Garbler of spices

« previous post | next post »

A couple of days ago, we had occasion to come to grips with the word "garble":  "Please do not feel confused" (8/19/22).  This led Kent McKeever to write as follows:

Your recent use of "garble" has prompted me to pass on something I recently stumbled on.  I have been poking at the digital files of the Newspapers of Eighteenth Century English newspapers and ran across a reference to the London city government position of "Garbler of Spices."  From the context, it seems to be an inspector, perhaps processor, of spice imports.  Totally new to me.

Totally new to me too.

How did we get from eighteenth-century "garbler" meaning "inspector / sorter" to our current usage of "garbled" to indicate that something is "difficult to understand because it has been distorted; scrambled" (Wiktionary)?  It turns out that "garble" comes from Middle English garbelen, which is from Anglo-Norman garbeler ("to sift"), from Medieval Latin garbellare (or a similar Italian word), from Arabic غَرْبَلَ‎ (ḡarbala, to sift).  Thus we have:


garble (third-person singular simple present garbles, present participle garbling, simple past and past participle garbled)

    1. To pick out such parts (of a text) as may serve a purpose; to mutilate; to pervert
    • to garble a quotation
      to garble an account
    • To make false by mutilation or addition [from 17th c.]
      The editor garbled the story.
    • (obsolete) To sift or bolt, to separate the fine or valuable parts of from the coarse and useless parts, or from dross or dirt [14th–19th c.]
      to garble spices


The last definition is the obsolete "garble spices", historically attested in The City of London (Garbling of Spices and Admission of Brokers) Act 1707.  This was an act of the Parliament of Great Britain that reformed the office of "garbler" and regulated brokers in the City of London.

The provisions of the act include:

    • Repealing the Spices Act 1603 and discharging any suits and penalties stemming from it.
    • Allowing the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London to appoint and employ an official 'garbler' who would 'garble' (remove impurities from) spices, drugs or other goods at a set salary, with the profits from the job being reserved for the City of London.
    • Allowing the Chamberlain of London to charge 40 shillings to brokers for entry into the city and another 40 shillings on the 29 September annually after the end of the first session of Parliament. The money raised would in the first instance be given to William Stewart, who had held the office of garbler since 1686, to compensate for loss of earnings under the new system. After paying Stewart, the remaining revenues could then be 'enjoyed' by the Mayor and citizens of the City of London.
    • Making it a finable offence to act as a broker within the City of London without being admitted as such, punishable with a fine of £25.


To take us back to the time in question, I cannot resist quoting the whole of this charming "The Oath of the Servants, or Work-men of the Garbler of Spices, Wares, and Merchandizes within the City of London":

You shall swear, that you shall truly, and faithfully serve your Master the Garbler of Spices, Drugs, and other Merchandizes within the City of London, and truly, and justly shall you deal with all persons whose Spices, Drugs, Wares, or other Merchandizes, you Garble, or cleanse, without stealing, imbezelling, or unlawfully, or unhonestly conveying away any part thereof, or otherwise mis-behaving your self.

II. You shall not consent, or agree to the stealing, imbezelling, or unlawful, or unhonest conveying away of any such Drugs, Spices, Wares, or Merchandizes: And if you shall know of any that shall so do, you shall with as much speed, as you conveniently may, admo∣nish your Master of it.

III. You shall truly, faithfully, and indifferently, without respect of any person, or any cause whatsoever, Garble, and cleanse such Spices, Drugs, Wares, and Merchandizes, you shall take in hand, or be appointed to Garble, or Cleanse; And as much as shall in you lie, you shall procure your fellows, and other work-men to do the like.

IV. You shall neither buy nor sell any Garble dust, light Pepper, or other unlawful thing which shall be taken out of any Spices, Drugs; Wares, or other Merchandizes, so long as you shall continue in service, or work with your Master that now is, or with any other who shall hereafter use, or occupy the Office of Garbler; neither shall you cause or procure any other to buy any part thereof: And if you shall know any person that shall buy, sell, put to sale, or con∣vey out of the City, or Liberties thereof, any Spices, Drugs, Wares, or Merchandizes Ungarb∣led, which ought to be Garbled: Or which shall buy, or sell any Garble dust, powder, light Pepper, or any other thing within the said City, or Liberties thereof, you shall with as much speed, as conveniently you may, inform your Master thereof.

V. You shall not at any time hereafter, so much as in you shall lie, suffer to be delivered, or consent to the delivery of any Spices, Drugs, or other Merchandizes which shall be Gar∣bled, before the same shall be sealed with the usual Seal of the Garbler accustomed for the same.

VI. You shall know no person to mix any Garble dust, light Pepper, or powder with clean Spices, Drugs, or Merchandizes, but you shall with convenient speed inform your Master thereof.

VII. You shall not enter into any work, or labour, touching the Office of your Master the Garbler, until your said Master, or in his absence his chief Clerk, or chief Servant by him ap∣pointed, or to be appointed in that behalf, shall have knowledge thereof, and give order touch∣ing the same: And all other things appertaining to the due execution of the Office of Garbler, to be performed by you as a Servant, or Work-man, you shall truly, honestly, dutifully, and faithfully perform, and execute without partiality, or favour, malice, or evil will to any party. So God you help.

This is from:

The merchants map of commerce wherein the universal manner and matter relating to trade and merchandize are fully treated of, the standard and current coins of most princes and republicks observ'd, the real and imaginary coins of accounts and exchanges express'd, the natural products and artificial commodities and manufactures for transportation declar'd, the weights and measures of all eminent cities and towns of traffick in the universe, collected one into another, and all reduc'd to the meridian of commerce practis'd in the famous city of London

Roberts, Lewes, 1596-1640., Mun, Thomas, 1571-1641., Marius, John.

CAAP. X. Of Exchanges in general, used by Merchants in this MAP of COMMERCE.

On pp. 40-44 of this text, there is an exceedingly detailed description of what "garbling" is and what "garblers" do.

Focussing our sights deeper into the etymology of "garble", we find:

[Middle English garbelen, to inspect and remove refuse from spices, from Anglo-Norman garbeler, to sift, and from Medieval Latin garbellāre, both from Arabic ġarbala, to select, from ġirbāl, sieve, from Late Latin crībellum, diminutive of Latin crībrum; see krei- in Indo-European roots.]

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition

garble (v.)


early 15c., "to inspect and remove the dirt and dross from (spices)," from Anglo-French garbeler "to sift" (late 14c.) and directly from Medieval Latin, Catalan, and Italian garbellare, from Arabic gharbal "to sift," related to kirbal "sieve," which perhaps is from Late Latin cribellum, diminutive of Latin cribrum "sieve" (from PIE root *krei- "to sieve"). Apparently the word was widespread among Mediterranean traders (compare Italian garbellare, Spanish garbillare "to sift grain").

In later-medieval Europe, pepper and ginger and some other spices were always imports from the Arabic-speaking Eastern Mediterranean, and the same goes for many botanical drugs, and a few expensive colorants. The spices, drugs and colorants had variable amounts of natural chaff residuals and occasionally had unnatural added chaff. ["English Words of Arabic Ancestry"]

From late 15c. in a general sense of "sort out the finer parts" of anything, "removal of what is objectionable," then "distort for some devious purpose or to give false impression;" especially "mix up, confuse or distort language" (1680s). Related: Garbled; garbling. In Middle English garbeler (Anglo-French garbelour) meant "official who garbles spices and sometimes also other dry goods" (early 15c.); it is attested from 1690s as "one who mixes up or mutilates words or language."


What really blew my mind in exploring the universe of "garble" is that one of my favorite expressions, gobbledy-gook, a later, alternative form of "garbley gook" ("[c]ommunication that is garbled; language messed up and hard to understand"), apparently derives from it.  I had always had my own folk etymology of gobbledy-gook as the sounds made by a rafter of gobblers, which can be heard up to a mile away and which I witnessed every day on my way to school in East Canton, Ohio, when I walked by a turkey farm and talked to the turkeys, "gobble gobble gobble" (onomatopoetic, but cf. French gober for the separate etymology  whence "gobble" in the sense of eating hastily and greedily, what people do to turkey meat on Thanksgiving).


Selected readings


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 12:01 pm

    Doctors and spicers used to have to know how to recognize all kinds of adulterants to medicines and spices. Early 20th century reference books for doctors and pharmacists had long accounts of how to tell botanicals and spices from sawdust and the like. Fakers found woods that looked just like medicinal wood, etc. A fascinating and now lost literature. I believe Connecticut is still sometimes called "the wooden nutmeg state" in honor of its excessively sharp merchants in past centuries.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 12:59 pm

    And from the OED —

    Garbler :
    Brit. /ˈɡɑːblə/, U.S. /ˈɡɑrb(ə)lər/
    α. late Middle English garbalour, late Middle English garbelour.
    β. late Middle English garbelar, 1500s garbeler, 1500s–1600s 1800s garbeller, 1500s– garbler.
    Frequency (in current use): 2/8
    Origin: Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly formed within English, by derivation. Etymons: French garbelour ; garble v., -er suffix1.
    Etymology: In sense 1 < Anglo-Norman garbelour, garbellour official who removes the refuse from spices (late 14th cent.) < garbeler garble v. + -our -our suffix.

    In senses 2 and 3 < garble v. + -er suffix1.
    With sense 1 compare also Anglo-Norman garbelatour (late 14th cent.), post-classical Latin garbelator (15th cent. in British sources).

    In sense 3 originally after Middle French graveleur (1552 in the passage translated in quot. 1693; compare forms cited at garble v.).

    1. An official or employee who inspects and sifts commodities, such as spices, to ensure any refuse is removed. Cf. garble v. 1.

    while for "gobbledegook" we have —

    Brit. /ˈɡɒb(ə)ldɪɡuːk/, U.S. /ˈɡɑbəldiˌɡuk/
    Forms: 1900s– gobbledegook, 1900s– gobbledygook.
    Frequency (in current use): 3/8
    Origin: Formed within English, by compounding. Etymon: gobble n.1
    Etymology: Apparently < gobble n.1 + an arbitrary connective element + an element probably imitative of the clucking of poultry.
    Originally U.S.
    Language or jargon, esp. in bureaucratic or official contexts, which is pretentious, long-winded, or specialized to the point of being unintelligible to the general public; nonsense, gibberish.

  3. Tim Leonard said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 7:44 pm

    "To pick out such parts (of a text) as may serve a purpose; to mutilate; to pervert"—what we might today call "cherry picking."

  4. Rosemary Kuwahata said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 12:45 am

    This made me think of other words for nonsense, such as hogwash, claptrap, horsefeathers, tommyrot, codswallop and balderdash, which might also be interesting to look at, if you haven't already done so.

  5. David Morris said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 5:26 am

    Did women do this work (despite the word 'work-men')? I was looking forward to a reference to the spice girls.

  6. KeithB said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 8:15 am

    It is interesting how some words come back from the dead. I think "Alienist" is a good example, too.

  7. Rodger C said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 9:38 am

    Robert Benchley refers to a character somewhere as "an itinerant garbler." I don't think he meant a spice sifter. I've been tempted to use the phrase in a book review.

  8. unekdoud said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 10:02 am

    "Garbage" is from this same process, though I suspect (without evidence) that it's slowly losing its connection to the kitchen.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 2:01 pm

    though I suspect (without evidence) that it's slowly losing its connection to the kitchen

    I didn't even know it ever had one!

  10. Chas Belov said,

    August 22, 2022 @ 8:18 pm

    "And if you shall know of any that shall so do, you shall with as much speed, as you conveniently may, admo∣nish your Master of it."

    Also noting the meaning shift for "admonish".

RSS feed for comments on this post