs, so it’s good to have a site like Language Log, where experts can correct the popular errors of those who think their beliefs are anything but “popular.”

    Incidentally, a Google search for “add some verbiage” produces a large number of hits, while a Google Books search produces one (to EBay’s Secrets Revealed). Searching on “ ‘his verbiage’ -mmcain -palin ” produces even more, including a Miami Herald review of an Updike novel, and several scholarly uses, of which many do not obviously refer to prose that’s in any way faulty.

  8. Bryn LaFollette said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    Although I'm not sure I was consciously aware of having the distinction before reading this, it occurs to me now that I have for some time had both of these terms existing in my personal lexicon as semantically distinct items. Verbage for me only means "wording", while verbiage only means "excessive wordiness". I don't know how I acquired this distinction, but I definitely perceive these as two seperate terms. I am certainly taken aback by James Wood's claim to the non-existence of "verbage", especially when Ms. Palin (who I am not wont to defend) clearly intended exactly the meaning I associate with "verbage", and not "verbiage" which he claims would have been correct. I guess Mr. Wood doesn't maintain this same distinction.

  9. emmaeck said,

    October 21, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

    Wow, I am not alone – I was going to post much the same thing Bryn LaFollette posted. I was genuinely under the impression "verbage" and "verbiage" were two separate words with two separate meanings, and to me they have the same definitions Bryn gives. I am stunned to learn "verbage" is not in really in the standard lexicon (yet). My WAG is that perhaps "verbage" meaning "wording" is business-speak? I could swear I've heard it often at work though of course such impressions are often false…

  10. Breffni said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 10:20 am

    Mark:

    Geoff didn't just "mention" the implication of excessive wordiness and lack of content, he discussed it extensively

    He discussed the wordiness component, but where in the post does the "lack of content" component get a mention? It doesn't, as far as I can see. That was Rod Whiteley's point, if I'm reading it correctly.

    GN: As the "usually" in the definition Whitely cites indicates, fatuity or nonsensicality is a frequent but not invariable implication of describing something as verbiage. The OED makes this point when it defines the word as "Wording of a superabundant or superfluous character, abundance of words without necessity or without much meaning; excessive wordiness." For example, there's no implication of meaninglessness when someone writes "a small staff, usually untutored in the intricacies of the reams of verbiage published in the Federal Register and unable to puzzle out the applicable requirements, is less likely to know how properly and lawfully to handle hazardous materials."

  11. Breffni said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 2:21 am

    Geoff: on the meaning of verbiage, fair enough, though my own intuition accords with Rod Whiteley's ("verbiage" to me is what to some others would be "mere verbiage"). But my point remains: Rod Whiteley didn't fail to read your post, but Mark seems to have misread his comment on it.

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